We're Off to the Races

There's good news and bad news for race track owners and racing fans in Massachusetts.

Track owners' hopes for some 700 slot machines at each track were dashed when the Legislature turned down casino gambling.

But, for the first time in many years, racing returns to Berkshire County this fall, when the Great Barrington's fairgrounds will host seventeen days of racing in September.

Racing fans loved it when Cigar, the Horse of the Year, with 20,000 in the audience, won the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs for two years in a row. But live racing just isn't what it used to be in terms of attendance and totals bet.

And, although racing in Massachusetts isn't as healthy as it used to be, it still amounts to a $13-million take for the state each year. That's in addition to the taxes paid by the racetracks and the payroll for the estimated 10,000 or so people employed at the tracks.

The annual report of the State Racing Commission, organized to ensure the integrity of racing, points out that the industry has changed--although total handles (the amount taken in as bets) has increased, it has increased at a much lower rate than in previous years.

Closest to home, the Northampton ponies drew only $2.3-million in bets last Labor Day series, compared with 3.3 million the previous year.

That's a decrease of more than 31 percent.

Statewide, the live handles dropped from $205-million to $175 million, while simulcast wagering increased from $419-million to $453-million.

So simulcast wagering amounts to the vast majority of the bets. Only 28 percent of the handle is generated by local, live racing.

As an aside, did you know that Westfield had its own racetrack 40 years before the state even thought of organizing the racing commission. Woronoco Park began racing in June of 1894 on a half-mile track on Western Avenue where Park Avenue is now.

There's a poster of the racing card in the Athenaeum's book "Images of America: Westfield" that claims we hosted the fastest horses in the country and an admission fee of just 25 cents.

The original grandstand burned, but was replaced and used for a few years before racing left Westfield before 1920. Perhaps a local historian remembers why?

Back to today. With thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs, harness racing at Foxboro, Greyhound racing at Wonderland and Raynham, and horses at the Three County Fair in Northampton, people spend over $603 million at the tracks of the Commonwealth last year. That's $12 million more than we spent the year before.

To work around the tracks, you have to have a license. The Commission last year issued 7,300 licenses to jockeys, trainers, owners of racing animals, blacksmiths, track officials, kennel owners, vendors, stablehands and leadouts.

Commissioners also have to test urine and blood from the horses and dogs to be sure they're not using prohibited drugs and medications that could affect their performance. Some 26,466 urine samples and 823 blood samples were analyzed in 1996. Some 65 animals tested positive last year, tests that resulted in 53 investigations and 18 arrests and 16 people deemed detrimental to the sport were ejected from the tracks.

And, there's also a group of racing inspectors to interpret the rules and regulations of racing.

There are auditors and accountants on staff to keep track of the bets and payouts, as well as the state's share.

Believe it or not, the Commonwealth got an extra $700,000 from racing last year from uncashed tickets. There's a squabble brewing here, by the way, because the tracks think they should get unclaimed winnings.

Judges, or stewards, determine the winners of the races, requesting photo finishes if necessary, and make the final decision about the first three places.

Of that $13-million the state took in, the Racing Commission was pretty cost effective, spending $3.5-million.

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