IN THE HEYDAY of thoroughbred racing in New England in the 1970s, you could watch live thoroughbred racing at 10 different racing venues, including seven fairground racetracks from Great Barrington to Weymouth, that created a reliable racing circuit along with Suffolk Downs, Narragansett Park in Rhode Island, and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire.
By 2005, the last of the fairgrounds closed, joining Rockingham and Narragansett in the dustbin of racing history, and leaving Suffolk Downs as the remaining thoroughbred racing track in New England until it raced its last race last year. The state’s denial of a casino license at Suffolk Downs to compliment racing was the beginning of the end of the historic track.
We rode the circuit wave beginning in 1974 and then opened Land’s End horse farm in Assonet in 1981. We had as many as 60 horses at any one time, breeding mares and producing foals that would compete against a strong field of Massachusetts-bred thoroughbreds. But breeding farms are barely hanging on.
But I am not writing this to wave a white flag of surrender.
Thoroughbred horse breeding and racing remains deeply engrained in our culture, particularly in our rural communities where the agricultural economy and wide-open spaces are a way of life. But we are in danger of losing our farm-based economy and, with it, our collective culture and history in Massachusetts. Not every job can – or should – be technology driven. Not everyone takes the T to work. Farming in any form is not an easy life, but when you let horse racing wither and die, you are also cutting blacksmiths, veterinarians, feed suppliers, hay farms, bedding companies, and all the other jobs directly tied to racing.
The state’s Horse Racing Committee – under the state’s Gaming Commission – is now considering an unprecedented demand from the standardbred racing industry to essentially wipe out funding for the thoroughbred industry from the state’s Race Horse Development Fund. We raise standardbred horses alongside thoroughbreds at Land’s End and we love them equally, so we don’t blame the horses for this mischief.
But the Horse Racing Committee needs to put a stop to this mischief and make an affirmative decision to honor the legislative intent of the Race Horse Development Fund to support and promote both breeds – standardbreds and thoroughbreds – and act in the best interests of horse racing in Massachusetts rather than continue to whittle away at what is left of the thoroughbred industry. There are at least two viable proposals to build a new thoroughbred racing facility that could bring back thoroughbred racing to Massachusetts within two years, but developers are not going to invest $30 million or more into building that facility if the state appears to be acting against their interests.
What developers have correctly perceived is that despite the closing of Suffolk Downs last year, thoroughbred racing remains a popular sport and pastime in Massachusetts. The attendance of more than 10,000 fans last year for the Suffolk Downs’ summer weekend festivals – with little or no promotion by Suffolk Downs – did not go unnoticed by developers, and it should not have gone unnoticed by the state’s Horse Racing Committee.
People love thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts, and they will come to the track to watch these elite horses thunder toward the finish line. It has been said that behind every horse that runs down that track are at least eight jobs, and those jobs still matter in our rural economy.
Thoroughbreds have enjoyed a rich history in Massachusetts and it would be a fitting legacy to this committee that at a time of instability and uncertainty in the racing industry and our economy they stood for stability and a resurgence of a racing industry that has witnessed great champions over the years and a promise of great champions to come.
We live for the epic moment when an unproven thoroughbred explodes out of the gate to overtake the field to make racing history. Such a moment occurred on a warm June day in 1937 during the Great Depression when a rising thoroughbred broke the track record at Suffolk Downs and won the Massachusetts Handicap in front of 40,000 fans.
That horse was Seabiscuit.
Winifred “Phreddie” Sienkewicz is the owner of Land’s End Farm in Assonet, Massachusetts. Her locally bred and raised thoroughbred “The Doc Is In” won two stakes races at Suffolk Downs last year and then six more races at Finger Lakes in New York after Suffolk Downs was closed.