There's a new effort afoot to reestablish thoroughbred racing in the southern Berkshires, and the people behind the movement are coming to Beacon Hill with a legislative request to accommodate the new arrangement.
Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, which operates very limited racing at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, announced Wednesday that it has reached an agreement for a long-term lease of the racetrack property at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. The agreement is with Fairgrounds Realty LLC and the Fair Grounds Community Redevelopment Project, the entities that own the fairgrounds.
According to Suffolk Downs, the track at Great Barrington first offered horse racing in 1859 and last offered pari-mutuel wagering in 1998. Plans call for repair and restoration work on the still-standing grandstand, barns and track facilities, and a potential expansion of the racing surface. Suffolk Downs said it is confident that it could begin some racing next year in Great Barrington and hopes to attract racing fans from New England and New York.
Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, said Suffolk Downs offered eight days of live racing last year in East Boston and plans to host six days this year, but possibly more in the fall. Great Barrington might offer a similar schedule in 2019, and more racing days in future years.
"Ultimately we'd like to get to 30 or 40 days a year of racing out there if the purse funding will support that," he told the News Service.
"I love it," Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who represents the southwestern Massachusetts House district, said Wednesday.
Describing the property as dormant for the past 20 years, Pignatelli said, "It was really the place to be in the southern Berkshires when I was growing up."
Pignatelli recalled enjoying racing, carnivals and agricultural fairs. He said he believes the communities in the area will support more active use of the property, and speculated that horses who race there in July could move on to race at Saratoga in New York, which has a 40-day late summer meet.
Bart and Janet Elsbach of neighboring Sheffield purchased the 57-acre fairgrounds property in December 2012, according to Suffolk Downs, and created a non-profit, the Fair Grounds Community Redevelopment Project, "with a vision to preserve and restore the environmental health of the site."
"We are excited to enter into this partnership which offers potential benefits to so many people and organizations in our community, western Mass. and the surrounding area," Bart Elsbach said in a statement.
In an interview, Elsbach told the News Service he used to attend agricultural fairs at the site in the 1970s. Elsbach said his non-profit was intended in part to protect the site from "aggressive commercial development." A revived racetrack, he said, would be in keeping with the site's agricultural roots.
"It's a very good opportunity for a number of different interests, both local and throughout the commonwealth," Elsbach said.
Suffolk Downs is leasing its East Boston facilities, where it runs a simulcasting operation, after selling its property in 2017 to The HYM Investment Group.
Purse funding stemming from expanded gambling in Massachusetts is "a big part of" the effort in Great Barrington, Tuttle said, referring to the Race Horse Development Fund, which the Senate has eyed to fund other government programs unrelated to the horse racing industry.
The annual budget bill set to be approved this week in the Senate includes an outside section that would sweep $15 million from the Race Horse Development Fund into the General Fund by June 30, 2019, availing the Senate to $15 million in new revenue that it proposes to spend other programs. Last year, after talks with the House, the Senate's plan to raid the race horse fund was left out of the compromise budget that was sent to the governor and signed.
Suffolk's license is for live racing and simulcasting in Suffolk County. Tuttle noted racing laws are approaching their annual July 31 sunset and he will be seeking passage of legislation making a longer-term commitment since, he said, Sterling Suffolk will need to sink millions of dollars into Great Barrington.
"We're seeking a similar accommodation" to casinos, which have longer licensing agreements that are compatible with the level of investments, Tuttle said.
In a statement, Tuttle called the potential project a "very exciting opportunity for us to help preserve and refurbish an iconic property in the heart of the Berkshires, to boost economic development in Great Barrington, continue live racing and preserve hundreds of jobs, associated with agribusiness and working open spaces associated with the Massachusetts racing industry."
Suffolk Downs says the Great Barrington racing revival effort has the support of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders, groups that last year entered into an agreement with Suffolk Downs to seek new racing venues and racing law changes.
Anthony Spadea, president of the NEHBPA, said its members are small businesses and local farm operators "who want to continue the chance to earn purse monies and to make a productive contribution to the Massachusetts economy."
The nation's largest horse track operator, Stronach Group, last year publicly expressed interest in a potential partnership or lease to bring thoroughbred racing to a former dog racing track in Raynham. On Wednesday, Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association President Bill Lagorio said those talks are ongoing and included a meeting three weeks ago in Raynham with Stronach representatives and members of the Carney family.
"We're trying to get an agreement signed there," said Lagorio, speculating about racing meets in Raynham as early as the summer of 2019.
This report was originally published by State House News Service.