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

Concerns aired about Suffolk Downs’ plans for horse racing at fairgrounds

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By Tuesday, Jul 23, 2019 News 39

Great Barrington — A controversial horse-racing bill pending in the state Legislature has aroused concerns among town officials about a proposal from Suffolk Downs to bring racing back to the Great Barrington Fairgrounds.

Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle, right, with Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo at the track in 2014. Photo courtesy Margo Palmer/Flickr

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the company that operated the now-closed track at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, has reached an agreement with the fairgrounds owners to bring thoroughbred racing back to Great Barrington for up to 30 days of racing in the months of September and October starting in 2020. The company expects to spend between $15 million and $20 million, according to town manager Mark Pruhenski, who recently spoke with Chip Tuttle, Suffolk’s chief operating officer.

But in order to accomplish that feat, Suffolk needs a change in state law to permit it to hold races in Great Barrington while at the same time allowing it to maintain its simulcasting and betting operations back in East Boston. Racing at the fairgrounds would also require permits from the town.

Two bills that would accomplish that feat are pending in the state legislature: Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 13. The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who represents Great Barrington. The sponsor is Sen. Joseph A. Boncore, D-Winthrop, whose district includes Suffolk Downs. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is sponsoring the House bill.

Selectboard member Leigh Davis asked that the subject be put on the agenda for Monday’s meeting. She read a lengthy statement on the process and presented it as a motion. Click here to read it. She later issued a revised statement.

See video below of the discussion at the selectboard meeting of Suffolk Downs’ plans for Great Barrington and the pending legislation on Beacon Hill:

Davis questioned why more town officials weren’t made aware of the legislation and why the town of Great Barrington was not represented at a public hearing on the bills on July 1 before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. She pointed to recent article on the hearing in the State House News Service.

“This investment would turn a mostly dormant property into a three-season entertainment and recreation venue that, in addition to racing, could host concerts, agricultural events and other equine activities,” Tuttle said at the hearing.

Davis also said the bill would eliminate the requirement for a public forum and referendum on the Suffolk proposal and instead “a simple majority vote by the selectboard would enable the commercial race track to move forward.”

At a July 22 meeting, Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis, right, read a statement and motion asking to hit the pause button on the proposed legislation. At left are fellow board members Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

She later clarified to The Edge that the legislation would allow for a referendum if 12 percent of registered voters in Great Barrington petitioned for it. The Edge did the math. As of the annual town election in May, Great Barrington had 4,746 registered voters. Therefore, approximately 570 voters would have to sign a petition for public referendum on racing.

“What’s important to note is that we’re not talking about the revival of an agricultural fair that includes horse racing for 10 days a year,” Davis said. “We’re talking about a commercial horse racing operation moving into town with the legal right to run races up to 40 days a year. Then, with their foot in the door, potentially petition the state to later add sports betting and other forms of gambling.”

Davis proposed that the town send an email and a letter to both chairs of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure by July 24 requesting that “Bill S.101 be held in committee and not move forward until the Town has conducted an open forum inviting all interested parties.”

Time is of the essence, she suggested, because the current legislative session is about to end. After extensive debate, Davis’ motion failed for lack of a second.

Some members of the selectboard insisted the town would still have ample ability to weigh in on the matter. Town planner Chris Rembold has said the project would need at least two special permits: One for commercial amusement, another for flood plain protection and possibly a third for work in the town’s water quality protection overlay district.

All would require public hearings in which residents could air their concerns or express support for the project. Most of the fairgrounds property lies in a floodplain next to the Housatonic River. The requirement of a special permit is widely viewed in the planning and zoning community as putting a municipality in the driver’s seat in confronting a potentially unpopular project.

“Section 12 of this bill maintains our right to weigh in on this, so it can’t happen unless we say it can happen,” Selectman Ed Abrahams said.

“Let’s pause this and hold it in committee until we have more information,” said Davis, who was elected to the board this spring.

