Amid opposition to Great Barrington track, Hinds drops co-sponsorship of horse racing bill

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Amid widespread opposition to a move to revive horse racing in the community, a state lawmaker has removed his name from legislation that would allow the sport to return to the long-dormant local track.

Sen. Adam Hinds D-Pittsfield, in a letter to his constituents and others either opposed to horse racing or to elements of the bill that is currently in a committee, said he had decided to remove his name from legislation — S.101 — which applies generally to the state's horse racing and betting industry.

The bill is necessary for Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, which owned the now-shuttered Suffolk Downs track in East Boston, to restart live racing at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds for several weekends in the fall, while continuing to run the wagering and simulcasting business back east.

Hinds also said that he thought it was best to take his name off the bill while he works with the town to ensure it is protected from any problems caused by the track.

"I've made it abundantly clear that there are potentially adjustments to assure that local control is preserved," Hinds told The Eagle. "I'm of the view that it's not asking too much that once [in] a generation, the community is able to demonstrate its desire and views on an issue."

Controversy flared in midsummer when a town Select Board member flagged the bill's movement through the Legislature, and raised fears about the possibility of horse racing to return here without solid backing from residents and a townwide vote.

Sterling Suffolk had been searching for a new track after it sold its East Boston location in 2017 to a developer. It settled on the fairgrounds, which held racing for more than a century until 1998. The company's engineers are already drafting plans for a renovation and track restoration, but a special permit application has not yet been filed with the town, and all of it awaits the bill's approval.

The bill is currently being studied in the Committee for Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. Both Hinds and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, have sought to reassure residents that there is still plenty of time to weigh in on the bill and possibly adjust it before the end of the session next year.

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Some supporters believe local approval, possibly dating to the 1960s, might have essentially grandfathered the use of the track for horse racing. But so far, local and state officials have not produced evidence of it.

Great Barrington Select Board member Leigh Davis, who has been pushing for the legislation pending in the Statehouse to allow for a public referendum on the revival of racing, said she is comforted that Hinds has switched gears.

"I want people to make the decision at the ballot box instead of the state making the decision," she said.

Hinds said his intention was to support his district, and thought he could be more closely involved by putting his name on the bill in January.

"I wanted to be part of that conversation," Hinds wrote in the letter. "However ... conversations that I have had in recent weeks with local officials and constituents proved that there are many issues related to S.101 that could usefully be addressed."

One concerned citizen who had written to Hinds said she is grateful that he pulled his name from the bill.

"We hope that it indicates that he'll be working together with the Select Board to ensure that residents have the right to vote on commercial horse racing," said Pam Youngquist.

Hinds said that this is his intention — and he can better accomplish that with his name off the bill.

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


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