T.D. Thornton’s Not by a Longshot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track depicts Suffolk Downs as a gritty, marginal track struggling to survive, with a few moments of redemption and glory to keep people going; as I read the book, I nearly always pictured race days occurring under metal-grey, chilly skies, an empty grandstand overlooking tired, overworked horses and tired, underpaid jockeys.
What a contrast to the scene that greeted me when I pulled into the Suffolk lot on Saturday morning. The sky was a cloudless blue; the sun was warm; and the place was packed, full of enthusiastic, passionate fans who love their track.
There are few tracks I’ve visited that I don’t like; mostly, if a track seems to be trying, it succeeds, and that’s certainly the case with Suffolk Downs. It looks great: entrance, infield, paddock, and winner’s circle are all beautifully landscaped, and everywhere are touches redolent of Suffolk’s proud past, including Seabiscuit and Red Pollard mementos at the entrance; banners of past MassCap winners hanging from the ceiling; and, in the winner’s circle, the equivalent of the Travers statue in the paddock at Saratoga, honoring the previous year’s winner of the MassCap.
A crowd of 17,000 turned out to see Saturday’s renewal of the Massachusetts Handicap on a gorgeous fall day that turned chilly as soon as shade overtook the apron and the breeze picked up. Nick Zito shipped in four horses, winning with three and coming in second with the fourth, and he was definitely visiting royalty; he was observed on the apron, talking on his cell phone, when several fans approached him for a photo. Telling whoever was on the other end to hold on, he posed patiently, even graciously, for strangers to snap him, before continuing the conversation.
As I wandered the clubhouse and grandstand, I lost count of the number of places to sit and eat while watching the races, from a sports-bar themed buffet to the boxes in the clubhouse; though I didn’t sample much in the way of food, I was pleased by my $5 glass of decent wine, and who can complain about a $3 racetrack hot dog? I was also pleasantly surprised to see the whoopie pies in the press box…though I did, with no small effort, resist digging into one. That may be my only regret of the day.
Despite the crowd, I didn’t wait on line for anything: the bathroom, concessions, betting. Folks everywhere, both staff and patrons, were pleasant and friendly, even to those of who were clearly tourists on Suffolk’s Big Day.
Among the many pleasures of the day was perusing the Suffolk program, from which it was possible to glean much about racing at Suffolk Downs. Among the information contained therein:
- Suffolk Downs races are available on DVD. You can call and order yours, and most of the last decade’s races are available. How cool.
- A page is devoted to calculating the costs of exotics. You can find out how much it costs to box five horses in a $1 exacta, or four horse trifecta with one horse keyed on top. Not hard to do if you’re a regular bettor, but how helpful for those new to playing exotics!
- At Suffolk, if one part of an entry is scratched, the other remains a betting interest in the race.
- The minimum wager for a daily double is $2.
- And perhaps most interestingly, one of the associate commissioners of the Massachusetts State Racing Commission is Robert Furlong. I swear.
I don’t know what Suffolk Downs might be like on a chilly, grey fall day, or on a Wednesday, but the place sure knows how to throw a big party, and I defy anyone there on Saturday to resist a return trip. I’m already planning mine…until then, I’ll be content with recalling the sights and sounds of my first visit, an unqualified pleasure…
Brooklyn Backstretch reader Rich (he of Juliana Hatfield fandom), with
wife Kathy and friend Chuck:
Are jockeys Dyn Panell and Eibar Coa related? Watching Panell ride to the track from the paddock, I did a double-take…”Is Coa here?” Photos from lensjockey via flickr…
The break of the sixth race, in which 11 year old former New Yorker Cool N Collective finished sixth…
Cornelio Velasquez walking into the paddock before his first mount, crossing himself…
Holy Moseley! Chalk Real Estate set the pace and never looked back, in fractions of 21.9, 44.1, and 56.29, before hitting the wire in 1:08.82 in the James B. Moseley Sprint Handicap.
Before the eighth race, the first in which shippers Velasquez and John Velazquez both rode, a fan at the paddock yelled to local jockey Joe Hampshire, “Whose house is this? This is our house—go get ‘em!”
After the winner’s circle presentation for the MassCap, a very official looking photographer turned to someone, pointed at Nick Zito, and asked, “Is that the trainer?”
Following his account of the 2000 MassCap, won by Running Stag, T.D. Thornton wrote,
If the race itself was exciting and without injury, and the weather was decent,and a sizable crush of customers genuinely left the joint in high spirits, then track management is allowed to bask in the afterglow. The headlines in the papers will be jaunty, congratulations will abound from appreciative fans, and even hard-edged union tellers and exhausted food-service staffers will return to work smiling, flush with fat pockets thanks to an afternoon of robust tipping. Skeptical backstretch workers will adopt a jovial mood, fueled by the contagious buzz of a big day, and even though it sounds corny, a positive spirit of “Yes, we can do this!” will ripple through the racetrack.
Congratulations, Suffolk. Yes, you can do it. See you soon…