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Great Barrington Historical Society
A photograph from the 1960s shows the horse racing meet at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds.

Back to the future: Fairgrounds, Suffolk Downs reach agreement to return horse racing to Great Barrington

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By Wednesday, May 23, 2018 News 28

Great Barrington —After years of searching for a suitable revenue-producing use, the owners of the Great Barrington Fairgrounds have finally hit the jackpot — or so it would seem.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, the company that operates thoroughbred racing, betting and simulcasting at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, has reached an agreement with the fairgrounds owners for a long-term lease of the historic race track property on South Main Street.  

Under the agreement, SSD says it would refurbish the Fairgrounds property and operate a commercial race meeting at Great Barrington while continuing to operate simulcast wagering at its current location in East Boston.  

Suffolk Downs, the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (NEHBPA) and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders (MTBA) are seeking modifications in state racing and simulcasting laws, which are set to expire at the end of July, to accommodate the new arrangement, SSD says.

 Racing could begin as soon as 2019, SSD said in a news release today. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed. 

Competition appeared fierce as thoroughbreds round the first turn during a race at the fairgrounds in the 1930s. Courtesy BerkshireArchive.com

“This is a very exciting opportunity for us to help preserve and refurbish an iconic property in the heart of the Berkshires, to boost economic development in Great Barrington, continue live racing and preserve the hundreds of jobs, associated agribusinesses and working open spaces associated with the Massachusetts racing industry,” said Chip Tuttle, SSD’s chief operating officer.

Sheffield resident Bart Elsbach, who chairs the nonprofit that owns the property, could not be reached for comment. But he did issue a statement to SSD.

“We are excited to enter into this partnership which offers potential benefits to so many people and organizations in our community, western Massachusetts and the surrounding area,” said Elsbach.  

Bart and Janet Elsbach in 2012, shortly after they acquired the Fairgrounds. Photo: David Scribner

The property is operated by a nonprofit Elsbach and his wife Janet formed, the Great Barrington Fairgrounds Community Redevelopment Project, whose mission is “to lead the redevelopment of the historic fairgrounds site into a community resource promoting sustainability, education, recreation and conservation,” according to its website. The Elsbachs bought the fairgrounds site in December 2012 from a Connecticut-based hedge fund for $800,000.

Since acquiring the property, the Elsbachs went through a regulatory battle with the town as they sought and ultimately received special permits for the site to be designated a community center and to begin repairs and upgrades to the former fairgrounds. The permit process was complicated by the fact that the 57-acre, then-derelict property was located in a floodplain. 

Since receiving the approvals, the fairgrounds has hosted a variety of modest events, including an annual animal-free circus and a community garden program. There is also a solar-power array on the property, but a larger more lucrative long-term tenant had eluded the Elsbachs. 

For the 2014 season, the fairgrounds hosted the Saturday morning Great Barrington Farmers Market, but the market moved back downtown the following year after a dispute over a parking fee the Elsbachs started charging market-goers.

Until purchased by the Elsbach’s in 2012, the Fairgrounds had become an utterly derelict property. Photo: David Scribner

“Finding a group to partner with us in a meaningful way to continue use of our site in keeping with its history while continuing to offer the area valuable recreational and economic benefits without aggressive commercial development is consistent with our ongoing vision for the fairgrounds,” Elsbach said of the new agreement with SSD. 

“We are confident that we can do this consistent with Fairgrounds Community Redevelopment’s vision for sustainable preservation of the fairground property as a space devoted to community recreation and with a strong connection to its agricultural heritage,” added SSD’s Tuttle.

According to SSD, the fairgrounds were the host of the longest continually operating agricultural fair in New England. Horse racing started on the property in 1859 and it was regarded as the centerpiece of the Massachusetts fair circuit. And click here for a nifty history of the fair in the 1910s by the Berkshire County Historical Society. 

Pari-mutuel wagering began at Great Barrington in September of 1940 and continued through 1983. The track last offered thoroughbred racing 20 years ago in 1998. The grandstand, barns and track facilities still stand, though SSD says they will require restoration and repair. 

After a tornado ripped through the area on Memorial Day in 1995, many of the structures sustained heavy damage. Since then, proposals to redevelop the property, including a proposal for a hotel and convention center more than 10 years ago, had been unsuccessful before the Elsbachs acquired it.

In 2014 volunteers worked to clean up the grandstand and track. Photo: David Scribner

In addition to improvements to the track surface, grandstand and other facilities, SSD officials said they’re considering expanding the racing surface.

Local historian Gary Leveille, who is the archivist for the Great Barrington Historical Society, told the Edge the track is an important part of the town’s history. It’s located only a few hundred feet from the historical society’s headquarters at the Wheeler House. Leveille also shared a personal anecdote about sneaking into a race almost 45 years ago: 

“During Fair Week in September of 1973, I was in college and didn’t have much money. My buddy Rich Fitzgerald and I wanted to go to the Barrington Fair, but didn’t want to spend our limited funds on tickets to get in. They weren’t cheap.  

