It’s the end of an era for East Boston’s historic Suffolk Downs race track. Live horse racing, which began there in 1935, will end after one final season this summer.
On Sunday, the first of the three final race weekends, hometown jockey Tammi Piermarini soared through the finish line on her third race of the day.
Covered in mud and beaming, Piermarini rode atop Atta Kid, a horse that, unlike her, is just starting out in his career.
“In 1985, I rode my first horse here,” Piermarini said, wiping mud off her face in the women’s locker room. “I had just turned 18.”
The 52-year-old jockey with bright eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor grew up in Newburyport and started riding horses at 3 years old. She came to Suffolk Downs to ride as soon as she legally could, and she was home. It’s where she was awarded the third-leading female jockey of all time, where she joined the “2,000 club” — after 2,000 wins — and where she rode her parents' first race horse.
“That was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life, winning on their very first race horse," Piermarini said. "To have them come into the winner's circle, and it's their horse and their colors I'm wearing ... I can't express or explain how I felt.”
Now Piermarini has two more weekends left at Suffolk Downs, on June 8-9 and 29-30, before live racing ends for good and developer HYM Investment Group will begin to demolish the stables on July 1.
“It really is sad. I'm going to miss this place,” Piermarini said, gesturing to the empty lockers bordering the room. “At one time, every one of these boxes were filled with girls. And we would have days where we'd win nine out of 10 races, and we'd be like, ‘Yes! Girl power!’”
“It was a close-knit family,” she continued. “It was a great family.”
But Piermarini says live horse racing just isn’t the same sport it used to be.
“As long as people will [hire] me, I'm going to continue,” she said. “But if I'm forced to retire because of no business, that's a sad way to go. It's not that I want to retire. I'm being forced to retire.”
Suffolk Downs is retiring horse racing — at least on this historic track, which is slated to be turned into apartments and retail shops.
Read more: How Affordable Should Suffolk Downs 2.0 Be?
A lot of longtime fans said Sunday they aren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Jimmy Haephy, a Lynn native, has been coming to the track for over 40 years.
“I’ve got a lot of memories here, a lot of good ones,” Haephy said. “I know every inch of this place. It's like walking in my front door walking in here.”
Suffolk Downs used to bring in tens of thousands of spectators, with races every day. Now, with a few races per year, they’ll see only a few thousand per race and maybe 9,000 people at the biggest events, like the opening preakness on Saturday. CEO Chip Tuttle said there’s a possibility of a new location in Great Barrington, which would be a much cheaper location for a financially struggling sport.
“We fought really hard for a long time to try to preserve racing here at the property and it didn't work out,” Tuttle said. “So now it's on to what's next.”
Suffolk Downs has before faced shutdowns, changes in ownership, and a casino bid that ended in failure. Tuttle says this time, it’s for real.
“There there have been times in the past where we thought racing was was going to end, that it was over, and we were able to find ways to continue," he said. "But I can't see a way for us to continue racing here.”
In the booth on the rooftop of Suffolk Downs, announcer T.D. Thornton has accepted that after 27 years, he’s ready to say goodbye.
“We've had a pretty damn good run here for 84 years, so that's how I'm going to try and focus it, and ended on a high note,” Thornton said. “I'm not going to be saying that I'm sorry or wish it wouldn't go away or wish it was different. This is reality, and my role in it is to give the track a respectful sendoff.”
And in the meantime, the races will continue through June, preparing for the final goodbye.
What's next for him, Thornton says, is “pressing his bugle right here and getting the horse out onto the track.”