Horse owners and trainers in Massachusetts are trying to keep thoroughbred racing going at Suffolk Downs. Two groups have filed applications for horse racing licenses, and Saturday is slated to be the last day of racing at Suffolk Downs.
Officials there have announced that the 79-year-old track simply doesn’t have enough revenue to fill purses. That’s after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission awarded a casino license to Wynn Resorts instead of Suffolk Downs. But this could also mean the end of racehorse breeding in Massachusetts.
When the gates open, more than a thousand pounds of muscle and bone land jarringly on spindly front legs. Thoroughbred racehorses have a genetic urge to run as far and as fast as they can. It’s a two-minute rush on the track and a lifetime of grooming, care and exercise. For at least three years before they race, and for years after, they live on farms like Black Rushin’ in Medfield.
Armand Janjigian has bred and raced more than 40 horses at Suffolk Downs. He’s not sure this dark brown foal, Lulu, will ever race in Massachusetts, since Suffolk Downs is the only thoroughbred track in the commonwealth.
“We have raced in other states and we would probably continue to do that," Janjigian said. "I would cut back on our breeding program.”
Horses racing in their home state win higher purses. So without a thoroughbred track, Massachusetts may be looking at the end of its breeding industry. That affects people like Janjigian, and his blacksmith, veterinarian, grain dealer and three full-time employees, like Jacqueleen Kareh.
“We’re staying optimistic," Kareh said. "Definitely. You have to. We’re hoping it stays, just for our jobs. And this is like a second home to us. We love these animals like we would our own.”
Just down the road, past dozens of other horse farms, is Lion Spring farm, where Harry Hicks works part time. He moved from South Carolina to train horses in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in 1963.
“I was born and raised on a farm with about 80, 90 horses," Hicks said. "That’s where I learned how to ride, how to do stalls, how to groom."
And what did Hicks want to be?
"A jockey, but I got too big too fast,” he said.
Hicks says this small farm may no longer need him to care for this stallion, but he’d still try to work with horses.
“If the horse industry collapses, I don’t know what I’ll do," he said. "Hope that I’m lucky enough to find a job at one of these riding academies.”
Lion Spring owner Lee Loebelenz says she’ll retire her stallion.
“Nobody’s going to breed to him right now," Loenelenz said. "Because it takes three years to get our product, a foal, to the racetrack earning money. And there’s so much uncertainty that people aren’t going to take a risk.”
But both Loebelenz and Janjigian point out that they’re lucky to have additional income from spouses and real estate investments. They’re concerned about family farmers who rely only on breeding and racing for their livelihood. While there’s a new effort by horse owners to bring racing back to the track next year, there’s no guarantee that will happen. Even if that doesn’t pan out, the good news is that all Suffolk Downs horses should have homes.
“All these ex-race horses, I would say 90 percent or more, end up in some other regimen," Janjigian said.
Janjigian says that includes show jumping and trail riding and he adds that people will be able to buy the horses at reasonable prices.