Massachusetts state fund to boost flagging horse racing industry languishes as races delayed

Massachusetts' horse racing industry is flush with casino cash. The only problem? There isn't much of a local industry to speak of.

The state's obscure Race Horse Development Fund has generated roughly $10.3 million in revenue and is on track to receive almost $18 million more this fiscal year, according to the figures provided to The Associated Press by the state Gaming Commission.

The money is made possible by a quirk in the state's casino law that designates a percentage of casino profits and licensing fees to help the flagging horse racing industry.

But Suffolk Downs, a Boston thoroughbred track that stands to benefit the most from the fund, hasn't run races since last fall. Plans to revive races this summer have been delayed for months. State gambling regulators are again reviewing proposals Thursday.

That leaves just one track benefiting from the racing fund so far: Plainridge Park, a combination slots parlor and harness racing track in Plainville. The state's first and so far only legal casino has been funneling about 9 percent of its gross gaming revenues into the fund since opening in late June.

When the state's two licensed resort casinos by Wynn and MGM come online around 2018, they are expected to give 2.5 percent of their gambling revenues to the fund, bringing horse racing's annual casino haul to as much as $21 million.

Already, owners and riders at Plainridge said they're seeing a modest bump in prize money and renewed interest as the casino money makes its way to the sport, which involves horses pulling drivers in chariot-like contraptions, as opposed to jockeys riding atop horses.

"We can see it start to roll in a little bit and it gives everyone a bit of uplift of what's to come," said Jim Hardy, an owner, trainer and driver.

Still, harness racers are frustrated their thoroughbred counterparts are letting their more sizeable share of the pot languish.

Under state regulations, thoroughbred racing gets 75 percent of the racing fund, and harness racing — the less popular of the two sports — gets 25 percent.

Those two sports must then dedicate 80 percent of their funds toward purses, 16 percent toward horse breeders and 4 percent to health and retirement benefits for industry workers.

"To be candid, we feel like we should get a little bit more, especially when there's no viable thoroughbred racing at this time," said Bob Bogigian, a Worcester horse owner whose animals race at Plainridge.

To date, some $420,000 has already made its way to the state's harness racing associations. About $1.3 million is earmarked for the thoroughbred racing industry, the gaming commission said.

Steve O'Toole, racing director at Plainridge Park, noted the disparity comes even as the harness track will run 105 races this season and roughly 115 next year. In contrast, the owners of Suffolk Downs proposed holding just three race days this year and next.

Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle said their proposal would enable $1.75 million of the thoroughbred fund to impact racing now while giving horse owners and breeders time to develop long term plans for their industry.

Horse racing needs to move from New England's last remaining thoroughbred track because Suffolk Downs intends to redevelop the property.

But a group of local thoroughbred owners is still holding out hope for a reprieve. They've told the gaming commission that the Stronach Group, a company that operates a number of prominent tracks in North America, is interested in offering more race days in Massachusetts somehow.

The Canadian company did not respond to requests for comments Monday, and Tuttle said Suffolk Downs has had only brief discussions with Stronach. "We have no expectations that we'll have an agreement in 2015," he said.

The clock is ticking. The traditional fall end to the racing season approaches.

Some state lawmakers have already suggested the money be diverted elsewhere, as has been the case in some of the 16 other states that have similar funds.

But the local horse racing industry has a powerful advocate in its corner: Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The Winthrop Democrat, whose district includes Suffolk Downs, had pushed for the horse racing fund as a prerequisite for his support of the 2011 casino law. DeLeo said in a statement it's "premature" to consider altering the fund.