On July 22, in what will surely be the first of many sessions, the Great Barrington Selectboard and audience members discussed Suffolk Downs’ plans to bring horse racing back to the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. From left, town manager Mark Pruhenski, selectboard Chair Steve Bannon, and board Vice-Chair Ed Abrahams. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Abrahams said he simply did not know enough to vote for Davis’ motion and asked her: “What are the consequences of pausing it? No one knows. We don’t shoot from the hip here.”

Board chairman Steve Bannon said Tuttle has “been to town three or four times. He’s talked to the previous town manager several times. [State Rep.] Smitty Pignatelli has talked to us about it. We knew this was coming. It was in the papers. It was in the Boston Globe.”

Board member Kate Burke said she has contacted Hinds’ chief of staff, Bethann Steiner, who told her it usually takes a year. “We don’t need to drop everything to make this a priority,” Burke insisted.

Indeed, in an Edge interview, Hinds said the legislative session does not end until July 31, 2020, and that he does not expect a full vote much before that. Meanwhile, the bills have been referred to the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, where they will remain for the time being. August, he said, tends to be “a very slow month” for the legislature. The bills were filed after the holidays and were referred to the committee on January 22.

“This really is the beginning of process,” Hinds explained. “The bill still is before the Consumer Protection Committee, so testimony can be filed at any time, and it is definitely still welcome.”

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

Hinds added that, “If there are concerns, I’m certainly willing to work with the committee or amend on the floor to protect local input. That is crucial.”

Asked why he decided to co-sponsor the legislation, Hinds said his interest was twofold: First, the Suffolk Downs project could provide “an economic shot in the arm during the fall season.”

Secondly, Suffolk Downs is in Boncore’s district and Great Barrington is in Hinds’ district, so Hinds said it made sense for him to co-sponsor the bill so that he could have significant influence on both the process and content of the legislation.

Hinds quickly added that Section 12 does preserve local input and he looks forward to working with town officials on issues of concern such as animal safety and traffic.

Asked if he had communicated with town officials on the matter, Hinds said he had been in touch with Great Barrington officials in person and by telephone, “but not in the last few months.” His staff has checked records and can find no evidence that anyone in town has reached out to him on the racing proposal.

Housatonic resident and architect Diego Gutierrez had strong words about the project and the company at a July 22 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Several people remained in the audience and asked to speak about the proposal. After Pruhenski suggested inviting Tuttle to come to town and conduct an information session, one of the audience members, architect and Housatonic resident Diego Gutierrez, said it would be like “inviting the wolf into the chicken house.”

Gutierrez also pointed to a 2012 settlement Suffolk Downs agreed to with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in which the company was fined $1.25 million and ordered to spend almost $4 million to prevent waste, including horse manure, urine and bedding material, from flowing into a nearby creek and eventually into Boston Harbor. An EPA spokesperson called the several-years flow “a major source of pollution into Boston Harbor.”

In another development, Great Barrington planning board Chair Brandee Nelson, a civil and environmental engineer, disclosed that her employer, Tighe & Bond, is representing Sterling Suffolk Racecourse in the Great Barrington proposal.

At a July 22 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting, planning board Chair Brandee Nelson disclosed that her engineering firm is representing Suffolk. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Nelson said, for obvious reasons, if the Suffolk project came before the planning board, then she would recuse herself from participating in any phase of process. But at Monday’s selectboard meeting, Nelson acknowledged she was representing Suffolk.

“What we’re doing is due diligence. Our client understands that they need to engage with the town and they’ve had several meetings … We’ve been hired because they’re anticipating three special permits, as well as infrastructure improvements. They want to work cooperatively with the town.”

Eventually Bannon’s motion to authorize Pruhenski to do some research and write a letter to Hinds and Pignatelli passed narrowly. Bannon added that, “If in fact we lose the local referendum, then we ask them to halt this and put [the language] back in.” Both Abrahams and Davis voted against it, so it passed 3-2.