“So, we borrowed cowboy hats from someone, walked toward the back of the fair where the horses were stabled. We starting talking about Secretariat, the thoroughbred racehorse that won the triple crown that year, and just pretended that we were part of the racing crowd. It worked. Nobody questioned us, and we got in for free.”

The view from the grandstand during a fairgrounds race in the 1960s. Courtesy BerkshireArchive.com

Reaction from the town has been positive, though it’s not clear what kind of regulatory hurdles SSD will have to clear to get the project green-lighted. In a statement, Selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon would only say that, “It is too early in the process to know what permits may be necessary.”  

But he quickly added that, “While the Town of Great Barrington has not been briefed on the proposal, we look forward to the development team attending a future Selectboard meeting to present their plan, share details about the proposed project and hear from our community.” 

“The Fairgrounds is an important part of Great Barrington’s history, as it is the site of one of the original agricultural fairs in New England in 1848,” Bannon continued.  “It has past history of use as a vibrant site for agriculture fairs, concerts, racing and other community events.”

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28 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Shawn says:

    I see pros and cons here.
    Is it ethical to make horses race? I say no.

    1. Hinda Bodinger says:

      That was my first reaction as well. Much as I support the development and revitalization of the property.

    2. Frankie Morgan says:

      A race horse loves to run racetrack

      1. Terry says:

        If you knew about the cruelty of horse racing, you’d also know these horses are drugged, whipped and bleed from their lungs because they are run so hard. Read here: https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/the-hidden-cruelty-behind-the-glamour-of-the-horse-racing-industry/

  2. Sam says:

    https://vimeo.com/735704 I made a video here years ago… Glad I got some screen time in with the old paint before the facelift.

  3. Kayemtee says:

    This is great news if it comes to pass. I do fear the nay-sayers will get their way over the neigh-sayers, if Shawn’s comment is any reflection of current attitudes. It’s a long shot, but I hope the Fairgrounds owners can parlay this proposal into a win.

    1. Shawn says:

      “The progress of a nation can be judged by how it treats its animals.” – Mahatma Gandhi

  4. James says:

    If comments like the first ones above “is it ethical for horses to race” is the general sentiment of this town / area then it appears that the plan to do something productive with the race track is doomed. I’m shocked that people actually take a position like that. Humans compete athletically and push themselves to the limit. Horses in the wild compete with each other and male horses fight – sometimes to death. They can starve to death. Die due to the lack of water or from diseases, a broken leg. Horses don’t live some sort of blissful life style in the wild versus in the company of humans. Ethical – BS.

    Is it ethical for people not to have jobs and for economies to languish because of over regulation?

    1. DB says:

      Humans make choices to compete or not and when they can’t keep up they stop. Humans are not cropped and spurred to run faster. Ive never seen a human athlete “put down” after a race, but i have seen it it horse racing. More than once. Yet you think those horses want to run themselves…to death? How about cockfighting too? Hey, roosters have been known to peck and we kill em and eat em all the time! Sure way to create more jobs?
      Besides, good luck working with the Elsbach ‘s -the worst landlords ever! And, millions of dollars will be needed in repairs before any horse can race there or people could safely attend.

  5. Judy says:

    Horse racing is barbaric. It’s no better than greyhound racing. Using animals for fun and profit? Wrong! I can’t believe this is the solution they’ve come up with. Very disappointed.

  6. Jimmie says:

    Hey isnt this the same Bart Elsbach that was arrested for vandalizing Wilkinson excavation construction equipment in 2014? I think it is just google his name. http://wamc.org/post/great-barrington-fairgrounds-owner-charged-vandalism. Is he a convicted felon can he even be involved in a gambling operation?

    1. dennis irvine says:

      Jimmie; That was an unnecessary, unkind and low blow. The legal process has been served, completed and it is only fair to allow a person to move on from their mistakes. You seem quite skilled at using Google so I am sure you could have answered your own question instead of your disingenuous public comment.

    2. DB says:

      Yes it is
      But he got a fine, copped a plea, was ordered to stay away from the victims neighboring property and got 6 months probation.
      Ordinarily I don’t bother with past mistakes made of youthfulness but Elsbach is a growm man with children of his own. This was not a youthful thoughtless mistake, but an act of vandalism that was thought out and executed away from his neighbors and his homes. He got caught. This is Bart. Not a felony, but still important.
      To go from animal-free circus to horse racing is quite a turnabout.

  7. Ted B. says:

    Just how are they going to fit the kiddie rides amongst those horrid solar panels ?

    1. Shawn G says:

      Solar panels are horrid? How so?

  8. Rebecca says:

    Using and abusing animals for human entertainment is history that should be left in the past. Are the Elsbachs really this desperate? Surely they’re intelligent enough to realize that they’re embarking on a very unethical path. Prepare for massive resistance.

