Great Barrington horse racing on hold until state gambling, racing laws change

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A plan to revive thoroughbred racing at the former Great Barrington Fairgrounds in 2019 is no longer on track.

But with a change in state law, it could be back on.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, parent company of Suffolk Downs in East Boston, is waiting on the state Legislature to change gaming and racing laws, so that the company can extend its license and bring live horse racing to town while still allowing bets to be placed at its simulcasting operation in East Boston.

"We sought these legislative changes in May 2018, and weren't able to get it done by the time the session expired in July," said Chip Tuttle, Sterling Suffolk's chief operating officer. "So we're planning to have those conversations again."

The company in May agreed to a long-term lease with the nonprofit Great Barrington Fairgrounds for up to eight days of live racing that it hoped would start in the 2019 racing season; in 2017, Suffolk Downs was purchased by a developer that does not want horse racing to continue on that property.

In the Berkshires, the announcement was met with excitement to see a revival of a local pastime and property, which also would raise significant tax revenue for the town. Others expressed outrage, raising concerns about what they said is the dark side of racing, of horses being run to their deaths at tracks around the county during annual racing days.

With an eye to the future, Tuttle said the company has extended its agreement with the Fairgrounds through 2019.

"In hopes that we're able to convince the Legislature that shifting the racing operation to Great Barrington is a good idea," he said.

Bart Elsbach, founder of the Fair Ground Community Development Project, the nonprofit that owns the Fairgrounds, declined to comment.

The thoroughbred racing industry is trying to stay alive in Massachusetts, where it is languishing.

Tuttle said the company's plan was to continue simulcasting in East Boston, while holding live racing in Great Barrington.

But state laws that govern horse racing and wagering would need to change first, Tuttle had said, when plans to renovate the property and track and reopen it were first announced in May.

The state, he said, would have to allow a racing license to extend beyond the current year-to-year renewal, and to allow for the company to have its license registered in Suffolk and Berkshire counties so it can take bets in one place and hold live racing in another.

A state bill to shift the rules for the entire industry is on hold in the Legislature. Tuttle said a five- to 10-year license would help the company pump money into the Fairgrounds property.

"We don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a five- to 10-year license so we can make the investment," he said. "It's hard to do that when your operating on a year-to-year basis."

The bill also would afford more oversight and decision-making power to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which right now grants racing dates and organizes purse money, all of which is governed by state law.

Some state lawmakers agree that Sterling Suffolk should have a license extension of at least five years, so the company can refurbish the property. Some also think that the Gaming Commission should take on more responsibility, so legislators can focus on things such as education funding reform and health care.

"I think we do need to empower them," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli D-Lenox, who added that he is "not a big gambling guy and has never been a supporter of casinos."

But in a state hard-pressed to fully pay for its schools, for instance, lawmakers are always on the hunt for something new to be taxed.

"This is about online gambling and a revenue stream," he said, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that legalized gambling on sports is sending everyone to place their bets in New Jersey, whose governor had pushed the issue to the highest court.

Pignatelli said that Massachusetts should join in, though he "hates going to the vices for extra income."

"There's a lot of money on the table to fix education funding, school transportation, health care," he said. "We can't leave all this money sitting on the table and going to other states."

Pignatelli said that the matter would be taken up at the next legislative session in January, but doesn't know how long it will take to reorganize these laws.

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


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