New England’s last thoroughbred horse track winds down

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BOSTON — New England’s last thoroughbred horse track, Boston’s Suffolk Downs, is hosting its final live races this weekend, but it’s not clear what comes next for the industry, which continues to receive millions of dollars in casino tax subsidies.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the company that operates the once grand, 84-year old track, has been running a handful of summertime races since losing out on its bid to build a resort casino on the property in 2014.

Two years ago, it sold the property – where the Depression-era champion Seabiscuit was discovered by the team that launched him into the limelight – to a real estate developer that plans to build apartments, condominiums and offices on the 161-acre property straddling Boston and Revere.

But Sterling Suffolk still wants to remain in the racing business and is betting on legislative approval this year to make that happen.

The company has proposed restoring the Great Barrington Fairgrounds near the New York state line while keeping its more lucrative simulcast and online betting operations in the Boston area. Current regulations don’t allow for a state-licensed race operator to split its operations this way.

The company is also seeking permission to tap into a special state fund for the horse racing industry in order to make improvements at the track. It also wants to extend the length of its racing license from one year to 10 years.

The Race Horse Development Fund is funded by gambling revenues from the state’s three casinos – Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park. But under state regulations, the money must be dedicated largely to horse racing purses and benefits for industry workers. Capital projects like improving a racetrack aren’t permitted uses.

“It doesn’t do the horsemen any good if there’s money building up in that fund and they don’t have any place to run and compete for it,” Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer for Sterling Suffolk, said Friday.

Restoring the Great Barrington track would cost up to $15 million and require extending the length of the half-mile track, as well as renovating the grandstand, he said. The track, which hasn’t hosted horse races since 1998, could be ready by next fall.

“Great Barrington works because it’s a more reasonable option than starting from scratch,” Tuttle said. “But it’s not really practical for us to take on the complete refurbishment of that property unless we have a longer term license and the certainty that comes with it.”

At least one industry group opposes the idea.

The Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association backs a separate bill that would require licensed racing operators host at least 60 race days a year. Sterling Suffolk’s bill would require at least one race day annually and Tuttle said the company only envisions hosting a handful of race days initially at Great Barrington.

“Not until we get a full time track will we see the benefits of the horse racing industry in terms of horse breeding, farms, agriculture and open space,” said Bill Lagorio, the organization’s president. “Folks are raising horses in New York and running them in Massachusetts for a few weeks. That’s not doing anything for this state.”

Tuttle says Lagorio’s group is an “outlier” and does not represent the majority of the region’s horse owners and breeders.

Two other industry groups – New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association – support the proposal, he noted.

The competing proposals and other bills related to the horse racing industry are being considered at a Statehouse hearing Monday.

In the meantime, casino revenues continue to accrue in the Race Horse Development Fund.

To date, nearly $56 million has been paid out — $21 million to the thoroughbred industry and another $34 million to the separate harness racing industry, according to Massachusetts Gaming Commission data.

The harness racing industry continues to run regular races at Plainridge Park’s track and has steadily spent down most of its funding. But the thoroughbred industry, which has long been anchored at Suffolk Downs, has nearly $13 million in its coffers, and growing.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”

Fractional interest in Flightline sells for $4.6 million

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Keeneland says a 2.5% fractional interest in Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Flightline has sold for $4.6 million during a special auction before the start of its November Breeding Stock Sale.

Brookdale Farm’s Freddy Seitz signed the ticket for an undisclosed client, the track announced in a release. The sale comes a day after ownership of the 4-year-old son of Tapit retired the unbeaten colt following his record 8\-length victory in Saturday’s $6 million, Grade 1 Classic at Keeneland. Flightline likely locked up Horse of the Year honors with his fourth Grade 1 victory in six starts by a combined victory margin of 71 lengths – dominance that has drawn comparisons to legendary Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

Flightline will begin his breeding career next year at Lane’s End Farms in Versailles, Kentucky, but a stud fee has yet to be determined. West Point Thoroughbreds, part of the bay colt’s ownership, offered the fractional interest. Seitz said the buyer wanted to “make a big splash” and get more involved in the business.

“With a special horse like (Flightline) all you can do is get involved and then just hope for the best,” Seitz said in the release.

“There has never been a horse that has done what he has done for however many years, back to Secretariat. You just have to pay up and get involved, and this is kind of what he’s thinking.”