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To The Races: Discovering Suffolk Downs Just In Time To Say Goodbye

Judy Harris: "Seabiscuit ran there in 1937. The Beatles played there in 1966. Suffolk Downs has been part of countless lives for nearly eight decades." Pictured: Tale Of Houdini takes a lap around the Suffolk Downs track during a training run. The track, which opened in 1935, will close on Saturday, October 4, 2014.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Judy Harris: "Seabiscuit ran there in 1937. The Beatles played there in 1966. Suffolk Downs has been part of countless lives for nearly eight decades." Pictured: Tale Of Houdini takes a lap around the Suffolk Downs track during a training run. The track, which opened in 1935, will close on Saturday, October 4, 2014.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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I’d never been to Suffolk Downs before.

I love horses, and I knew enough about abuses in the thoroughbred racing industry, including the PETA exposé, never to venture near a horse track.

Just as I rode the old elevated Orange Line countless times before it was demolished, drinking in the views into backyards of neighbors I’d never meet, Suffolk Downs is a part of Boston history, and I felt it was important to witness it.

But Suffolk Downs is an indelible Boston fixture. Seabiscuit ran there in 1937. The Beatles played there in 1966. Suffolk Downs has been part of countless lives for nearly eight decades.

My family and I decided we should go before live thoroughbred racing in New England ends.

My husband and I talked to our teenaged son about gambling and gambling addictions. We talked about the horses, and how they can be mishandled and abused. But it was a cultural thing, I explained. Just as I rode the old elevated Orange Line countless times before it was demolished, drinking in the views into backyards of neighbors I’d never meet, Suffolk Downs is a part of Boston history, and I felt it was important to witness it.

We went. We loved it. We went again, one more time.

I learned that Suffolk Downs was the first racing track in the nation to institute a strict no-slaughter policy for the horses it stabled. It’s home to another first-in-the-nation, as well: a majestic grandstand made entirely of concrete.

Suffolk Downs was more impressive — and lovely — than I’d imagined. And the horses were so close, and I could stand right at the finish line. I saw grooms cheering their horses on, or tenderly stroking them after a race, whether or not they won.

The crowd was mixed. There were parents pushing strollers and elderly pushing walkers. There were some who looked like they'd logged many hours at this track, and others who seemed as new there as I was. I overheard a group of fashionable young professionals lamenting that their new discovery would soon be gone. “It’s such a great thing to do on a Saturday," one woman said. "You park for free, get in for free, buy a beer, and spend some time at the track. It’s perfect!”

Some of the newcomers were obviously trying to fit in. “If you could place a bet, which horse would you bet on?” a middle-aged woman asked my 14-year-old.

Horse trainer Wayne Marcoux and horse owner Michael Cook discuss the prospect of Suffolk Downs closing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Horse trainer Wayne Marcoux and horse owner Michael Cook discuss the prospect of Suffolk Downs closing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

My son asked me what all the people who worked at the track were going to do when it closed. I told him that they’d been promised first dibs at jobs at the new casino, if it opens. But we agreed that trading a life of outdoor work with horses for an indoor casino job wasn’t an equitable exchange.

At the paddock rail, taking in the parade of magnificent horses inside the ring, I noticed a slight, older man watching alongside me.

“Were you a jockey?” I asked.

“I used to be,” he answered.

Hector began working at Suffolk Downs as a boy. He quit in 1996. He owned horses until a couple of years ago.

“Until you retired,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, showing his discomfort with the word.

We talked about the impending track closure, and Hector looked around.

“Now that it’s closing, there are many people here,” he said. “Usually, there’s hardly anyone.”

I told him I wanted to bet on horse Number 1. Hector looked at the odds for me and nodded. “It’s possible,” he said.

“Have a good day,” he said, striding away.

Number 1 won.

One of [the track workers] raised both arms at the crowd, which responded with an impromptu ovation. Not for the horses, who were careening around the track, but for the workers who’d made this track their home.

At the start of the last race I watched, the track workers who’d guided the horses to the starting gates jumped down and walked towards the stands. One of them raised both arms at the crowd, which responded with an impromptu ovation. Not for the horses, who were careening around the track, but for the workers who’d made this track their home.

We screamed and shouted and applauded as the men gathered their gear and walked towards the stables. Some of them ate up the applause with big grins, while others looked down and away.

I’d placed a small bet on the horse that came in first. At the window to claim my $6.50 winnings, I asked the cashier if the track, given the huge attendance, had made money that day.

“No,” said the man, shaking his head. “We lost about $30,000.”

I told him we were sorry to see Suffolk Downs go, and he smiled.

“Don’t give up hope, yet!” he said.


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Judy Harris Cognoscenti contributor
Judy Harris is a writer, audio producer, and homeschooling-mother. Her work has appeared in several magazines, and she has done production for the BBC, PRI, Houghton Mifflin, Perseus Books, and Monitor Radio.

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