Boston's storied horse track, and a way of life, enter final stretch

Lead trainer Jay Bernardini, who currently trains 35 horses with a staff of seven to eight people, stands in a stable at Suffolk Downs horse racing track in Boston, Massachusetts October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

BOSTON (Reuters) - Since high school, Lorita Lindemann has lived to the rhythm of horse racing - rising before dawn to tend her thoroughbred charges, cheering as they thunder down the track and working into the night to prepare them to compete again.

As Boston's 79-year-old Suffolk Downs prepares to close on Saturday, a victim of declining attendance and online gambling, Lindemann and hundreds of trainers, grooms and jockeys face losing not just their jobs but also a way of life.

"The horses need you 365 days a year. No holidays, no vacations," Lindemann, 40, said. "The horses keep you single."

Many of her friends who make their living in the cluster of stables around the one-mile (1.6-km) Depression-era track, where Seabiscuit made his debut in 1935, cling to hopes that the track can be saved.

An independent group, the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, on Wednesday made a last-gasp pitch to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to run Suffolk Downs next year. If the state rules in its favour by Nov. 15, the track could reopen.

Suffolk Downs' decline underscores the decades-long waning of interest in horse racing in the United States. With attendance at the track in decline since the 1990s, officials have cut the racing calendar by more than half, to 65 dates a year from about 150.

A few big tracks, such as Kentucky's Churchill Downs and New York's Belmont Park and Saratoga, attract the bulk of the fans and the bets.

Across the United States, betting from the ground at thoroughbred race tracks has dropped by more than half, to $1.19 billion (0.74 billion pounds) in 2013, down from $2.94 billion in 1996, according to data from the Jockey Club, which collects racing statistics.

But the value of bets placed from afar, many of which go to the largest tracks, has risen by about $1 billion in that time. That partly offsets the total decline in betting on horses, which was $10.88 billion in 2013, a 6.5 percent drop from 1996.

"Once, people would go to Suffolk Downs to watch the races because racing was a local thing," said Andrew Beyer, a journalist who has followed horse racing for decades and has written four books on the sport.

"Now a horse player in New England is going to be much more interested in playing the races in New York or other major circuits," he said.


Suffolk Downs had hoped to win one of the three Massachusetts casino licenses created by state lawmakers in 2011. A resort hotel with gambling, officials believed, would draw in new horse racing fans and help prop up the track financially.

But the track lost out in its bid to a proposal by Las Vegas developer Wynn Resorts Ltd. Last month officials said Saturday would be the last day of racing.

Some 850 people will lose their jobs, a figure that includes vendors, ticket takers and back-office staff as well as those who work with the horses.

For the trainers and other horse people - many of whom took to the sport as children, have little more than a high school education and few other skills - a life that does not revolve around caring for their animals is a frightening prospect.

"I tried a normal job, but it was not for me," said jockey Janelle Campbell, who started coming to track at the age of 8 when her aunt, Tammi Piermarini, also a jockey, began showing her around. "I'll just have to find another track to ride at."

Cathy Chumbley, 65, spent a drizzly Thursday morning at the track with 19-year-old horse Dennis the Menace in her post as an outrider, charged with monitoring track safety and coming to the assistance of jockeys or horses in the event of an accident.

The job was a late-career downshift for both Chumbley, who previously worked as a trainer, and Dennis, who used to race.

"In horse racing, you just scale down, you don't retire," said Chumbley. "It's scary. I was hoping to work another five to 10 years."

(Editing by Douglas Royalty)

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