Suffolk Downs takes stock of fairgrounds for the future
Return of horse racing eyed for defunct track in south county
GREAT BARRINGTON — Bittersweet vines climb steps of the grandstand. And they've made their way to the top of camera towers that hover over a bend in the racetrack.
Vines aside, the state of the long-closed thoroughbred racetrack in Great Barrington didn't send prospective new operators running for cover last week.
Rick Hammerle, a racetrack consultant who once worked at the famous Santa Anita Park, peered into an old stall, 21 years after horses last ran in Great Barrington. "They would beg for these," he said of people at his former California track, pounding a fist on an outside wall and finding it firm.
"Beautiful," Hammerle said. "Sturdy and big. And the floor is even."
Hammerle joined a group of Suffolk Downs officials, consultants and engineers who walked the fairgrounds property May 6 with owner Bart Elsbach to see how they might restore the track to its former glory — and then some. Town Planning Board Chairwoman Brandee Nelson joined the tour.
A construction firm has been by to examine the track, as Suffolk Downs faces its last racing weekend next month before it closes. A developer bought the East Boston property two years ago. Great Barrington looms as the East Boston track's best hope of keeping horses running — and preserving its simulcasting operation.
Sterling Suffolk Race Course LLC has renewed a lease option for the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. But for the company to pull off operations in Berkshire County, state lawmakers must approve pending legislation to allow Suffolk Downs to move its racing license to Great Barrington.
The company is aiming for a fall 2020 start. The season would include a handful of racing dates between August and October.
"With maybe a larger agricultural tie-in and maybe a fair," said Sterling Suffolk Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle.
"And maybe a crossover with Saratoga," he adds, thinking visitors might make a weekend out of heading to the two tracks.
Walking the tick-infested grounds, Tuttle says the company doesn't want to compete with other local agricultural events and will try to time its racing dates accordingly.
Sterling Suffolk faces a heavy lift. The Great Barrington viewing stands, track and jockey quarters all need work. Pipes will have to be reconnected to the town sewer.
But the list of improvements isn't as long as it might be if the local owner's nonprofit hadn't been eradicating invasive species that nearly choked the 57-acre property.
The last racing dates at the Fairgrounds were in 1998 before the track closed. Elsbach purchased the property in 2012.
The grandstand will likely be the most costly repair, according to Jessica Paquette, director of marketing at Suffolk Downs. The structure shows signs of vandalism. The stands had to be rebuilt after a tornado ripped into it in 1995.
The company isn't ready to say how much it would expect to spend on repairs, even a ballpark figure.
Tuttle said some savings will be found because Suffolk Downs is already in the racing business.
"One of the advantages of having a racetrack that's about to close down is we have the safety rail and all the equipment to condition the racetrack," he said.
The track itself will have to be revamped.
"With the buildings, it's just a matter of money," Tuttle said, noting that the natural contour of the track is a helpful starting point for expanding it for safety reasons.
The circumference of the track, the length of the straightaways, the angles of turns and the banking are what will draw the best horses, experts say.
"The biggest issue is banking," said Louis Raffetto Jr., an independent racetrack consultant. "It's less pressure on [the horses] joints. With a smaller track you want more banking."
As he walks the grassy track, Raffetto, who has been in the business for 45 years, explains that the degree of banking affects the centrifugal force on a horse.
"An engineer might say around 4 to 6 percent," he added of the desired incline.
"We want to expand the track for safety reasons, and for the ability to attract better horses," Tuttle said of what is now a half-mile oval.
"There's room to extend the straightaway south but not north," he said, noting the commercial solar array at that end.
Safety remains a top issue facing the nation's racing industry. In three months last year, 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita prompted a track shutdown. In 2017, 21 horses died at Saratoga. Last year that number dropped to 11.
Suffolk Downs had two fatalities from fractures in 2018, according to its report to The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database. A third died from colic, according to another source citing state records. Paquette said the discrepancy is that colic can be unrelated to racing.
As a horse lover, Tuttle appears sympathetic to public concern about horse safety. He said the company has been facing the matter head-on with safety initiatives.
The company will have to decide whether to keep a grass track or switch to dirt, which is more common for tracks with extended seasons, Tuttle said. Paquette said horses with wider hooves prefer grass.
The engineering firm Tighe & Bond will prepare a report examining a variety of topics, from environmental issues to traffic studies, said company engineer Douglas Landry.
Then everything will have to be approved locally, as well as on Beacon Hill.
Like Hammerle, Paquette, a competitive rider who owns a retired thoroughbred named "What a Trippi," was also impressed by the track's stalls.
"The horses need [it to be] soft and comfortable after a hard day's work," she said. "It's like they'll have a memory foam mattress."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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