Long odds for Great Barrington horse racing

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PITTSFIELD — The Great Barrington Fair was one of the longest running agricultural fairs, running from 1848 until 1983. Like many agricultural fairs, it added horseracing in 1859, and this lasted for 125 consecutive seasons. I still remember talking about the hot jockeys with my fellow PHS football players during the bus rides during the notorious late-August "double sessions" in the scorching hot sun. The fair shut down shortly after in `83, followed by a 2-year run in 1997 and 1998.

My grandparents, who owned Del Gallo's Restaurant, would be frequent visitors as were their children, including my father. The Great Barrington Fairground track was particularly known for its quirky mix of county fair charm in a quaint pastoral setting overlooking the surrounding mountains.

TRACKS ARE CLOSING

Horse racing is a dying industry. The crowd at Saratoga is aging. Many tracks of all sizes have closed. There was a "fair circuit" in Massachusetts which included Marshfield (1936-1991), Brockton (1941-1972), Topsfield, Berkshire Downs (1960-1976, in Hancock), Weymouth (unknown to 1972), Northampton (1943-2005) and Great Barrington. All are gone. There were 40,333 thoroughbred horses born in 1990 in the United States and today we literally have less than half of that with 19,925 foals born last year.

There were plans to bring horse racing back to Brockton in 2001, which did open for a while, but which ultimately failed when it did not get $1.47 million in state development funds. Many horse racing venues only stay alive because they also feature other forms of gambling, such as slot machines.

One reason horse racing in New England has shrunk over the years is the advent of casino gambling in Connecticut. Apart from being a gambling alternative that wasn't around before unless somebody wanted to drive to Atlantic City, the house take is much smaller, as low as 5 percent for casinos, compared to 17 to 23 percent for horseracing.

There is one other problem facing Great Barrington Fairgrounds — internet gambling on horse racing. Advanced deposit wagering where you send in a check and bet from a computer has become a very big thing — it largely put the nail in the coffin of off track betting parlors which were often seedy fixtures that added a surcharge on an already bad track take. The fair circuit, with its tiny purses and underpaid jockeys, was notorious for rampant race fixing. For this reason, it might be hard to pull such gamblers away from their computers.

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The parent company that owns historic Suffolk Downs wants to open the Great Barrington Fair. There is a bit of an irony in this, in that the expansion of the racing calendar of New England's two major tracks (Suffolk Downs and the recently closed Rockingham Park in New Hampshire), in the late 1960s was the beginning of the end for the fair circuit.

Suffolk Downs felt the hit when it was not granted a casino license. Once a great racetrack that featured historic horses, Suffolk Downs was only open for three weekends the past few years. According to Blood Horse magazine, there will be one last set of three weekend races scattered through May and June on non-consecutive weekends, and the historic racetrack goes down in July.

Like Brockton before, news reports say help is needed by the legislature for the Great Barrington Fairgrounds to reopen. According to the Boston Globe, "Purses are enhanced by revenue from operating casinos, so there will be enough money to sustain a longer season." Even legendary handicapper Andrew Beyer said the horse racing industry needs to be self-sufficient, and it is ever increasingly less so.

According to the Globe, the operator of Suffolk Downs wants the legislature to pass a bill that would expand the take from casino operations to fund $10 million to get the Great Barrington Fairgrounds in shape for racing. So whether Great Barrington in 2020 goes the way of Brockton in 2001 is anybody's guess.

HURT BY HORSE DEATHS

Back when Berkshires Downs was open, the great evil was gambling and alleged ties to the mob. Today, the great evil is the well-being of the racehorse. The stunning death of 23 horse deaths at the prestigious Santa Anita racetrack was the subject of national news this year, including a segment in the NBC coverage of the Kentucky Derby.

While I am often frustrated by the industry, a much published columnist who cannot get columns published in industry publications about breeding sounder race horses, there are industry efforts for reform including restrictions on drug use and whipping. Still, the perception that horse racing is cruel prevents state legislatures from cutting checks from casino gambling to fund local racetracks, which in turns preserves the green open spaces of horse farms.

Rinaldo Del Gallo is a local attorney whose columns have appeared in newspapers across the country, including thoroughbred publications.


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