Still Making History
For over 75 years, Suffolk Downs has been a place where people from all walks of life are welcome. Millions of fans have walked through the turnstiles and thousands of hard-working men and women have earned their living at the track as employees. In a city steeped in history, Suffolk Downs maintains a significant spot in Boston’s rich heritage.
When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created the State Racing Commission in 1934 and legalized pari-mutuel wagering, the Eastern Racing Association wasted no time in constructing the state’s first Thoroughbred racetrack, which it named Suffolk Downs. Among the directors of the Eastern Racing Association was Charles F. Adams, founder and president of the Boston Bruins.
The group secured roughly 200 acres of mud flats in East Boston and Revere and contracted A.G. Tomasello & Son to transform the property into one of the finest racing facilities in the country. Leading the project was Joseph A. Tomasello, who employed over 3,000 laborers, including 900 carpenters, 200 electricians and plumbers and 100 plasterers. They were assisted by 638 trucks, 36 bulldozers and 24 power shovels.
The project was completed in an amazing 62 days, at the cost of approximately $2 million. The nation’s first concrete grandstand seated 16,000, making it the biggest grandstand in the country as well. The clubhouse accommodated 5,000, reported to be the largest in the world. The grandstand and clubhouse were separated by an area that included a path from the paddock to the track.
Out of the Gate
On July 10, 1935, the track opened its doors and over 35,000 people walked through them to watch and wager on the eight-race program. Thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts had arrived.
Later in its inaugural year, the track began its greatest tradition, the Massachusetts Handicap. Boasting substantial purse money, the MassCap immediately attracted some of racing’s biggest names. Hall of Fame jockey George Woolf rode Top Row to victory in the first MassCap. In 1937, the track welcomed the legendary Seabiscuit for the third running of the MassCap. Seabiscuit and jockey Johnny “Red” Pollard did not disappoint the throng of over 40,000 that was present to see them, winning the race in record time. Over the years, the MassCap has continued to be a stage for Thoroughbred racing’s top performers as the track has played host to Hall of Famers both equine and human.
Immediately the track became entrenched into the city’s sporting and social fabric, attracting an average daily attendance of nearly 15,000 in its first year, a figure that peaked at 18,388 in 1945. Interest in racing was so high that the daily double payoff was frequently posted in large print across the very top of the front page of the Boston Globe. Average attendance remained five figures until the early 1970s, when the racing schedule was drastically expanded to as many as 200 days a year.
Changing with the Times
After roughly a quarter-century, the track underwent its first significant renovation in the early 1960s when the open-air grandstand was enclosed and the appearance of the clubhouse entrance was drastically changed. The grandstand and clubhouse were joined together and a new paddock and walking ring was constructed between the track and the grandstand.
On August 18, 1966, the Beatles took the stage for an historic performance, one of their last official concerts as a group. Over 25,000 fans packed the track to witness what would prove to be the Beatles’ final Boston appearance.
Further changes, both cosmetic and philosophical, were realized from 1969-70 when the innovative Bill Veeck served as track president. In addition to making physical improvements in the box seating area, Veeck, who is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a pioneering baseball owner, brought his promotional genius to the racetrack, where he gained publicity with chariot races and livestock giveaways, among other things.
The track enjoyed one of its finest moments in 1987, when hometown heroes Waquoit and jockey Chris McCarron prevailed in one of the most thrilling finishes in MassCap history, defeating Broad Brush and Angel Cordero. Unfortunately, just two years later, the track suffered one of its darkest days when it closed for two years at the conclusion of the 1989 racing season.
The track was soon brought back to life, reopening in 1992 under the direction of Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, led by chairman James B. Moseley and president John Hall II. Prior to reopening, a new round of improvements was made, including the restoration of the clubhouse façade to its original form. Just three years later, the track continued its revival, renewing the MassCap, which hadn’t been held since 1989. The MassCap returned in grand style, as Champion Cigar and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey graced the track for consecutive victories in the signature race in 1995 and ‘96, on the way to Cigar’s record-tying 16-race win streak.
Beyond the Track
The track expanded its community reach in 1998, becoming the home of the Hot Dog Safari, a benefit for the Joey Fund and Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The end of the 20th century also saw the reintroduction of concerts to the track, a tradition that includes appearances by Aerosmith and Elvis Costello in addition to the historic Beatles show. The 21st century welcomed another cultural attraction to the track, the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil, and an additional charitable event, the Greater Boston Walk Now for Autism.
The publication of “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand in 2001 and the subsequent release of the movie “Seabiscuit” in 2003 renewed interest in the track’s rich history. In 2004, the horse that many labeled a modern-day Seabiscuit for his improbable success story, Funny Cide, thrilled an appreciative crowd with his appearance in the 64th MassCap.
Taking the Lead
In the spring of 2007, developer Richard T. Fields joined local entrepreneur Joe O’Donnell in a partnership committed to Thoroughbred racing and the long-term future of Suffolk Downs. In September of 2007, a crowd of 19,191 – the largest at the track since 1996 – gathered to celebrate the return of the MassCap after a two-year absence.
A trusted community partner since first opening its doors, the track has celebrated individuals and organizations that make a positive difference in its surrounding communities through its “Commitment to Community” program.
Suffolk Downs has demonstrated a commitment to the lifetime care of Thoroughbreds once their racing careers are over, becoming the first racetrack in the country to implement a strict anti-slaughter policy for owners and trainers with horses stabled on its grounds. Virtually every major racetrack in America has since adopted a similar stance. In November of 2009, Suffolk Downs, the Fields Family Foundation and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation established a home or retired racehorses at the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Farm in Plymouth, MA, where inmates from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility will care for the horses as part of the facility’s extensive vocational program.
Suffolk Downs has undergone many changes over the years, but just as it was in 1935, it remains a vision of hope for a brighter future infused with the pilgrim spirit of hope, pride, and determination that it was built upon.