Horse racing has a long history in Massachusetts. Thanks to legalized sports wagering, it could also have a future.
When passing sports betting legislation in the final moments of the 2022 formal legislative session, lawmakers had in mind how they could help the old purveyors of gambling in the Commonwealth.
Sen. Patrick O’Connor, who served on the Massachusetts sports betting conference committee, explained the support of horse racing to PlayMA:
“With racetracks, we were looking at a dying industry that we had the opportunity to revive by writing it into this bill. These places employed hundreds if not thousands of people in this state at one time and kept their business alive during challenging times. They’re all kind of family-run groups. I think sports betting will be a generational change for those people and families.”
The state of Massachusetts horse racing
New England once hosted a vibrant racing circuit led by Suffolk Downs. Opened in 1935, Suffolk hosted Seabiscuit in early years. And in the 1990s, Cigar won two of his 16 consecutive races there.
Suffolk Downs stopped offering thoroughbred racing in 2019 after failing to win a bid at a casino license. Although most of the property was sold to a developer, there remains a simulcast wagering facility.
Raynham Park also offers simulcast wagering. The track stopped operating in 2009 when Massachusetts voters banned dog racing. Later it failed at a bid for slot machines.
Raynham Park is in the district of Sen. Marc Pacheco. He spoke passionately on the Senate floor about including the simulcast facilities in sports wagering.
“They wouldn’t survive if not for sports betting,” Pacheco said. “So that’s why sports betting was so important for the retention and expansion of so many of the existing jobs that were in that industry.”
Plainridge Park Casino did welcome slot machines in 2015 and continues to offer harness racing, the only horse racing currently ongoing in Massachusetts.
New opportunities for MA horse racing with sports betting
The sports betting legislation provides the following opportunities related to Massachusetts horse racing:
- Two online skins and a retail sportsbook for Plainridge Park Casino.
- One online skin and a retail sportsbook for Suffolk Downs and Raynham Park.
- Any new racetrack licensed by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission can obtain a retail sportsbook and one online skin.
The previous Senate bill only included Plainridge Park. So the conference committee compromise was a victory for MA horse racing.
Industry publication BloodHorse reported that Richard Fields, former owner of Suffolk Downs, is aiming to get back in the game with a new thoroughbred racetrack.
Fields and his colleagues haven’t disclosed their desired location for the racetrack, according to BloodHorse, other than that it’s in central Massachusetts. A previous plan fizzled when the town voted down changing zoning laws to facilitate the project.
“I fully support the development of a racetrack in Massachusetts,” O’Connor said. “We have a horse racing development fund where we’re trying to attract horse racing to Massachusetts. And there’s a money component in the bill where companies have to invest a certain amount of money and create a horse track, and they can also get sports betting. That makes sense as an economic development tool.”
Legislation requires that any racing property to get a Category 2 sports betting license, whether it’s the simulcast facilities or a new track, makes a capital investment of at least $7.5 million within three years.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, Raynham was sort of the place to go for a public function, community events, that type of thing,” Pacheco said. “Raynham will go forward with expansion that will once again make it a welcoming venue for the general public. They’ll be able to socialize, go to the restaurant, and engage in sports betting and simulcast.”