HORSE RACING : Hope for Revival of New England Racing

WASHINGTON POST

New England used to have a healthy tri-state racing circuit with Boston's Suffolk Downs its centerpiece. But the region became a model of the way not to run a racing industry. Greedy track owners, spurred on by greedy state legislatures, increased their racing dates until they overlapped and resulted in disastrous head-on competition.

When Suffolk's owner shut down the plant because he thought it would be worth more for its real estate, New England was left with a single track, Rockingham Park in New Hampshire.

But now, for the first time in many years, an air of hope and optimism pervades the region. A newcomer, James Moseley, has taken over Suffolk, with motives that sound as if they are based more on public interest than on personal gain.

"Racing here had slipped to the level where it was too bad to watch," Moseley said. "I never had wanted to get into the racetrack business, but I want to rejuvenate the thoroughbred industry in Massachusetts and New England." He thinks the quality of competition could be elevated to the level of Maryland or New Jersey.

And maybe he can do it. But lurking over his shoulder are the same kind of political intrigue and instincts for self-destruction that ruined the game in the first place.

Moseley said: "It's in nobody's interest to run against each other. I very much hope a racing circuit can work, and I have done my damnedest to work something out." He knows that the collapse of the New England circuit in the 1960s first caused two Rhode Island tracks to close and left Suffolk and Rockingham running year-round in competition with each other.

There weren't enough fans to support a healthy level of business for both, and there weren't enough horses in the region to provide a respectable class of racing for both.

Suffolk was a pretty crummy operation even before Buddy LeRoux bought it and signed its death warrant. He figured that Suffolk had more potential for real-estate development than it did as a home for $3,000 claimers, and he shut it down on the last day of 1989.

LeRoux miscalculated, though, because there was heavy resistance to any further development in that congested part of Boston, and the hard-pressed New England banks had little appetite left for real-estate ventures. So LeRoux had little choice but to lease Suffolk as a racetrack again, and he had two principal suitors: Moseley and Charlie Sarkis, the owner of Wonderland Dog Track.

When Moseley got the lease (albeit one that might permit LeRoux to take back the property in 10 years), it was easy to envision the future form that New England racing ought to take. Suffolk and Rockingham should divide the racing calendar, with Suffolk getting the larger number of dates while Rockingham got the more lucrative midsummer dates.

Moreover, the state legislatures should legalize simulcasting from one track to another. This was an obvious recipe for success, but this is also New England, where nothing happens without a measure of political intrigue.

When Sarkis lost out to Moseley in his bid to lease Suffolk, he took a lease on Foxboro Raceway, a decrepit five-eighths-mile harness track that had been out of business since 1986. Why? A Boston journalist offered this theory: With off-track betting and intertrack simulcasting on the horizon, Sarkis wanted to be a player in this lucrative new game, and potential ownership of a track would strengthen his hand.

And the state legislature was happy to let him be a player. Many legislators didn't like the idea that Suffolk should have a monopoly of all the racing dates, having seen the disaster that LeRoux had caused in 1989 with his monopoly. So it awarded 200 thoroughbred racing dates to Suffolk and 75 to Foxboro (in addition to harness dates). These dates seemed to suggest that Suffolk and Foxboro would constitute a year-round racing circuit, cutting Rockingham and New Hampshire out of the game.

Moseley was less than pleased, for he knows that an agreement between Suffolk and Rockingham is essential to the health of the sport. He said he doubted that horsemen would want to take their horses to the little Foxboro oval even if Sarkis did revive it -- which many people in Boston think won't happen. But the introduction of this wild card is the last thing Moseley needed for this already-difficult venture.

The tangled situation cried out for some political leadership, and Massachusetts recently got a new chairman of the state racing commission who might have been the person to wade into this thicket. However, when Racing Times columnist T.D. Thornton interviewed the appointee, Donald Ayres, the new commissioner asked the journalist to explain how racing dates are awarded and how OTB works. Before he got too far in his on-the-job training, however, Ayres resigned when it came to light that he was the subject of four sexual-harassment cases in a prior post. At this crucial moment, Massachusetts is without a racing commissioner.

Moseley has been left to fight some tough battles. He hopes to open Suffolk on Nov. 29, hopes that he can reach an accord with Rockingham, hopes that Sarkis won't go through with his plans to open Foxboro, hopes that the Massachusetts legislature will legalize intertrack simulcasting with New Hampshire and, ultimately, off-track betting throughout the state. If everything goes right, New England racing could be revived, but little has gone right in this region for decades.

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