Boston's Suffolk Downs Holds Its Last Live Horse Races | KCUR

Boston's Suffolk Downs Holds Its Last Live Horse Races

Jun 29, 2019
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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's the end of an era for East Boston's historic Suffolk Downs racetrack. Live horse racing, which began there in 1935, will end after one final race day tomorrow. Tori Bedford from member station WGBH brings us this from the track.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE HORN)

TORI BEDFORD, BYLINE: It's the second race of the day and hometown jockey Tammi Piermarini is soaring through the muddy track on Atta Kid, a horse that, unlike her, is just starting his career.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come on, Tammi.

BEDFORD: Piermarini and Atta Kid fly through the finish line to win the race.

TAMMI PIERMARINI: You can walk right in the girl’s room. Just shut the door behind you.

BEDFORD: Piermarini is small and sturdy. She hops off her horse and meets me in the locker room where we talk while she wipes mud from the track off of her face.

PIERMARINI: 1985, I rode my first horse here.

BEDFORD: Piermarini is a local kid. She grew up in Newburyport and started riding at 3 years old. She came to Suffolk Downs at the age of 18 and went on to be the third leading female jockey in the country. It's also where she rode her parents' first racehorse.

PIERMARINI: That was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life to have them come into the winner's circle and it's their horse and their colors I'm wearing. I can't express or explain how I felt.

BEDFORD: Jockeys like Piermarini have hitched their careers to a sport with waning interest around the country as casinos and online gambling grow in popularity in live horse racing spots, like Suffolk Downs, get transformed into apartments and retail buildings. With the retirement of the tracks, Piermarini says more jockeys and horses are retiring, too.

PIERMARINI: As long as people will ride me, I'm going to continue. But if I'm forced to retire because of no business - and that's a sad way to go. It's not that I want to retire. I'm being forced to retire.

BEDFORD: Just outside, a lot of longtime fans here say they aren't quite ready to say goodbye. Jimmy Haephy grew up in nearby Revere and has been coming to the track for 40 years.

JIMMY HAEPHY: A lot of memories here, you know? A lot of good ones. I know every inch of this place. It's like walking in my front door walking in here. And I don't understand why they were closing it. Some reason they want to close, make a shopping mall. I don't know.

BEDFORD: As a kid nearly 70 years ago, Conrad Smith, or Smitty, was obsessed with two things - baseball and horse racing, coming every weekend with his parents.

CONRAD SMITH: I've been doing this all my life, and I'm still coming here. I don't know what's going to happen after next year.

BEDFORD: Suffolk Downs used to bring in tens of thousands of spectators with races every day. Now CEO Chip Tuttle says the entire sport is struggling.

CHIP TUTTLE: We fought really hard for a long time to try to preserve racing here at the property, and it didn't work out, so now it's on to what's next.

BEDFORD: Suffolk Downs has closed before and reopened, but Tuttle says this time it's for real.

TUTTLE: There have been times in the past where we thought racing was going to end, it was over. And we were able to find ways to continue. But I can't see a way for us to continue racing here.

TD THORNTON: We’ve got Rocket Road in those bright orange silks. He's covered up on the...

BEDFORD: TD Thornton sits up on the roof in an announcer's booth speaking into a decades-old microphone to let the crowd know which horses are racing next and pressing a bugle horn to bring those horses out onto the track. He says he doesn't want the final race to feel like a funeral.

THORNTON: And we've had a pretty damn good run here for 84 years so that's how I'm going to try and focus it and end it on a high note. This is reality, and my role in it is to give the track a respectful sendoff.

BEDFORD: What's next for you?

THORNTON: Pressing his bugle right here and getting the horse out onto the track.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE HORN)

THORNTON: Horses are heading out for today's fourth race with the Exacta, Trifecta and Superfecta betting.

BEDFORD: For NPR News, I'm Tori Bedford in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.