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A sad, but necessary farewell to Suffolk Downs

26 September 2014

By Aaron Todd
I've lived in the greater Boston area for more than 10 years. My first two years were spent in a tiny two-bedroom condo in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, a mere 30-minute walk to Fenway Park. Eight years ago, my wife and I moved out to the suburbs, but we still make regular trips into the city for baseball games, entertainment and great restaurants.

Despite my relatively close proximity to Suffolk Downs, the horse racing track just past Boston's Logan Airport, I only became acutely aware of its presence when Caesars announced a plan to build a resort casino at the property, should it be granted the sole Boston-area casino license by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. (Caesars later pulled out as it discovered the MGC would likely find the company unsuitable, and Mohegan Sun took its place.)

Last week, when the MGC announced it was passing on the Suffolk Downs proposal in favor of Steve Wynn's plan to build in nearby Everett, officials at the track announced that they would likely need to discontinue live thoroughbred racing at the end of this season.

With the opportunity to see live races at Suffolk Downs possibly coming to an end, my colleague, Dan Podheiser, and I decided to take an afternoon to go to East Boston to bet on the races for the first time.

I was surprised how easy it was to get to the track on a Wednesday afternoon, just a quick 30-minute drive from our Newton offices. We descended a hill and found a huge green sign advertising the track on the right. The road leading to the parking lot was wide enough for eight lanes of traffic, and the vast parking lot allowed room for 20 times as many patrons as were there 10 minutes before post time for the first race of the day—an estimate that generously overstates the attendance.

Dan and I followed a few others who arrived at the same time we did and walked past a table with daily racing forms with information on the horses that would be running that day. We each grabbed one, as I'd heard that these forms were free for patrons at other race tracks.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" shouted a man from behind the table.

Apparently, at Suffolk Downs, the forms cost $7 each. It was just our first—and most certainly not our last—faux pas of the day.

The inside of the racetrack is dominated by gray concrete. Dan and I placed our bets for the first race with some help from some patient ticketing agents (I warned the woman behind the counter that I had no idea what I was doing). We then looked for a place to watch the race. The grandstand had the potential to be inviting, but it was nearly empty on Wednesday, which just a few old souls staying inside to escape the cool breeze on what was otherwise a beautiful late September afternoon in New England.

I lucked my way to a win in the first race, while Dan's pick crossed the line a good 30 seconds behind the second-to-last horse, a finish my old track and field teammates lovingly refer to as "DFL." With about 30 minutes until the next race, I began to search for a place to use my $10 profit to buy some lunch.

We were disappointed to find that The Terrace restaurant, which used to operate right in the grandstand and allowed patrons to eat and watch the races at the same time, was closed, and our only food option was a hot dog or pizza at the Deli-Grill—though we were surprised that the hot dogs were actually quite good. The woman behind the counter gave me a genuine but tired smile when I dropped a dollar in her tip jar; it's sad to think of all the people who will be losing their jobs if live racing does not resume next spring.

As the races continued, I noticed that very few people were celebrating wins. I expected the atmosphere to be similar to what you might see at a casino sportsbook, where winners openly celebrate when the team they backed makes a big play. I could count the number of people who celebrated with high fives and shouts of joy on one hand, and that included my own excessive celebration when a horse that opened as a 15:1 shot came through with a wire-to-wire victory. (It actually paid 3.2:1, and when I asked the woman who cashed in my ticket where the rest of my money was, I learned a lot about pari-mutuel betting—faux pas number two.)

A few more people began to fill in around the area where the horses came out to the track as the races went on, but it was still striking that the number of people at the track (outside of employees) numbered just in the low hundreds when just a few miles away in downtown Boston, there were hundreds of thousands of people who could have taken an afternoon off to enjoy a day at the races.

But Suffolk Downs has suffered through years of low attendance, as horse racing has become less popular and people have taken their entertainment dollars to other venues. It took me 10 years to get to Suffolk Downs, and I almost certainly wouldn't have come if its closure wasn't imminent. Despite a profitable day (I somehow luckboxed my way into picking six winners and even hit a trifecta), which made the experience more fun than I was expecting, I probably wouldn't go back even if the track did open next spring.

Spending a day at the races with friends and/or family is a great way to pass the time, but there are so many options in the Boston area that are more appealing than Suffolk Downs. The only people who have been going to the races at Suffolk Downs are the most ardent horse racing bettors, and recently, people like me with a curious streak.

Standing on concrete all day wears you out. The lack of quality dining options was disappointing. Another friend who met us there complained that the beer he bought cost almost as much as a beer at Fenway Park.

The reality is, the economics of live racing at Suffolk Downs just don't work, and forcing a casino to subsidize the horse racing industry just for nostalgia's sake is unsustainable.

We stayed for seven races, and then headed back to our cars to beat the rush-hour traffic on the Mass Pike with one race left on the day. I couldn't help feeling a little sad that an institution with such a long tradition will likely fade away forever on Oct. 4, but after seeing it in person, I now understand why it will.
 

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Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and (his personal favorite) Badeuci.

Since graduating from St. Lawrence University, Aaron has worked as a journalist covering the gambling industry and as a communications specialist in college athletic departments.

A native of a small town in New York just south of Ottawa, Aaron lives in Needham, Mass., with his wife and three children. Write to Aaron at aarontodd@casinocity.com, and follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.