My Day At The Races: Suffolk Downs In Its Waning Days

A Suffolk Downs race in October 2014 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Suffolk Downs race in October 2014 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As a reporter, I've never really given too much thought to the racing bill that routinely passes every year at the State House. It’s gaveled through without any debate; you really have to pay close attention to notice.

This year, it did get noticed, because in the chaotic shuffle of last-minute legislating, lawmakers failed to push the bill across the finish line by the Aug. 1 deadline.

The bill makes live horse racing and simulcast betting legal in Massachusetts. Since lawmakers missed the deadline, racing and simulcast betting could not take place in Massachusetts — until the Legislature quickly enacted the bill, and it was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker 36 hours later. I filed a radio report last Thursday stating that, among other things, this meant the planned two days of horse racing at Suffolk Downs would take place as scheduled over the weekend.

That’s when it dawned on me: I’d never been to a horse race.

Sure, I’ve seen the Kentucky Derby on TV, and horse racing scenes are plentiful in movies and pop culture, but I had never seen it in real life. Knowing that thoroughbred racing — at least here in eastern Massachusetts — is likely coming to a permanent end, I realized I would need to go soon before the only way to experience it would be through literature and film.

So my wife and I decided we’d spend a day at the track, and experience firsthand the sights, sounds and aromas of live horse racing. We arrived at Suffolk Downs in the early afternoon and found the parking lot to be pretty full, only to discover most of the cars belonged to folks who were going to Cirque du Soleil in the giant tent on the grounds. The circus-goers had to shell out $20 to park, but since we were going to the races, we — and the 6,000 or so others who showed up for the horses — got to park in the lot for free.

Seabiscuit, wearing the victory flower garland, is shown with jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard after winning the $51,780 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs on Aug. 7, 1937. (AP)
Seabiscuit, wearing the victory flower garland, is shown with jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard after winning the $51,780 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs on Aug. 7, 1937. (AP)

Suffolk Downs, which opened in 1935, has been on life support for years. And the venue has seen better days. We passed a crumbling outside stairwell, closed-off and no longer in use. I imagined thousands of screaming fans ascending those steps back in 1966 when the Beatles played there.

Once we passed through the turnstiles I paid $2 for a program so we could at least know the names of the horses we were about to watch. We made our way past the betting windows and out onto the apron, where we were surprised to see a large number of families enjoying the day. Suffolk Downs has been bringing in various food trucks to entice patrons on race days.

We stood at the track-side fence, eager to get not only our first look at a horse race, but a close-up view at that. The starting gate was put directly in front of us and the horses were brought to the gate. Looking at our program, my wife and I each picked a horse to win, based solely on names or blanket colors. I liked the No. 9 horse, Secret Secret, and made that my pick.

Now I must point out I did have mixed feelings about going to the track based on concerns some animal rights groups have made about horse racing. I went with the full knowledge that horses are often injured and sometimes die on the track.

That thought crossed my mind as Secret Secret entered the starting gate. While waiting for the last two horses to get in place, Secret Secret reared up on its hind legs and tossed the jockey to the dirt track. All I could see were the horse’s hind quarters disappear under the gate, and I was afraid the majestic creature was going to break one of its legs. Then a tractor moved into place and blocked my view. I did see a veterinarian pacing nearby with what looked like a tackle box-full of medication. Thankfully, Secret Secret was OK, and wound up finishing the race in second place. Still, for a first-time visitor to the track, it was a tense moment.

The entire day was stimulating to the senses. Walking back across the apron to the grandstand, I got a slight whiff of cigar smoke, something I used to smell all the time while working in the State House back in the early '80s. Like horse racing, cigar smoking is a relic of a bygone day, as the dangers of smoking have been known for years. Still, that brief olfactory stimulation took me back in time — one of my objectives for going to the track in the first place.

The scents continued once we got seated in the grandstand. The aroma of the food trucks parked out on the apron wafted up and beckoned me. In between two of the races, I found myself standing in line for a couple of chicken kabobs, which both my wife and I found very tasty.

I found there to be a mixed crowd, in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. Sure, there were some old guys right out of central casting, but there were plenty of younger people as well. Two well-dressed women sat directly in front of us who I suspect were a mother and daughter. The younger of the two, in her early 20s, seemed to know something about horses and was checking a handful of betting slips throughout the day.

Steve's $2 bet on Just Steve (Steve Brown/WBUR)
Steve's $2 bet on Just Steve (Steve Brown/WBUR)

It is possible to take in the races without gambling. Being an unsophisticated gambler, that was fine by me. I did, however, feel the need to give in and put $2 down on a horse named Just Steve in the fifth race (the reasoning is obvious). My wife told me to put it down to show, meaning if it placed anywhere in the top 3, I’d get some money back. My ego got in the way, as I thought Just Steve could only be a winner, and so I picked it to come in first. It didn’t. Just Steve came in third, meaning if I listened to my wife, I probably would have made my money back.

While I came away from the day having had a good time, I felt as if I had just caught a once-popular Broadway musical during one of its final performances. A Harris Poll conducted in early 2016 found that only 1 percent of Americans listed horse racing as their favorite sport. Overall, horse racing came in as the 13th-most-popular sport, finishing behind swimming and track and field. In 1985, 4 percent of Americans said it was their favorite sport, placing it in eighth place overall.

With those dismal numbers, it’s no wonder racing days at Suffolk Downs are winding down. The property has been sold and developers have had their eye on the land for years. It’s reported to be the site of choice in Boston’s bid to woo Amazon to the area. Suffolk Downs hopes to have two more races in September, but that’s entirely up to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which is expected to make its decision in the next week or so.

If those final two dates do happen, it’s unlikely I’ll be in the grandstand, although I’m not entirely ruling it out. Maybe I’ll get another delicious chicken kabob from that food truck.


Headshot of Steve Brown

Steve Brown Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.



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