Vision takes shape for equestrian center

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BOSTON >> The Massachusetts economy stands to benefit to the tune of nearly $99 million annually from a horse racing track and equestrian center supported by the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The horsemen envision a "world-class, year-round horse park" that could host 75 racing days per year on a thoroughbred racing track, "elite national" equestrian and dressage events in an Olympic-sized indoor facility, and a retraining and retirement facility for up to 40 horses.

If built, the facility could yield a total annual economic impact of $98.9 million and an additional $5 million in new state and local taxes each year, according to a feasibility study completed last month by the University of Massachusetts Center for Economic Development.

The study, paid for by the horsemen's association and publicly distributed for the first time Thursday, also estimates that such a facility would generate more than 950 jobs in the state.

"A not-for-profit facility that brings together Thoroughbred racing, equestrian competitions, 4H, trail riding, and a retraining/retirement facility for aging horses is an important investment in our state's character and future," Anthony Spadea Jr., president of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), said in a statement. "This study demonstrates that we can create a horse park that Massachusetts families can enjoy for many generations, without needing a single cent of tax revenue."

The report says the ideal location for the horse park would have 600 acres of contiguous land, be within one hour of at least two of New England's largest cities and have access to an interstate highway or state route within about five miles.

The report authors found 10 sites currently on the market in Bristol, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Plymouth and Worcester counties that fulfill some or all of the criteria.

The race track would be designed to host 75 racing days between May and October, with nine races per day. The HBPA said it could keep up to 800 horses in residence throughout the season and expects the track would draw an average of 3,000 spectators for each racing day.

The horse park would carry a total development cost of about $150 million, the study found.

"Of this, $90 million is allocated for land acquisition and infrastructure development, along with the construction of the equestrian center," Dr. John Mullen, associate director of the UMass Center for Economic Development and one of the report's authors, said in a statement. "The remaining $60 million is the expected cost for the development of the race track's oval, rail, grandstand, stables, and other necessary structures."

The project would be financed through "revenue bonds sold by a nonprofit corporation, and debt would be paid by a combination of Race Horse Development Fund revenue generated by gaming facilities and net income from racing operations," the HBPA said.

The Race Horse Development Fund, created by the 2012 expanded gaming law to sweeten purses or help pay for benefits for riders, trainers and others who work in the business, is funded by a cut of gross gaming revenues from the Plainridge Park Casino slots facility.

Currently, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is considering a request from the Middleboro Agricultural Society for roughly $4.2 million from the Race Horse Development Fund to fund purses and administrative costs for 15 days of live racing at the Brockton Fairgrounds, a proposal supported by the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA).

The Gaming Commission on Monday requested additional detail on how the MTHA plans to use the funds and chose to put off a vote on the request until a future meeting. The fund currently has a balance of about $13 million, according to the Gaming Commission.

The HBPA's plan for a horse park would require help from Beacon Hill, the group said, as lawmakers would have to pass a bill to allow for the bonding.

Massachusetts is home to almost 1,200 equine farms and nearly 30 percent of the state's agricultural land is devoted to horses, according to the UMass report. Additionally, there are about 125 facilities across the state that host "various equestrian competitions, providing horse retirement and retraining services, operating riding academies, breeding Thoroughbreds, and a number of other activities."

"Massachusetts is horse country and always has been," Mullen said.

But the thoroughbred horse racing industry has floundered here since the failure of bids to build casinos at two state tracks. Only six live racing days were scheduled for Massachusetts this year — three two-day meets at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

"Massachusetts is in dire need of a Thoroughbred racing facility, or it faces a significant loss of economic benefits generated by farms, the various participants in racing and the fans," Lou Raffetto, former general manager of Suffolk Downs, said in a statement.

Also Thursday, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced that its Safety & Integrity Alliance has granted Suffolk Downs reaccreditation after "a complete review of all racing operations."

The NTRA said its accreditation review focuses on "injury reporting and prevention; creating a safer racing environment; uniform medication and testing; jockey health and welfare; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; and wagering security."

Suffolk Downs is one of 23 racing facilities to be fully accredited by the alliance, the NTRA said in its statement. Alliance-accredited facilities host 94 percent of the Grade 1 stakes races and attract more than 70 percent of the pari-mutuel wagering in North America, according to the NTRA.


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