Friday, June 19, 2009

Suffolk axes MassCap for 2009; whenever will I go?

Citing the ailing economy, Suffolk Downs has decided to forgo its marquee race in 2009, the Massachusetts Handicap, in favor of supporting the purse structure for the resident horsemen, trainers and horses at the track.

"It's a difficult decision because it means so much to the loyal racing fans of New England and to everyone at the track," said Richard Fields, Suffolk Downs' principal shareholder, in a press release to the racing media. "But our partnership does not think we can responsibly incur the expense of the MassCap when we are fighting to save jobs and maintain current purse levels for the horsemen who are here every day."

On the one hand, I commend Suffolk Downs for thinking first of its everyday trainers, owners and horses. Some places, track management is always pandering to the wealthiest owners and trying to attract the big-name horses to elevate the venue's status.

On the other hand, New England's avid racing fans deserve to see a showcase race every year, too. Even those of us who have a soft spot in our hearts for every $2,500 claimer want to see graded-stakes horses before our own eyes once in awhile.

Begun in 1935 -- when a hard-knocker named Top Row (by Peanuts) stole the show from Discovery (who nonetheless would win Horse of the Year over Triple Crown winner Omaha) -- the race was run every year through the track's initial closure in 1989. The Massachusetts Handicap long was one of the true classic races of the older-horse circuit.

Its list of early winners is astounding: Seabiscuit, Menow, Fighting Fox, Eight Thirty, War Relic and Market Wise won the event in consecutive years from 1937-42. Through the years other winners included champions Pavot and Stymie, To Market (who set the Suffolk 10f record in the race in 1952, 2:01 2/5), Promised Land, Crimson Satan, Droll Role and Riva Ridge.

Even as Suffolk was winding down toward its period of closure in the late 1980s, the race was one of considerable import. Island Sultan stunned in 1979 when John Henry came home a shocking 10th. The final five winners before the race's first hiatus were Bounding Basque (over Dr. Carter), Skip Trial (defeating Creme Fraiche), the under-appreciated Waquoit (besting Broad Brush), Lost Code (over Waquoit and Afleet) and Private Terms.

The race couldn't have bounced-back much bigger when it was finally reinstated in 1995, after the 1992, '93 and '94 Suffolk seasons (following a couple of years of closure) went off without a MassCap. Cigar won the first two renewals and Skip Away did his sire one better and took the next two, each in their back-to-back championship seasons.

But for the most recent eight years including 2009, the MassCap will have been canceled as often as it has been run. A couple of good horses have shown up when the race does go off -- Include, Macho Uno, Evening Attire, Funny Cide, Offlee Wild, Brass Hat and Commentator all have won or hit the board since 2000 -- but how consistent will the fields be in future years if Suffolk can't make the MassCap a standing commitment? Scrubbing the MassCap every other year or so interrupts any momentum the race might be building.

I certainly believe Suffolk Downs did whatever it could think of to find some way to fund the MassCap purse. But it isn't like money's floating in with the tide in Boston Harbor. Last Saturday's nine-race card had seven claiming races carrying identical $7,300 purses, a somewhat better claiming event with a $10,300 purse, and a $22,400 allowance as the feature race. The MassCap had a $500,000 purse last year; at those purses, Suffolk would basically have to cancel a week's worth of racing just to pull it off this year for a fraction of that purse.

That might even be worth doing if Suffolk's schedule wasn't already geared for efficiency. There's no racing on Sundays, just Monday through Wednesday weekday cards -- smart choices to draw account wagering because so many other venues are dark then -- plus Saturdays. The season starts on Kentucky Derby day and ends on Breeders' Cup Saturday.

If the schedule went even a week longer, I might suggest shutting down with the Breeders' Cup and blowing that last week's worth of purse money on a $300,000 MassCap, but the more I weigh the options, the more I realize the difficulty of Suffolk's position.

Boston's entire market is struggling. Suffolk sure couldn't find sponsorship from the threatening-to-go-belly-up Boston Globe. And Boston Business Journal reports that even TV viewership for the Red Sox is down 14 percent.

Suffolk management might have made the only choice it could for 2009 -- and in 2003, and in 2005 and 2006 -- but the track needs to find some way to make sure its signature event never has to be scratched. Personally, I'd rather see it be a $150,000 Grade 3 that goes off like clockwork every year than a sporadic $500,000 race.

After all, my son's senior year of college at Brandeis is 2010-11 and I wanted to take him to a MassCap before I run out of built-in excuses for trips to Boston.

Of course, he does seem destined for grad school. ...

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