Gaming commission deals blow to Brockton horse racing plans

Advocates for Brockton racing plead their case before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. / Jacob Holzman for The Eye

A push to expand horse racing in Massachusetts was all but put out to pasture today.

In a unanimous vote, the five-member state gaming commission rejected a proposal from the newly formedMassachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association to use $1.1 million of the state’s Race Horse Development Fund to repair and operate a Brockton track that has been closed since 2001.

“We have agonized over this, but we have a responsibility to use taxpayer money wisely,” commissioner Gayle Cameron said.

The vote came after commissioners questioned whether they had legal standing to grant funds to refurbish and operate the old track. Chris Carney, whose family operates the track at the Brockton Fairgrounds, said the vote meant there would be no races this year.

“I think we’re going down in flames,” Carney said.

The move is the latest in a two year-long saga over how to spend more than $20 million a year derived from a casino tax that is dedicated to horse racing. The vote likely means that six days of racing, at Suffolk Downs will likely be the only thoroughbred competition in the state this year.

Since Suffolk Downs said it will redevelop its land in Boston and Revere two years ago, various factions have been embroiled in infighting, legal action and mudslinging over bids to establish regular racing again, supported by the special casino tax.

The gaming commission did approve allocating $2.5 million from the racing fund on purses — the money that goes to winning horses – if the new racing actually does take place in Brockton.

Horse breeders hurting

The commission also okayed $400,000 for training and stabling and $262,000 for the new racing group for administration expenses if Brockton racing takes place. But the commission rejected a long list of other funding requests from the group, including the critical money needed to fix up the track. The state gaming commission has said the track would have to pass safety tests before racing would be authorized.

The leader of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a longer-established group of horse owners and trainers, said he was befuddled by the commission’s decision.

The commission “never asked who the owners were of this group” or “who the trainers are” or “how many horses were racing,” said Anthony Spadea Jr., president of the New England Horsemen. “How do you give away $3.1 million of state taxpayer money” without asking those questions, he said.

The new thoroughbred group split away from the older group last year.
William Lagorio, president of the new horse association, said the rejection of development funding for Brockton was going to hurt Massachusetts.

“It’s livelihoods, it’s farms, it’s jobs, it’s breeding,” Lagorio said. “People are going broke, losing their houses and losing their farms. This was our savior for them, it was a lifeline for them.”

The Race Horse Development Fund was created in 2011 after being quietly inserted into the state’s gambling expansion bill to help foster and support the state’s horse racing industry. Nineteen other states have similar funds.

The fund has raised $23.7 million so far from casino taxes. However, a recent review of the fund’s work by The Eye and WBUR public radio found few gains in horse breeding or racing days.

Lagorio said that the group is not giving up.

But without the development funding, Carney said that this will be his family’s last time around the bend, and it won’t be won’t be applying for any more racing days.

“Thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts will be extinct,” Carney predicted. He said the commission will likely continue to put more money into less- popular harness racing, where buggies are pulled by standardbred horses. There is one harness racing track in the state, in Plainville.

Beth Daley contributed to this report.