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39 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Joan Embree says:

    Great Barrington, in addition to being the best small town in America, wouldn’t it be grand if you were also the bravest and most compassionate as to dare to say No to the heartless, sleazy and corrupt racing industry plagued by doping, misconduct, cheating. Dare to say No to young horses pounded into the ground, confined and isolated for 23 hrs. each day. Dare to say No to innocent creatures forced to sprint under the threat of whips and electric shocking devices at speeds so fast they break legs and hemorrhage from their lungs. Dare to say No to this horrifying animal abuse sanctioned by society out of greed and the the human need for sadistic entertainment, and don’t turn a blind eye to the fact most retired horses, if they don’t die while racing, are brutally slaughtered for their meat. And, as an aside, G.B. , are you looking to have more more traffic chaos and pollution?

    1. Lawrence Davis-Hollander says:

      Agreed. Mistreatment of animals. No place for traffic. Terrible location. Would the town allow even a rock concert venue there with 40 concerts? If they can spend that kind of money build a track somewhere intelligent if you call horse racing intelligent.

    2. Bonnie Silvers says:

      Yes!!! Joan, thank you for your words.

    3. Duke says:

      Your comments can not be more wrong and misguided.

  2. Helen says:

    Oops. Sounds like Ms. Davis didn’t do her homework and is trying to create a panic (or a headline for herself) for nothing. If the bill does include local control, as Senator Hinds says, why the alarm? If there is at least another year until a vote, why the panic? Why accuse the statehouse of “secrecy,” especially when you read about it in the Boston Globe.

    We have enough name calling, division and alarm at the federal level. Please keep it out of local politics. If you don’t like horse racing, Ms. Davis, say so. But please don’t accuse Senator Hinds and Representative Pignatelli of trying to pull a fast one. That is uncalled for. I voted for you, this is not what I expected.

    Fortunately Mr. Bannon and the rest of the board are a little calmer.

    1. Kristin Piasecki says:

      Hi Helen, Could you please include your last name so that we can be sure you are actually a member of the community and not a troll? Leigh Davis is doing her duty as a selectboard member to let people know that there was a crucial meeting on the Fairground that no one in the town was aware of. I’d call that secrecy. The law as it stands now says it has to pass on a countywide ballot- but the bill is trying to repeal a referendum and have only the GB Selectboard make the decision. That’s a big deal. Thanks, Leigh, for bringing it to everyone’s attention.

      1. Nan Wile says:

        Well, Kristin. You said it much better than I – and with fewer words. Thanks for your clarity – and your brevity.

      2. Helen Silver says:

        Silver. I live in GB.
        If you haven’t moved since serving on the School Committee, you do not.

      3. Kristin Piasecki says:

        Helen,

        Since the law states it has to pass on a county-wide ballot, it doesn’t matter what town I’m from. It’s everyone’s business.

    2. Nan Wile says:

      I completely agree: there’s no place for name-calling in public discourse. However, I’m not on the same page with you on your assessment. I was there – and the issue being discussed was not at all about the pros and cons of horse racing. It was about “process”.

      There is a bill being reviewed in Boston concerning the location of a racetrack. It’s well known the developers are in serious deliberation, considering GB to be a home for that project. That no one from Great Barrington was present at the State House, though Suffolk Downs was represented, seems odd.

      And, not one neighbor I’ve spoken to knew about it. That, as I saw it, that was the point of the discussion. And I agreed- if a state law is being presented that directly affects our town – I’d like to know about it. I’d like our local representatives to give us a heads up. So, I’m glad Leigh spoke out. She’s doing her job. As a witness, I can say for certain it had nothing to do with the merits of the project. It was about including the residents and keeping us informed. That was the point of the discussion. I say, “Bravo, Leigh”

  3. Wendy T. Linscott says:

    Thank you, Leigh, for urging your Board to request a pause in the process. This proposal would have a HUGE impact on Great Barrington, the surrounding towns, the Housatonic River, etc. etc. Horse racing is beginning to meet with wide-spread condemnation for many reasons, including cruelty to magnificent animals, and Suffolk Downs has a pretty sullied reputation. This proposal needs thorough and careful evaluation – AND community input. A year is no time at all for something with this huge an impact. Buyer, beware!!!

  4. John says:

    And ladies and gentlemen, their off!!!

    1. Shawn says:

      Learn how to spell dude.

