Great Barrington votes for home rule legislation for horse racing decision

Janel Munoa, who created the home rule petition for a citizens referendum about the potential return of horse racing to Great Barrington, addresses the special town meeting Wednesday to decide the issue.

GREAT BARRINGTON — After nearly five months of anxiety about whether residents will have the right to decide on allowing horse racing back into town, residents Wednesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of home rule legislation that would give them a fighting chance.

Moderator Michael Wise said the vote at a packed special town meeting at Monument Mountain Regional High School was "virtually unanimous."

The home rule petition that forced the meeting now also will force the creation of a bill that, if it passes, would give residents the chance for a referendum.

Pamela Youngquist, of Citizens Concerned about GB Horseracing, which circulated member Janel Munoa's petition, said after the meeting that, if successful in the Statehouse, the legislation would require a vote at annual town meeting in May, as well as a separate ballot referendum. She said she hoped that lawmakers would make a strong push.

"In Senator [Adam] Hinds' own statement, he said that he believed that every generation had the right to vote on horse racing," she said, noting that legislators have said they support local control on the issue.

Resident Barbara Kellogg said that a yes vote would require them to champion the bill on Beacon Hill.

But while the vote Wednesday was limited to this issue, speakers veered into the matter of horse racing itself, since that is ultimately on the table after Suffolk Downs and parent company Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC announced plans to lease and refurbish the old fairgrounds.

With Suffolk Downs having held its final race in June at its East Boston/Revere oval, its proposal calls for up to 40 racing days per year. But the company also is awaiting new legislation that would allow it to continue its simulcasting and wagering in East Boston while it operates live racing at the fairgrounds.

The issue of local control was flagged in July by Select Board member Leigh Davis, who noted that the pending racing bill would strip the town of a citizen vote.

At the meeting, residents slammed the sport.

Matthew Rubiner said it is cruel to horses, citing annual deaths at several tracks.

"Horses die by the dozens, drugged until their bodies break," he said. "Whatever local revenues come of it, whatever hard-earned money is gambled away, will be blood money."

He also bashed the press for running "dreamy" photos of the bygone days at the old fairgrounds.

But Laura Keefner, who lives next to the fairgrounds, sees it another way.

"It's a dump," she said of the property, now owned by a nonprofit that has struggled to find a new use for it. "And Suffolk Downs wants to come in and spend $20 million to fix it up."

Others said traffic jam increases and environmental worries call for more scrutiny.

Resident Michael Mah, an animal rights activist, said the meeting showed a healthy display of "democracy in action."

And Davis said this vote is not about horse racing, but about the power of the town to shape its destiny.

"To show Boston, to show any outside entity that we are engaged."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.