Mass. Market: Casino developer offers hope for Suffolk Downs

Jon Chesto

If you had asked workers at Suffolk Downs a year ago if the track would reopen in the spring, most probably would have hedged their bets.

The track had been losing attendance in the past few years, and most horse breeders had given up on the New England thoroughbred scene. A bill that would bring slot machines to the state's four racetracks had been rejected by the House, and the fate of the tracks' simulcasting rights was also up in the air thanks to Beacon Hill politics.

Then Richard Fields arrived. The casino resort developer bought a significant stake in the track, making his New York firm Coastal Development the largest shareholder. Perhaps more importantly, Fields imbued the track workers and horse owners with a sense of hope that thoroughbreds will be circling that one-mile track for many years to come.

Fields isn't just betting on the horses, though. His team at Suffolk started looking at ways to redevelop parts of the 163-acre property that straddles Revere and East Boston in the past few weeks, according to Suffolk Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle.

He says the Suffolk Downs ownership, which includes real estate developer Vornado Realty Trust, can't go too far with crafting plans for the property until it's clear whether the state will allow Suffolk to build a casino resort there.

But Fields and his management team are trying to send a new message: Regardless of whether the track gets slot machines, horse racing is here to stay.

Fields' investments have already begun to pay off. Nearly 20,000 people packed Suffolk when the much-loved MassCap race returned after a two-year absence in September, thanks largely to a $500,000 purse. The track's managers undertook cosmetic and structural improvements, opening a gift shop and a picnic area adjacent to the track. They also spent more than $1 million on an ad campaign.

The results are promising: The average daily attendance for live racing days rose 22 percent from 2006 to nearly 3,300 people this year - the best in at least six years. Average daily bets at the track on live races rose 14 percent to nearly $123,000, and the prize purse total rose 12 percent to $12.2 million.

''Not only were we getting some folks back who thought we may have given up on the place, we saw a lot of new faces,'' Tuttle says.

Certainly, live racing still comes in second compared with simulcasting at the track. During the track's last day of the season on Nov. 10, most of the eyes were on the TVs that were showing races from out-of-state tracks. People watched the 10 live races from a distance, and very few actually ran out to brave the chilly November air to cheer on their favorites. But improvements in live racing can help bring more money back to Suffolk through fees charged for bets placed at other tracks on Suffolk races.

More than 1,000 people work at the track during the live-racing season, and Suffolk's impact on the economy goes well beyond that. For example, some horse owners say they are now considering breeding horses in Massachusetts again because of Suffolk's newfound success.

Joe Grant, a racehorse owner who lives in Quincy, says he and his wife are thinking about breeding horses in Massachusetts for Suffolk races after dropping it several years ago.

''He's given hope to people over there,'' Grant says of Fields.

Al Balestra, a Wrentham resident who is president of the New England horsemen's association, says he is also looking at breeding horses in the state again.

''It's starting to feel like the old days in Suffolk,'' he says. ''You have something to work with for the future.''

While Suffolk's managers seem to have found some new fans and brought back some old ones, the track still faces plenty of hurdles.

Chuck Andre, the executive director of the local horsemen's chapter, says Suffolk's purses are still relatively low compared with other tracks nationwide, despite the big increase this year.

''(But) we feel as if we've turned a corner,'' Andre says.

Fortunately for Suffolk, the managers there don't need to worry about a ballot question that would make their business illegal. The state's two greyhound tracks aren't as lucky: They'll be gearing up to fight another proposed dog-racing ban in 2008.

But the state's two horse tracks and two dog tracks share the same concern over the long-term future of simulcasting rights and whether House Speaker Sal DiMasi will finally open the doors to resort casinos here. Naturally, Fields and his team are positioning Suffolk as a logical place to host a resort casino if the Legislature allows it.

Fields' investment in Suffolk Downs in the spring as the casino talk was heating up on Beacon Hill wasn't just luck. But Fields has also shown that he's willing to wager big money on the viability of horse racing at Suffolk, even if the arrival of casinos still isn't a safe bet.

Jon Chesto, The Patriot Ledger's business editor, may be reached at