A Smashing Day at Suffolk

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…

14 thoughts on “A Smashing Day at Suffolk

  1. those folks are right on time & Bellwether Productions looks forward to working with them in the near future…step up to the plate like Suffolk & Nick…Long Live The King!!!

  2. Hi Teresa,Today’s blog entry captured the mood of MassCap day perfectly. When Jim Moseley was alive, and became involved in track management after the Buddy LeRoux era, he began the rejunvenation process of what you experienced on Saturday. I think Suffolk Downs and all local area racing fans owe him a debt of gratitude. Now we have Richard Fields at the helm, and from what I am witnessing, he shares the same Moseley vision. As you saw, local fans have reason for optimism.It was a great day, wasn’t it…Maybe you can let me know when you plan your return trip. How about making the Masscap an annual pilgrimage?Lastly, Kathy was surprised to read that we were married. Why would we want to do that?????

  3. BB—-Never been to Suffolk Downs, I have read from afar the resurgence under Richard Fields and your post now will make me book a day trip from Saratoga County onto 90 East to Mass for a day at Suffolk Downs

  4. I haven’t been to Suffolk since I moved from Massachusetts 100 years ago (Peabody H.S. ’83) and the pictures are beautiful! You made it sound like the Suffolk Downs that I always wanted it to be (but always knew T.D.’s version much better). Next time home, I’m going to visit! Thanks!

  5. BB. Great commentary & photos. Wanted to come that day but more pressing things came up. My racetrack "buddy" did go and brought my Sufferin Downs book and had it signed by TD which I will cherish as a nice memory. It was a nice surprise.Hope to get to Belmont this weekend.

  6. Thanks for the comments, folks, and I’m happy to hear that some of you are going to head out to East Boston; it’s not only at Del Mar that the turf meets the surf!Anon@8:58–I’ll keep my eye out for you at Belmont…can’t wait!

  7. BB…You’re right on..Second Year in a row I’ve ventured to Boston for the Mass’ Cap from Saratoga… Suffolk Downs puts on a great show and is extremely fan friendly…Breaks your heart to see a track, right next to Logan Airport, in a great sports city, that only does business one day a year…The roar of the crowd when Commentator made his move was awesome…especially for a small track….Hope to bring a horse there next year for the big day..

  8. I was also at Suffolk for the Masscap, in the press box and out taking photos. Wish I'd known you were there, I'd have introduced myself (with 4 cats, I'm a big fan of Madison & Floyd). I live in England now, but Suffolk is still my home track. I got married there 11 years ago tomorrow (9/27). I remember the pre-Jim Moseley days, so I know how much the place has improved. Anyone who hasn't seen it should check it out. By the way, you should have had the whoopie pies, they were excellent!

  9. Runningstag: sorry that we missed each other, and just as sorry that I missed the whoopie pie–damn!Madison and Floyd are in fact English themselves; I adopted them when I was living in London, and they decided to stick with me when I repatriated to New York. They are happy to hear that they’ve still got friends back home…

  10. I was there…in fact, in your picture from the winners’ circle at the end, if you look at the folks squished in the far right-hand corner, the girl in the red sweater with the brown ponytail crammed next to the gentleman with the adorable boy on the fence (he had his goggles; he figured that all he needed was a saddle and a hat and he’s be ready to ride the horses! Wish I’d gotten their names) is me. Those of us who’d staked out that spot didn’t do very well in the betting, but it was an AWESOME day!

  11. Suffolk was a great track in its heyday. I’m going back to the 60s and 70s as a reference point. Suffolk had a penchant for attracting many of the best sprinters of that time to East Boston. I know that many very good horses came to Suffolk over the years. They would have included Riva Ridge, Exterminator, Whirlaway, Seabiscuit, and Omaha. Suffolk Downs had some very large crowds in those days. It was not uncommon to be among 25 to 30,000 people on a Saturday afternoon. And in spite of the reference to the weather Suffolk had some great weather being so close to the ocean especially during the early summer and early fall seasons. Suffolk Downs was a good quality race track and headed up the New England racing circuit.

    Suffolk also had a very fine turf course and headlined some of the best grass horses of that era.

    It is too bad to see that Suffolk has fallen on some hard times of late but the horse racing scene in general is suffering from too much competition from too many other sources. I also believe that closed circuit viewing and simulcast wagering have taken a lot of the raw excitement away from horse racing. People who are being introduced to horse racing for the first time do not get the same flavor or sense of excitement that a good stretch duel used to give us back in the old days.

    • Thanks, Richard, for commenting and sharing your memories about Suffolk. I’ve only been once, but had a great experience, and loved researching Whirlaway’s win in the MassCap. Hope to get back there again.

  12. Speaking of Whirlaway who won the Triple Crown in 1941, he was ridden that year by Eddie Arcaro. Arcaro also rode another Calumet horse Citation in the 1948 Triple Crown events. They one time asked Arcaro who was the best horse he ever rode Citation or Whirlaway. Arcaro said that Whirlaway was a great horse but that when he touched the whip to Citation it was like down-shifting in a souped up Cadillac.
    Many people, myself included, believe that Citation was the best horse who ever ran. Certainly a good case for that can be made especially when he ran as a 3 year old. He established a record that year of 16 wins in a row. Citation was running against some very good horses that year too. I think that his one defeat that year was a second place finish to his stablemate. Arcaro made the admitted mistake of believing that Ben Jones the trainer didn’t want him to extend Citation in order to catch another Calumet horse so he just easily rode him to the wire for a place finish.

    I did see Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes in 1973. It was certainly a momentous occasion and I am looking forward to the Secretariat movie that is soon to be released. We were way up in the grandstand toward the top of the stretch that day and I remember seeing Ron Turcotte all alone on Secretariat as they came down the stretch together in front by 30 or so lengths. I remember watching Turcotte as he kept looking toward the infield board to watch the teletimer as they were setting a new world record for the 1 1/2 mile distance. Quite a day not ever forgotten.

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