WBUR

Suffolk Downs Bets Big On Casino License

Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, is hoping the thoroughbred racetrack will receive one of two casino licenses being considered on Beacon Hill. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

BOSTON — Suffolk Downs in East Boston is considered one of the best bets to win a casino license under gambling legislation on Beacon Hill. And the thoroughbred racetrack is one step closer after the House voted Wednesday to authorize two resort-style casinos in the state.

The 75-year-old track is partnering with Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere to compete for the rights to build one of the casinos. Both tracks also stand to gain from House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s plan to allow slot machines at all of the state’s four racetracks.

For Suffolk Downs, the success or failure of the gambling bill could determine the fate of the track. Its racing operation hasn’t turned a profit since 2001 and on-site wagering has dropped 34 percent over the last five years.

Video: Seabiscuit at Suffolk Downs

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sc_oQWTPVeY/embed]

Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, says the track already has preliminary plans to transform the site into an entertainment and gaming complex — “with horse racing as a centerpiece.”

Standing on the cavernous first floor of the grandstand, well past its heyday, Tuttle looks around and imagines what a visitor to the track might see if the gambling legislation goes through and Suffolk Downs wins a casino license.

“This grandstand that we’re standing in could have a gaming floor, could have table games,” Tuttle says. “You know, you could be standing right now in what would be a small entertainment venue or a food court or a high-end restaurant.”

In making the case for Suffolk Downs, Tuttle points out that the track has already been a gambling destination since 1935, so much of the needed infrastructure is in place.

“We have occupancy permits here for 38,000 people,” he says. “Unfortunately for us, we don’t get those kinds of crowds anymore. Those were the crowds that were here in the 1930s and the 1940s when Seabiscuit ran here.”

The crowd at Suffolk Downs, 1935 (Courtesy of Suffolk Downs)

The crowd at Suffolk Downs, 1935 (Courtesy of Suffolk Downs)

“We have this building,” he goes on, “the buildings on the grounds are about 800,000 square feet, on 163 acres with 5,500 surface parking spaces — you know, we’re already in the gambling business.”

DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick have all said that they support casino gambling as an economic stimulus and source of jobs. Tuttle says Suffolk Downs could add 2,000 to 3,000 new employees to its current staff of about 1,000 during the live racing season.

“That’s a considerable value for us, but also the surrounding towns,” Tuttle says. “East Boston, Revere, Everett, Lynn, Malden — what the speaker refers to as the ‘blue-collar depression.'”

Tuttle says the casino would also be good for tourism in Boston.

As for the thoroughbred racing, Tuttle says he’s not worried that a casino and the new crowd it brings in will take away from the track’s long tradition.

“There’s a lot of history here, there’s a lot of legacy,” he says. “Our responsibility is to do this in a way that integrates horse racing and gaming in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s really the vision for the property and the vision for development here.”

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