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By any measure, horse racing has been in marked decline for years in Massachusetts, leaving operators of the state's two tracks eyeing casino gambling as their last, best hope for survival.
Now, two upcoming votes — one by residents in Revere and the other by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission — could ultimately determine whether thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs and harness racing at the Plainridge Racecourse enjoy a resurgence or grind to permanent halts.
A yes vote in Tuesday's referendum would allow Mohegan Sun to continue with a bid for a resort casino on land owned by Suffolk Downs in Revere.
On Friday, the commission is scheduled to award the single slots parlor license in Massachusetts, with Plainridge among three contenders.
Both tracks are likely to close, their owners concede, if the votes don't go their way. And for the estimated 4500 people in Massachusetts who derive income from racing — from horse owners to breeders, jockeys, trainers and track workers — the stakes are also high.
"This is a one and done deal," said Billy Abdelnour, president of the New England Amateur Harness Drivers Club. "This will literally end, finish harness racing, because there is no one waiting in line to build a racetrack in Massachusetts."
According to figures from the state racing commission and a report prepared for Suffolk Downs by Christiansen Capital Advisors, operating losses at the track ranged from $11.8 million to $26.4 million over a five-year period from 2007-2011. The track's handle — the amount wagered on live races — has fallen nearly every year since 2000, from $27.6 million to 6.5 million in 2012, and its purse — the money paid out to horse owners — tumbled from $16 million in 2003 to $9.4 million in 2012.
Plainridge's live handle fell from $2.4 million in 2007 to $1.5 million in 2011 and purses decreased from $3.1 million to $2.5 million during that period, according to a 2012 consultants' report for the racing commission.
The travails of horse racing are not unique to Massachusetts, with comparable declines seen elsewhere in the U.S. and blamed largely on increased competition for gambling dollars from casinos and state lotteries. The "racino," a facility that marries racing and casino gambling, has been one response around the country.
Legislators who crafted Massachusetts' 2011 expanded gambling law clearly saw potential for casinos to help bail out the racing industry. The law requires tracks that win gaming licenses to continue racing, and directs a small percentage of casino proceeds toward boosting purses.
The law, however, does not specifically direct the gambling commission to favor racinos or consider the survival of racing when making casino licensing decisions. The five-member panel has promised to weigh several factors, including potential economic development.
Penn National Gaming, which has applied to operate Plainridge, says the introduction of slot machines revived racing at other facilities the company owns, including its Hollywood Casino brand in Charles Town, W. Va., and Bangor, Maine.
"We don't look at racing as an afterthought," said Eric Schippers, Penn National's vice president for public affairs. "Racing is a critical added amenity that adds to the entertainment value of our customers."
Penn National is competing for the slots parlor license with Raynham Park, a former dog track, and Cordish Cos., which has proposed a facility in Leominster. Raynham's application throws a slim lifeline to the harness industry by proposing up to 40 days of racing at Brockton Fairgrounds, the company said.
The Leominster plan does not include racing but takes a different approach, offering at least $1 million a year in gambling revenue to boost startup medical device technology firms in the region, according to Cordish's president, Joseph Weinberg.
Suffolk Downs originally proposed a combined racetrack and casino on the Boston-Revere border, but that plan was rejected by voters in the East Boston neighborhood, where the track is located. The current plan calls for Mohegan Sun to operate the casino as a separate entity in Revere, but Suffolk Downs has pledged to maintain racing for at least 15 years.
"Our ability to continue racing is very much dependent on the success of Mohegan Sun," said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of the 78-year-old track that boasts of hosting some of the sport's most famous jockeys and helping launch the career of the legendary Seabiscuit.
Even with a favorable vote Tuesday, Mohegan Sun would still face competition for the eastern Massachusetts resort casino license from Wynn Resorts in Everett, with a decision from the commission expected by May 30.