  9. Lola says:

    Oh my god, I can’t believe this is even being considered! It’s like Animal Cruelty on Parade and Great Barrington will be its sponsor? PLEASE there has to be much better, sustainable, and compassionate community uses for the space. What are we teaching our children if we bring back this senseless and inhumane ‘sport’ to our community? PLEASE, money and profit are not everything – rethink, research, and commit to only bringing something (back) to the fairgrounds that is truly for the benefit of all, not just for economic benefit at the expense of non-human but very much sentient beings.

  10. Collin says:

    There is no question that horse racing is cruel. The primary objective of horse racing is to gain profit and fame for the owners, despite the hardship it brings to their captive victims. Horses are loyal and sensitive creatures who have shared our history in good times and bad times. Let’s not bring this cruel practice to Great Barrington. Here’s what typically happens to horses condemned to the horse racing industry.


    In closing, here’s a poignant music video from Maria Daines (her music reminds me of Jefferson Airplane). Enjoy!


  11. Vicky says:

    The abuse of horses is more than enough reason to abandon this project. In addition, does horse racing really fit the Elsbachs’ mission to turn the “…fairgrounds site into a community resource promoting sustainability, education, recreation and conservation”?
    Sustainability: Interest in horse racing has been declining for years. Education: Learn another way to lose money quickly? Recreation: Do we really want to promote a form of “recreation” that uses and abuses animals and provides another opportunity for gambling? Conservation: What will be conserved?
    If the Elsbachs are truly committed to creating a community resource perhaps they should consider creating something that would actually benefit the whole community.

  12. L says:

    This in not the direction we need to go in, we need to treat all living beings with love and respect, not use them for our entertainment while they’re bodies are being put under incredible stress and pain. I’m so saddened that this is what they have come up with. It’s 2018!! It’s time to move forward from the past of abusing and enslaving beings. Bringing horse racing back is not bringing history back, it’s bringing cruelty back. It’s time to spread love and positivity for every being around us.

  13. John says:

    My how Great Barrington has changed over the years. One of the great days of the year used to be when the schools let out for the day and everyone went to the fair. Amusement rides, horse racing, trophy vegetables and all.
    Maybe, now in 2018 it can be liberal racing. Line up all the crazy liberal transplants and let them run. No, they wouldn’t compete, but they would all demand participation trophies….
    Hats off to the GB fair owners. I hope the anti business environment now of Great Barrington does not stop you.

  14. Dan says:

    Good thing PETA doctrine isn’t codified and Town Leaders aren’t swayed by some of these posts. The proposal is good for commerce, jobs, tax base and restores the blighted structures and once beautiful landmark on a tract that is otherwise not viable for other uses that add true benefit to the Town. Work conditions for man or beast are not always as pretty as some like to envision they should be; spend some time in low wage labor or on a working farm to gain perspective. For Great Barrington to make a stand on supposed animal cruelty concerns to submarine this proposal, it would be cutting its nose off…

    1. Jan says:

      No one loves animals more than I but these horses are bred to run. That is what they do. I don’t agree with drugging them but we have laws in place for that now. Horses are tested. And it is not like dog racing, those dogs are not bred to race. They are trained to.

  15. Sandra Veillette says:

    I am disappointed to learn of this horse racing endeavor. The horses are not well treated, are run too young, are money making machines and treated as such. There is drugging and cruelty and utter horrible mismanagement of precious beings in horse racing. Thoroughbreds
    are all run too young with the public being told that they mature early. Not so.

  16. Rebecca says:

    The fact that they are bred to run is not the point. Animals are bred for all kinds of uses and abuses — that is not an argument in favor of use & abuse. If you truly love animals as much as you proclaim, do some serious research into the horse racing industry and learn about what goes on, not in egregious cases but as common practice. And if you seriously think laws in this country actually do much to protect animal wellbeing when pitted against human financial interest, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

  17. Jim says:

    Just because something has been done for extended periods of time or have become “time-honored traditions” (i.e. horse racing and circuses) doesn’t mean they were ever the right thing to do. Human amusement at the expense of animals is a sad and inhumane vestige of the old school way of thinking. We need to evolve civically and mindfully as human beings and think beyond our archaic entertainment habits for the betterment of ourselves and other species that share our planet. Use your cognitive dissonance as a vehicle of awareness to move forward, rather than accept the same closed mindsets from yesteryear. Anyone who would attend and/or accept these barbaric spectator sports should check their moral compasses, rather than blissfully join the obliviously blithe capitalists who lack empathy for other “moving creatures that hath life.”  

    I LOVE the idea of revitalizing the fairgrounds, but NOT the inclusion of animal cruelty as entertainment – see links:



  18. Alex Glover says:

    There is probably nothing intrinsically wrong with horse racing, specifically, or working horses, in general. But in actual practice, the horse racing industry is abusive. It is about money, not horses. We should ask, again and again, exactly what happens to a majority of the horses at the end of the season, or what actual, responsible, regular monitoring would there be of drug use. Google: Santa Anita, Preakness, Saratoga, or “Life after Racing: From stud to slaughter”. I love the fairgrounds and want it to succeed, but this isn’t the way.

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