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Gaming Commission's Overture On Horse Racing Labeled 'Empty Posturing'

After its licensing decision earlier this week prompted Suffolk Downs racecourse to announce its plans to close, the state gaming commission said Thursday they will explore "every available option" to keep thoroughbred racing alive in Massachusetts.

The commission voted 3-1 on Tuesday to hand the Boston area casino license to Wynn Resorts and Everett, which edged a proposal to bring a resort casino to Revere, next to the Suffolk Downs racetrack. Suffolk Downs had partnered with Mohegan Sun for its proposal. Commissioners said they believed the Everett casino would generate stronger economic benefits than the plan from Mohegan Sun.

Amid continuing news reports about the near-term displacement of Suffolk Downs employees, the commission on Thursday said keeping thoroughbred racing alive and identifying employment opportunities for racing employees will be on its agenda for its Sept. 25 public meeting.

"The Commission and its Racing Division are fully committed to an extensive and sustained exploration of every available option that may preserve the long tradition of thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth," the commissioners said in a statement.

A top Suffolk Downs official said employees found little comfort in the statement.

"The commission's actions speak louder than its words," Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle said. "To the people who work here it feels like empty posturing."

Suffolk Downs officials on Wednesday sent a notice to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, saying the racecourse will be ceasing operations and closing the racetrack. Suffolk Downs is terminating the employment of 176 full and part-time employees on Nov. 20, the notice said

"This was neither an easy decision, nor one made lightly," Tuttle said in the notice. "There is a possibility that we may be able to continue some or all operations, and thus continue employing some or all employees, as late as December 31, 2014. We will keep you apprised if we are able to do this."

The list of jobs affected by the planned closing included Tuttle's own, as well as 11 equipment operators, 13 laborers, 11 valets, 59 mutuel clerks, five carpenters, four electricians and a blacksmith, among others.

The closure will also eventually affect hundreds of horsemen and women, who are considered independent contractors, and on-site vendor employees who work on concessions, security, and cleaning.

Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for the labor secretariat, said the state had dispatched a "rapid response" team to reach out to the unions. "They will be setting up a meeting with Suffolk management and union leaders and workers to help workers understand what benefits for which they may be eligible and other free career center services to help them transition to another job," she said in an email.

If the track closes, Wynn Resorts is required by the gaming law to give hiring preference to former Suffolk Downs employees. In a Sept. 12 letter to the gaming commission, as it headed into final deliberations, Tuttle noted that does not extend to the horsemen and women and the on-site vendor.

"Furthermore, in light of the required remaining permitting, clean up and construction activities for the Wynn project, even in a best-case scenario there will be a years-long gap to be bridged before former Suffolk Downs' employees are potentially employed by Wynn," he wrote.

In the letter, Tuttle also pushed back on a premise from HLT Advisory, which worked with the commission on economic development and finance issues. HLT's memo said another operator could open a track in Massachusetts if Suffolk Downs shuts down.

The memo added, "The success, let alone existence, of the entire Massachusetts thoroughbred industry cannot be attributed solely to Suffolk Downs. If Suffolk Downs closed, some of the breeding and ownership jobs would be lost but others would likely remain."

Tuttle wrote that the last thoroughbred racing facility to open in the U.S., without expanded gambling, was Colonial Downs in 1997, located in Virginia.

"We have committed to continuing our racing operation and made it clear that we are willing to use revenue from our ground lease with Mohegan Sun to invest in and sustain racing," he wrote in the Sept. 12 letter. "Absent that, and given our intention to develop Suffolk Downs if [Mohegan Sun Massachusetts] is not successful, it appears highly unlikely that another operator would be able to commit to the substantial land, permitting, environmental and operating costs associated with starting a new thoroughbred racing facility."

Asked immediately after the commission's vote on Tuesday whether horse racing is dead in Massachusetts, Revere Mayor Daniel Rizzo said, "I have to think it is."

"I mean, I know Suffolk Downs is not going to keep the track open any longer," he added. "They have been terrific in keeping their employees at work and employed during this process as it played out because they felt they were going to have a very strong proposal."

Rizzo plans to hold a job fair for Suffolk Downs employees in early to middle October.

The Lynn Daily Item and WBZ radio reported on Thursday that Rizzo had reached out to the head of the Market Basket chain, Arthur T. Demoulas, about potential jobs for Suffolk Downs employees at the Revere store that could open later this year.

"Close to 400 jobs are proposed," Rizzo said, according to the Item. "Clearly, people love working for Arthur T. Demoulas. I'm sure he will help me out."

A Rizzo aide declined to elaborate.

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