No one ever accused Suffolk Down of being a nice place. How could you? It was rundown, the racing was cheap and back in the day it sometimes seemed as many races were fixed as they were on the up and up. The place was a dump. But it was my dump.
Before the empty grandstands, before the slot machines took over, back when the racetracks had a soul, there was no place I'd rather be than Suffolk Downs. That doesn't make me as strange as you might think. Suffolk Downs was tough and gritty, colorful and fascinating. It had character, something missing from the lifeless and dreary racetracks of today.
I imagine it was that way back in 1935 when it opened. I know it was that way when I was a regular customer while attending college in the early eighties. What's it like today? I don't really know since, like most everyone else, I moved on and haven't been there in a dozen years or so. But that question is largely irrelevant because there is barely a present at Suffolk Downs and there is no future.
When Suffolk closes an entire region of the country will have nothing left except a couple of OTBs and, of course, a lot of mind-numbing slot machines.
On Tuesday Massachusetts state gambling commissioners voted against giving a casino license to Suffolk Downs, awarding it instead to a rival bidder that will open a casino just down the road in the town of Everett. Suffolk Downs management wasted no time announcing that that was all she wrote for the struggling racetrack, that it would soon close. Presumably, the end will come Sept. 29, the last day of racing scheduled in 2014.
In its heyday Suffolk Downs was part of a vibrant circuit that also included Rockingham, Lincoln Downs and Narragansett. Then there was Green Mountain in Vermont , Scarborough Downs in Maine and four or five Massachusetts fair tracks. At night you could go to the dog track. They were everywhere.
Soon, they'll all be gone. When Suffolk closes an entire region of the country, one that used to really embrace Thoroughbred racing, will have nothing left except a couple of OTBs and, of course, a lot of mind-numbing slot machines.
You can call it progress. I choose to call it sad.
How did we possibly come to this, and come to this so quickly?
Seabiscuit, Whirlaway and Stymie won at Suffolk Downs back in the thirties and forties. In 1938 a crowd of 60,000 showed up to watch Menow beat War Admiral.
By the time I got there in 1979 the track was already on its way down. Its nickname,:"Sufferin' Downs," pretty much tells you all you need to know when it comes to the shape the place was in.
But if you were the type that didn't mind the peeling paint, a few cracked windows and could endure the Wednesday cards in February when it was 13 degrees and the snow piles in the parking lot were taller than the Berkshire Mountains then this was your kind of place.
There was absolutely nothing pretentious about Suffolk Downs or the people who called it home. There were the old war horses like Rise Jim, Let Burn, Darby Gillic and jockeys who rode not for the glory but to put food on the table, guys named Carl Gambardella, Rudy Baez, Jack Penney, Vernon Bush. Saratoga was classier. Santa Anita was prettier. Churchill had the Kentucky Derby. No one at Suffolk Downs cared. Jealousy wasn't part of their fabric.
Suffolk made a comeback in the mid-nineties, after it was purchased by James Moseley, who was committed to bringing the track back after some particularly lean years. He spruced up the place and put the Massachusetts Handicap back on the map. Over a four-year period starting in 1995 The MassCap was won twice by Cigar and then twice by Skip Away.
Moseley died in 1988. There were new owners, but they were fighting a losing battle. In the current era, a small racetrack without a casino has become a guaranteed loser. For years, Suffolk limped along. In 2007 the track was bought by a company headed by Richard Fields. He gambled that he had bought what would become a pile of gold when Suffolk Downs got a casino. He bet big and he lost big.
You can't blame Fields one bit for giving up. The instant the casino went to Everett there was no hope for survival. That's the sad truth of horse racing in 2014 when most racetracks can't make it on their own, when the game of horse racing alone is not viable.
That reality has claimed other tracks and will no doubt claim some more. But this time it got a place that once represented what so many of us liked about the sport. It was a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder type of love affair that a lot of us had with Suffolk Downs but the place really was special, in its own unique, unapologetic, Boston working class way.
May it rest in pace.