Still some hope for horse racing in Berkshires in 2020

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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — The group that owns Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston still will pursue its plan to resurrect thoroughbred horse racing at the Great Barrington fairgrounds, but it hasn't filed an application for 2020 racing days.

Unless legislation and other things quickly fall into place, 2020 could be a year without any thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts. The State House News Service reported Thursday that the only applicant to the State Gaming Commission at its deadline for 2020 is Plainridge Park Casino, for live harness racing.

After the Suffolk Downs track was sold to a developer in 2017, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse searched and settled on the former racing property at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds while still taking simulcasting wagers in East Boston.

The company still has an option to lease the former racetrack off Route 7 south of downtown, and still plans to refurbish the track and buildings there.

But a horse racing bill that would make it possible for Suffolk Downs to operate in both locations still is held in a committee, and the uncertainty about other local approvals and the time it will take to renovate the track kept the company from applying for the planned 40 racing days beginning in fall 2020.

"Were the bill to pass or not, there are a lot of boxes that would need to be checked to file a credible application," said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs.

Tuttle said it still is possible that it could happen in 2020.

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"But a lot has to fall into place," he said, noting what he expects will be a "very vigorous municipal process."

Here, he is speaking to local approval, which could include a townwide vote, something some town officials, and some residents opposed to the revival of horse racing here, have pressed for.

Opposition, as well as the issue of local control, has grown so divisive that state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, took his name off the bill, which he initially had co-sponsored, to have a hand in something that affected his district.

Tuttle says that while the company waits on the legislation, it continues to study feasibility reports, do other analysis about work to the property, and consult with the racing industry. But the clock is ticking.

"We're talking with horsemen about possibilities for next year and beyond," he said. "The more time goes by without clarity, the less likely that we're going to be able to do anything in 2020."

Yet, Tuttle is sanguine about the fairgrounds, as what likely could be the only home for thoroughbred racing in the state.

"We continue to believe that the most realistic and most practical way for thoroughbred racing to continue in the commonwealth is the refurbishment of the fairgrounds," he said. "But we can't take that on without the certainty of longer-term licensing."


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