For Rehoboth farm, decline in thoroughbred racing could be a death knell

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

REHOBOTH — In its heyday, Briar Hill Farm prided itself on breeding and training nearly 25 thoroughbred stallions a year.

Renowned as the only farm in the state with a quarter-mile dirt track, three of four active racing stallions could be found cantering there.

Now, things have changed.

The number of thoroughbreds in the state has dramatically declined from 96 mares and 25 stallions in 2000 to just one mare and one stallion in 2019. The only track that hosted thoroughbred races, Suffolk Downs in East Boston, held its last live racing season in 2019.

For Arlene Brown, 80, who has been single-handedly running Briar Hill since the death of her husband, George Brown, in 2018, the struggle has been to get the numbers up.

“We’re trying to find ways to increase thoroughbred breeding,” she said “But we’re barely hanging on.”

While the farm, which was first established by her husband’s family during the 1850s, does own other breeds, Brown said the lack of thoroughbred racing in the state and the resulting absence of revenue has already had an impact on her ability to keep the farm afloat.

“I give it not more than a year,” she said.

But while thoroughbreds seem to be verging on near extinction in Massachusetts, standardbred horses — a shorter, sturdier kind used to pull sulkies in harness racing — are flourishing.

During a Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting last week, standardbred representative Peter Goldberg said that the number of foals bred in the state rose from 36 in 2014 to 99 by 2018.

Meanwhile, there were 26 registered thoroughbred foals in 2014 and by 2018, that number dropped to eight.

Brown said that the decline in thoroughbred numbers was a result of multiple factors. First and foremost was the lack of a racetrack that could help the thoroughbred market operate beyond breeding farms.

With no racing days, thousands of people, including jockeys, breeders and trainers who are directly employed in the circuit, as well as those that are indirectly employed such as delivery service providers, are left without a livelihood.

The Legislature foresaw the trend in 2011 when it introduced a Race Horse Development Fund to provide purse money for races and development of infrastructure to maximize profits as part of its gaming law.

The RHDF is funded by the revenue generated by Massachusetts casinos. Encore Boston Harbor in Everett and MGM Springfield contribute 2.5% of their gaming revenue to the RHDF. The lion’s share, however, comes from Plainville’s Plainridge Park, at 18%.

In Brown’s mind, Plainridge, which has a standardbred track and over 100 days of racing, is the advantage the thoroughbred currently lacks.

“We were heartbroken when the casino license was given to (Encore Boston Harbor) Everett,” Brown said.

In 2014, the state Gaming Commission decided to give the casino license to Wynn resorts-led Encore Boston instead of Suffolk Downs, which had been suffering from low turnout.

The second challenge, Brown said, was the allocation of the RHDF. The fund is split 65%-35% with standardbreds taking the higher share.

In 2015, the original split was 75%-25% in favor of the thoroughbreds. But with Plainridge winning a casino license to help its track, the revenue flow has increased.

The success of standardbreds as opposed to the perpetual decline of the thoroughbred industry inevitably led to split revisions in 2016, when it went to 45% for the thoroughbreds and 55% for the standardbreds. The split grew to 40%-60% in 2017 and finally, 35%-65% as it stands today. The commission reviewed the progress of the two industries in 2019 at its hearing last week to see if the split needed a revision. The result was a deeply polarizing discussion.

“It’s not the Standardbred Development Fund. It’s the Race Horse Development Fund,” said Joe Savage, the commission representative for thoroughbreds. “The fluctuation in the split adversely affects the development of racetracks because investors don’t find stability.”

Savage said that thoroughbred horsemen and breeders also depended upon funds from the RHDF for health and welfare assistance in the form of pensions. Any reduction, he cautioned, would drive horsemen and breeder communities against a wall.

Goldberg, however, said the standardbred community needed more purse money to continue investments.

“We (Plainridge) are below average compared to other competitive tracks in the Northeast,” he said.

The standardbred industry and Plainridge Park Casino, he said, had done a good job in keeping communities employed, but more was needed to be done to attract investment from outside Massachusetts.

The gaming commission is likely to give its answer on resource allocation at the end of March. But where does that leave horse breeders like Arlene Brown in the meantime?

Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, and Senate chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, knows that industry is in distress. Feeney was at the center of a bill passed last month that extended the dates of simulcasts in Raynham, Plainville and Suffolk Downs.

“It’s a new lease of life for the racetrack,” Brown said.

For Feeney, who represents Rehoboth and reached out to Brown while formulating the legislation, losing the thoroughbred industry comes at a personal cost. “We’re taking another look at classifications, doing a deep dive and trying to come up with legislation that modernizes the horse racing industry in Massachusetts,” he said.

Simulcasting, he said, was one of the steps in that direction.

“We need to make sure that we’re also offering lasting solutions and that can only be done if we incentivize business and farms by broadcasting it,” he said.

Feeney said that he’s close to a final draft on a legislation, which he hopes will come out by next month.

“It would be a shame if farms with great histories like Brown’s that do such great work, go out of business,” he said.

This article was originally published in The Sun Chronicle.

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