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Massachusetts Lawmakers Extend Simulcasting, Racing Law

14th January, 01:51

Extension ensures Suffolk Downs employees can count on regular paycheck.

Suffolk Downs, which ended all live racing in Massachusetts for good at the historic East Boston oval in June, will be allowed to continue simulcasting until July 1 after both chambers of the State legislature passed a joint bill Jan. 13 to extend the current law and sent it to the desk of Gov. Charlie Baker for his signature. The state statute authorizing live racing and simulcasting was set to expire Jan. 15.

Suffolk Downs was sold in May 2017 by Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC to a major real estate concern and the 161-acre property is in the process of redevelopment, but the former owners retained the rights to all racing and simulcasting operations as part of the deal. Extending the current law ensures that the employees of Suffolk Downs, who number fewer than 100 and include pari-mutuel clerks, can continue to count on a regular paycheck. Simulcasting in the state also takes place at Raynham Park, which hosted live greyhound racing before it was outlawed in the state in 2010, and at Plainridge Park Casino, which is a slots machine facility owned by Penn National Gaming Inc. and is the home of the state's only Standardbred track.

"We didn't want to see anyone put out of work at any of the three facilities if we didn't get an extension. At the same time, I look at this extension of a few months and it's a lifeline that keeps us going," said Paul Umbrello, the executive director of the New England affiliate of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

State lawmakers are also considering additional bills that would overhaul the entirety of the racing laws, and one of the desired outcomes is to make conditions favorable to any investor willing to construct a new, state-of the-art Thoroughbred racetrack or to revitalize the shuttered Great Barrington Fairgrounds, which last held a live meet in 1998. There is currently no live Thoroughbred racing in New England, which at one time had 17 Thoroughbred facilities. Sterling Suffolk has a lease with the owners of the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, but could not submit a 2020 live racing dates application because it does not own the fairgrounds and no redevelopment has begun.

Separate investment groups have come forward to propose building a new track in Wareham, Mass., and in Rowley, Mass., and there is another still undisclosed interested party set to emerge.

"There are short term and long-term options for us to return full-time live racing to Massachusetts. There are a couple of interested investors who are trying to move things along sooner than later. But this isn't an easy task. Unfortunately, we can't just build a racetrack and have it up and running overnight," said Umbrello. "Despite the closing of Suffolk Downs, for us it's about saving the Massachusetts breeding program and the thousands of jobs this industry creates and supports and preserving the open green space across this state."

Another consideration is the distribution of the Racehorse Development Fund, which was established to protect the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries as part of the state's 2011 expanding gaming law that authorized three full, destination resort casinos and one slots machine parlor. The RHDF, which is divided between the two breeds, is fueled by a percentage of the gaming profits and 80% of the money must fund purses, 16% is dedicated to the breeders, and 4% supports backstretch welfare. Currently there is about $15 million sitting in the account and some state legislators are pushing for it to be stripped and the money instead be allocated to the general fund and public projects.

"We're actively looking to secure the money that's in the Racehorse Development Fund. I know we're not racing live at this time, but that money is needed to secure the confidence of any investor so that when a new track is up and running that money will be available to fund the purse account for the meet," said Umbrello.

Another bill that is pending in the legislature concerns sports betting, and it still must be determined how, or even if, the racing industry will be included. The sports betting and substantial racing law overhaul bills are not expected to come forward until late in the legislature's formal session, which concludes on July 31.

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