So Long Suffolk

We all have to come to grips with the continuous slide of horseracing as a sport.

While it would be absurd to think horseracing will ever return to its past glory, passionate fans remain perplexed about why the news always seems to be bad. The latest blow came in the form of the announcement that Suffolk Downs, a track that had been around since 1935, was shutting its doors at the end of the racing season.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission gave the sole Boston-area casino license to Wynn Resorts instead of to Mohegan Sun and its partner Suffolk Downs. Had Mohegan Sun been given the license, it would have agreed to  keep live horseracing for at least another 15 years and put $40 million into improvements at the racing facility. Instead, they gave it to Wynn, a company that made  no commitment to horseracing.

In an almost puzzling statement, the Gaming Commission said it was “fully committed to an extensive and sustained exploration of every available option that may preserve the long tradition of Thoroughbred racing in the commonwealth.” The easiest option was giving the license to Mohegan Sun, and in the convoluted world of statements made by public officials, the offer to explore every option AFTER basically killing the track rings disingenuous.

The mistakes made by the racing industry have been myriad, going as far back as the fifties when track managers thought televising horse racing would keep people from actually showing up at the track. The industry has been slow to embrace technology and keep pace with the evolution of modern sports fans. Critically, they let themselves be classified not as a sport like football or basketball, but as a gambling activity, equivalent to slot machines or craps tables.

When the Massachusetts Commission killed Suffolk, they were making a purely bottom line decision. They weren’t killing a sport – they were trading one gambling activity for another that would make the state far more money. They didn’t see themselves as taking something away from racing fans as much as they saw something akin to replacing cowboy boots with penny loafers. Hey, they’re both shoes, right? What’s the big deal unless you happen to be on a ranch instead of a downtown office building?

The demise of Suffolk is only worth mourning as a symbol of what is to come. Let’s face it. Suffolk was not a unique architectural triumph. It was built in 62 days for $2 million and with that kind of time and money you couldn’t expect much gingerbreading. It had the ambience of a factory, and lest you think I’m picking on Suffolk, I can name half a dozen tracks with the same atmosphere. Who would want to go there other than the hard core racing fan?

The aesthetic part could have been fixed with enough care and money. What a facelift couldn’t accomplish was to change attitudes toward horseracing as a real and viable sport and not just a different outlet for people who play eeny-meeny-miney-mo with their gambling dollar. We might know the lottery or a slot machine is not the same thing as a live race, but apparently most of the rest of public doesn’t share that opinion.

This is a fact. Too many racetracks were built when 15,000 people would show up on a Saturday. With modern simulcasting, the only time you need to show up is when the state you are in won’t let you bet your hometown track on line. I live in Colorado where you can’t bet Arapahoe Park on line, and unless I see a coup unfolding, I’m content to sit at home and play Saratoga or Del Mar. I can also say of the people I know who are serious horse players living in CO, most of them go to Arapahoe Park maybe once a year. Arapahoe has a large plant to maintain, and there simply aren’t people filling it. Ever been to Aqueduct on a weekday in January? You could drop dead and might not get noticed. In all candor, even if someone wanted to save Suffolk, the reality was a facelift was no more the answer than putting a mask on the Phantom of the Opera. They needed to tear the facility down, build something a lot smaller, and make it a lot more fan friendly. How about a destination restaurant? How about tables like you see at a simulcast facility with individual TVs and betting terminals for everyone?

There is a part of me that believes that the closure of tracks like Suffolk is a good thing. We all agree the racing product has become diluted and six or seven horse cards the norm. The number of foals being born is down significantly, the average starts per horse are about half what they were 40 years ago, and racing is more and more looking like a reflection of society – the rich get richer, the poor stay poor and the middle class is losing ground every year. Owner-trainers, small time owners, and small time stables are slowly disappearing. If racing could guarantee us good horses and full fields in exchange for closing some tracks, we’d probably be satisfied.

Racing cannot compete with casinos from a revenue perspective and it is a mistake to try. Running a race meet costs many times what it takes to run a casino, and always produces less revenue. Instead, race tracks compete with each other like sharks looking to grab a share of a wounded fish. Do you think Churchill Downs would ever be willing to share revenue from Oaks/Derby days simply because they have the historical advantage and a brilliant marketing campaign to turn a mad 20-horse three year old race into a national event? Of course not. It’s their money, or at least the part that isn’t diverted to the State of Kentucky. Can you imagine Seattle and Denver saying to football, we’ll take all the Super Bowl revenue because we’re playing?

I’ve said it before and I won’t dwell on the point, but racing can only be better served by having a national governing body and getting the greedy states out of the picture. It’s amazing the things that fans complain about daily – races at tracks going off simultaneously, no HD signal, takeout rates that border on price gouging – and there is no governing body that can do something about the issues. Years go by, and the complaints stay the same. Either that tells you no one is listening or no one cares.

Racing is the most poorly marketed sport in the country. Has racing tapped the video game market? And look at the bright side of that – horses won’t sue a gaming company for using their likenesses. For goodness sake we have games about angry birds making millions. How hard can it be to do something with charging horses? Is it as easy as it should be to bet from home? If they are addressing the use of race day medications, it is on a piecemeal basis. Have they even considered the issues associated with the betting whales? Most of us are left with the sour, if ridiculous, opinion that racing commissions and track management are somewhere between clueless and heartless.

A small base of loyal Suffolk fans will miss live racing there. The rest of us will just keep complaining mostly to no avail.