  5. Art Ames says:

    Thank you Leigh Davis for doing your best to keep it in committee in Boston, while local residents would have had time to catch
    up and comment.

    It’s unfortunate that the majority of the select board could not see this as an opportunity to send a message to Boston that any proposal of this magnitude should start with reasoned input from a community’s local residents first. The argument that citizens will have opportunity further down in the process is a self defeating one at best as major money positions itself to influence the results.

    Sadly, as much as things appear to change, they often don’t. Let’s be honest. Introducing horse racing and eventual gambling does not better a community, but it does line the pockets of investors. There are solid reasons why other communities want no part of this and why Suffolk Downs eventually shut down.

  6. Carol J McGlinchey says:

    Please, someone, start a referendum when the time is right so that we can have a voice in this. We voted horse racing down many years ago at the Fairgrounds much to the surprise of the vested interests who thought they could force it on us. Do we have a say in this? If so, NO, NO, NO for the good of Great Barrington.

  7. Gene says:

    Back in the 1960s, some of the horses at the Barrington Fair were kind of slow. I bet on a horse that was ten-to-one; it didn’t come in until half-past-five.

  8. John says:

    The Great Barrington Fair, that included horse racing, used to be such a wonderful event for so many years! The exhibits for the biggest pumpkins, the vendors, the rides , the horse racing was such a big ordeal for so many. People would come from near and far for great fun. In fact, there would be no school on Friday for the fair, so families could all enjoy. So many locals opened up their lawns for parking, and that is exactly how they paid their property taxes for the year. My grandmother would open up her house to the same couple to stay year after year. It was such a big and positive event for all!
    Now, the current proposal seems to be for racing. How about the rest of it? If the fair as it used to be is part of it, bring it on! Don’t like it, then leave!

  9. Steve Farina says:

    As Nan states above, this was about process. I believe Leigh had state the Legislate session ended July 31st of this year, which brought an urgency to the issue. Nevertheless, the rest of the selectboard seemed to be fighting against the very idea of merely writing a letter to the head of the committee that we are concerned about the loss of citizen involvement, specifically a public referendum.
    There were few people at the meeting, but overall the majority of those present at the time were encouraging the SB to write a letter stating so.
    The SB seemed to be fighting back against the will of their constituency, until Steve Bannon offered a very thoughtful compromise which asked for a 2 day investigation to ensure the issue was correctly understood before sending a letter, or calling for a SB meeting to authorize it.
    The selectboard’s willingness to listen and respond affirmatively to its constituents concerns was, imo, a big part of the problem.

  10. Maria Nation says:

    Good for you, Leigh! This whole enterprise, from the questionable Suffolk Downs folk down to the poor horses who suffer from this so-called “sport” (and especially at the smaller tracks like this one) is dirty business. Keep on keeping them honest! Your questions and objections were right on.

  11. Carl Stewart says:

    With due respect to the clearly well-meaning expressions of horror about horse racing, there are people who seem eager to foster a world where no one eats animal protein, where having fun means spending 1/2 the day in a yoga pose, and where no differences between men and women are recognized. When it comes to horse racing, there is always the story that is ignored. Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time around race tracks knows that, in general, horses are treated extremely well. Better in fact that many asylum-seekers are at our southern border. They will also know that a significant majority of the people employed at Saratoga, Santa Anita, Hialeah, etc., are Hispanic. They, whether jockeys, grooms, trainers, or others, are respected and admired by horse people.

    Now, excuse me, I’m off to get me a tempeh and kale salad

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      And, I am fully prepared to accept the forthcoming verbal attacks by that 50% of the population of southern Berkshire County that suffers from celiac disease. And that purchases organic dog food for their designer dogs at triple the supermarket price while children in Pittsfield and North Adams are going to sleep at night with growling, malnourished stomachs

      1. Shawn says:

        speciesist

    2. Art A says:

      Carl, you truly do wear the title of “curmudgeon” quite comfortably. The issue hear seems to be as much about process and let’s just call it “odd money” from Revere, and legislation that seems to attempt to cut out public inout in favor of government input. Some would call it railroading, particularly because it seems, this state legislation was created specifically to circumvent process here in GB.

