I had fervently hoped the decision would have gone a different way, but the Boston-area casino license has been granted to Steve Wynn’s Everett proposal instead of the Suffolk Downs/Mogehan Sun project. As a result, Suffolk will close for good at the end of the meet, less than two weeks away. I couldn’t help but think about my experiences there over almost 30 years.
My first visit to Suffolk was for the Massachusetts Handicap (Mass Cap) in 1985, shortly after I moved to the area from the West coast. It was quite a change from scenic Santa Anita Park, where I had spent a lot of time the prior few years. Still, it was at the time a decent racetrack – the sport hadn’t really begun its serious nationwide decline and New England was still a useful regional racing market with Suffolk and New Hampshire’s Rockingham Park. Mass Cap day was always the highlight of Suffolk’s year, drawing strong fields and good crowds.
Bounding Basque won the Mass Cap that year, but New England racing in 1985 belonged to Mom’s Command, the star 3-year-old filly owned and bred by local Peter Fuller. She had begun her career with stakes wins at Rockingham and Suffolk at age two, and while she never raced in New England again, she was considered a hometown horse. I remember very distinctly a “Mom’s Command Day” at Suffolk Downs in 1985, where the filly had a public workout under regular jockey Abby Fuller. That was the summer she swept the old New York filly Triple Crown and the prestigious Alabama Stakes on her way to championship honors.
That same year, New England racing was developing another star in Waquoit. A stakes winner at two in 1985 at both Suffolk and Rockingham, the handsome gray horse blossomed into a multiple Grade 1 winner in New York over an outstanding career that spanned four years. Trained in New England, he also won the 1987 Mass Cap in a thrilling edition of the race, nosing out Broad Brush in an epic duel to the wire.
Prepping for a return engagement in the 1988 Mass Cap (in which he would finish second to Lost Code), Waquoit easily won Suffolk’s Governor’s Handicap against an over-matched field – I remember that race like it was yesterday. The next year, Private Terms won the Mass Cap, the last running until 1995 – Suffolk was actually shut down during 1990 and 1991. It took a few more years, but the race came back with a bang when it attracted the great Cigar.
One of the best horses I’ve ever seen race in person, Cigar won the Mass Cap two years in a row, in 1995 and 1996. The 1995 victory was part of his unbeaten Horse of the Year campaign, while the1996 race marked the champion’s first start since taking the inaugural Dubai World Cup earlier that year. I’ll never forget the feeling at Suffolk the morning before the 1996 Mass Cap as Cigar went about his training. Stable workers stopped their chores to line the rail for a glimpse of the great horse gliding over the racetrack. It brought back memories of another era, of Mass Cap winners Whirlaway and Seabiscuit, of the thrill and awe of watching a true champion before your very eyes.
Horse of the Year Skip Away won the Mass Cap the next two years, 1997 and 1998. His connections were attracted to Suffolk for several reasons – a good purse, a good position on the calendar and the hospitality provided by the track. It didn’t hurt that Cigar had helped put the race back on the map.
Nice horses in Behrens, the globe-trotting Running Stag, Include, Macho Uno, Offlee Wild, Brass Hat and Commentator won the remaining Mass Caps, which saw its last running in 2008. By then, Suffolk was hanging on by a thread, with only the dream of operating a casino keeping it on life support.
Sadly, the plug has been pulled.
I wish the best of luck to all the people whose livelihood depended on the track, from the owners and trainers to the track employees and stable hands. Some will find homes at other racetracks; others will likely leave the industry entirely. And the horses – for the past several years, I have volunteered with the New England chapter of CANTER, which helps place retiring racehorses into new careers. They have their hands full right now, desperately trying to find homes for the horses that have nowhere to go, which aren’t up to the challenges of better racing circuits or whose owners are simply giving up. The track may be closing, but there is much work to be done.