This weekend was my first trip to the track after the most recent disappointment in the great never-ending expanded gaming debate here in Massachusetts (read an excellent recap at Railbird here). To say that the mood has changed from cautiously optimistic to uncertain and weary would be an understatement. Throw in a healthy dose of gallows humor and it certainly makes for an interesting atmosphere.
As I walked around on Saturday I kept hearing the words “family” and “home”. I heard them everywhere, from the back stretch to the dining room in the grandstand; out of the mouths of trainers, bettors and employees. “We could go other places, but this is home.” “My family is here, what will we do if this place shuts down?” Some see Suffolk Downs as the frustrating relative, the one who you can’t stand sometimes but love anyway because you can’t help but do so, it *is* family after all. For better or for worse, it is a comforting place to come back to season after season. And it’s not just for the people who make their living there; over the past three years I’ve grown to love the place—it gives me something I can’t find in my 9-5 world and the very thought of it closing puts a pit in the bottom of my stomach.
There’s an overwhelming feeling that the racetrack family is overlooked in all the debates. It’s easy, of course, for detractors to say that they’ll have to move and find other jobs within an already saturated industry. Or that they’ll just have to stand in unemployment lines and find new ways to make a living. But what those solutions don’t take into account is that it’s not just a job—it is a community, a way of life. The racetrack, the horses, the people are all in their blood, and it’s very hard for most of them to even think of doing anything else. They’re on the fringe—much like commercial fishermen, or farmers—and they are facing the loss of a unique and wonderful way of life. It’s a culture that once lost, is lost for good. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, to an “outsider” it may look positively dysfunctional. And, yes, we all know that if Suffolk Downs doesn’t survive life will go on. But to a significant group of people it will go on with a big piece missing.
So for now we’ll stay in limbo; not knowing if racing will disappear forever in New England. Horses still need to be galloped, stalls still need to be cleaned, bets still need to be taken, and races still need to be run. Race-trackers being race-trackers, the hope that something—anything—will happen to get their long shot across the wire first is still there. After all, anything is possible at the race track, isn’t it?