      We can certainly blame the…wait…what did you call it…the tempeh and kale salad crowd and their aversion to horse racing later, if given the voice. As a curmudgeon, I understand it’s difficult to grok that social mores change, as we see with the old sea worlds, circuses, caged bears at trading posts, and yes, even horse racing. It happens.

      For the record, after years of working in natural foods, I’d be happy if I never saw a leaf of kale again, don’t like tempeh, and even still feel that horse racing is a sport of yore. Darn. Now I want a cheeseburger, as I contemplate what the hell this has to do with starving kids in North Adams . Hoping no cheeses were hurt in the process.

  12. Dan Bailly says:

    Yup, it’s about process. IF this passes state legislation, IF Chip Tuttle decides to spend millions of dollars. THEN there would be three PUBLIC hearing where you could give your input IF you are so inclined. That was clearly stated by both Ed and Steve. Sounds like a lot of IF’s. This is not a done deal by any means. The other fours members realized this and are willing to go through the process. AND they will listen to the public’s fear of Horse Racing. If it were so important to get input from the Town at this point, don’t you think Sen. Hinds or Rep. Piggnitelli would have been sure to get Town representation there?

    On the other hand I find it a bit disturbing that the Vice chair of the Economic Development Committee would try to put up a road block for an event that will create revenue for the Town . Why, because 6 weeks of Horse Racing might ruin the image of Great Barrington? Because the Pot industry creates such a great image for the Town. If you are worried about character, take a trip to Saratoga during Track season. You don’t have to bet on the races, or even go to the track, to enjoy the atmosphere. And what about those who have no interest in the programming at the Mahaiwe or St James Place. There are many locals who would love to enjoy events like Horse Racing. Maybe for just a moment we can remember some of the Charm GB use to have. But I digress.

    We do not have all the answers. We may not have all the answers until the process moves further along. But like it or not there is an economical benefit here. The Town will get revenue in the form of property taxes, personal property taxes, several million dollars in new growth money, and a significant sewer hook up fee. As well as other unknown revenues. So let’s let the process continue and get the answers to those questions before we grab our torches and pitch forks and kill that nasty beast called Horse Racing.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Mornin Dan,
      This was about process, not about the pros and cons of horse racing. What Leighton rightly was concerned about, as we’re the majority of the few people in attendance, was the wording of the bill moving through the legislature. It removes a portion of State law which would require a public referendum, and thus takes control from the general citizenry and gives it solely to a 5 member board.
      As we have seen from some recent transactions, the board does not always seem to act according to the will of the majority of its constituents – some falling back on “we hear all sides, it”s not that simple”… as in the case of the decision to close Lake Mansfield Road. A constituent showed up at the SB meeting with a petition signed by over 1000 people asking the board to choose an option which would NOT close the road. In fact, there were several of those options presented by the task force delegated to investigate and recommend solutions for the roadway.
      The board chose to ignore those 1000+ people, which as you know is more than voted for any of the board members, and about double the number who normally show up for contentious Annual Town Meetings.
      Yes, this was about process. And the SB was once again acting as if their say was greater than the say of their constituency.

      1. Dan Bailly says:

        Steve,

        As you know 7 people at a SB meeting is much different than 1000 signatures on a petition. From where I sat it was clear that no one had all the right information. Especially the seven of us in the audience. My feeling is that Leigh does not want Horse Racing and she was using “ the process” to block it . Even if it does reach the SB there are three opportunities for the public to voice there concerns. Plus site plan review at the PB and a con Comm hearing. I need to also remind you that special permits require 4 yes votes to pass. In my opinion we do not have enough information to masked an informed decision. I think the rest of the Board realized that know there is still a process to go through, IF this gets out of the State Legislature. To me that this process is much more democratic than killing where it is now. Like Leigh is trying to do. I will ask this question again. If this was such a critical point in the process don’t you think Smitty and Adam would have made sure GB was represented.

        Sometime let’s sit for coffee and we can talk more about this

  13. Shawn G. says:

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

  14. Mickey Friedman says:

    I worked at the Barrington Fair. The bumper cars and House of Mirrors, and gave my three dollars an hour to the track.I still remember the horses who disappointed me: No Plastic Saddle and Koosaw Kookeroo. Mr. Stewart is fortunate to attend some of the better tracks where “in general, horses are treated extremely well.” I doubt very much he attended the Barrington Fair where it was rumored only the winner hadn’t been doped. Since those glorious days of the 1970s, we’ve seen the disappearance of one kind of community replaced by another, more gentrified, less affordable. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia of aging but I’ve come to believe community is a fragile thing. And I’m just one voice, one voter. The only good thing about the Barrington Fair was those extraordinary young folks standing proudly before their big pumpkins, their goats … The rides were swindles, the horses were sad and deserved a far better fate. Please, if you’re going to do anything at the Fairgrounds bring back the kids and their vegetables. And thank you, Leigh, for warning us at about how the Town might be ruined yet again if we don’t say No again and again. And Carl I know you love to travel – if you want to see horses, there’s always Saratoga …

    1. Jerry says:

      Seems obvious to me that if your bets had won, you would feel differently. Don’t discard to beautiful sport of horse racing just because of a few bad bets. You were just a kid and probably didn’t even know how to properly read a racing form. Believe me we all want to quit after a bad bear but just like anything else, you have to stick with it if you want to succeed.

      1. Jim says:

        Jerry, horse racing is neither beautiful nor a sport. It is simply legalized animal cruelty by uncivilized humans using animals for their entertainment. This is a barbaric vestige from yesteryear that has overstayed its welcome.

  15. Isabelle Foster says:

    Leigh Davis is doing her job in educating the public about the details of the process, so as to make sure that as many voters as possible have input. On another note I’m going to suggest that the medical and mental health experts are consulted in public forum when it comes to adding events or products to the community that might affect public health., whether it be horse racing or marijuana, in order to prepare . To address these matters after the fact with a “now what ” attitude is not proactive or responsible. Again, Leigh Davis is working hard to be thorough.

  16. TW says:

    Horrible sport ! Do a little research , I know first hand what they give these horses to keep them going so there lungs don’t explode. All for that dollar !

  17. Rick Maddow says:

    Horse Racing, and horses in general, have been metastasized into human societies and cultures for 10,000 years. From Rodeo’s to Bull Rings, to Jumping contests to Polo, Trail riding and gambling.. I enjoy horse racing, and I love the majestic spirit of Thoroughbreds. Provided the proper regulations are put in place and the other family friendly components are included I support restoring the grounds for summer racing. Thank you.

    1. Joan Embree says:

      Metastasized? As in a cancer spreading? For hundreds of years ? You mean like slavery, bull fights and baiting, dog fights and racing, innocent people imprisoned for minor crimes because of the color of their skin? You mean like wild animals trapped in zoos and brutalized in circuses, countless people and animals faced with injustices since time immemorial , which somehow makes it right?
      And, I do not have celiac disease, thank you very much.

  18. Average Joe says:

    So many small business are literally on the edge in Berkshire County…. if GB doesn’t want it Please bring horse racing to Pittsfield Please please please. 40 Dates are you kidding me? We want it signed 99% of all small business owners in Berkshire County.

  19. Ted B. says:

    Take a peek at the picture at the beginning of this article. Just who is the dude standing on the trunk of the Chevelle Malibu , somebody must know !

  20. ML/NJ says:

    I’m just a racing fan who LOVED the Great Barrington Fair. It seemed to me that it was lots of people having a good time, and spending money. I just don’t see how it negatively affects anyone who isn’t interested.

  21. Sean Stephen says:

    The Edge should require full names for comments.

  22. Mary Ellen Foster says:

    Thank you Leigh Davis for being on top of your game by proposing that the town send an email and a letter to both chairs of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure for the proposed legislation to be held in committee until the Town has conducted an open forum inviting all interested parties.

    I can understand the love of gambling but find a contradiction by those who say they love animals and then want to see them used in such a horrible way. Graphic information on the abuse of horses used for horse racing is not hard to find. For me having witnessed it makes the researched material valid.

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