Hopes high, purses low as Suffolk opens

By Barbara Matson, Globe Correspondent

May 3, 2009

The bell rang, the gates swung open, and Regal Regatta bounded out into the new thoroughbred season at Suffolk Downs a step ahead of the field.

With jockey Winston Thompson aboard, Regal Regatta raced to the front in the Greater Boston Charitable Foundation Classic, a mile race for 3-year-olds and up, before fading to sixth as Pop Rocket came on strong and ran away with the victory.

“Sometimes the horses do that – they jump out and they stop,” said Thompson with a shrug. “Some of the horses are not quite there now.”

The live racing season opened yesterday, on a sun-filled Kentucky Derby day, with a card of nine races and a crowd of 16,336 lifting their faces to the cool sea breezes.

Thompson, who has been riding at Suffolk since 1989, knows a smart start does not guarantee a fantastic finish. But patience early in the season, and hard work with the horses and trainers, bring payoffs for jockeys. Thompson, who claimed his fourth Suffolk riding title in five years in 2008 and fifth overall after collecting 101 wins from 647 mounts (15.6 percent), had seven mounts yesterday.

He got the jump start on another riding title when he earned his first victory of the meet aboard favorite Storm Door in the fourth, a 6-furlong allowance. He brought Nijinsky Bullet home ahead of the field in the eighth race, and claimed his third victory of the day aboard Phil C. in the ninth.

“It’s going to be nice,” Thompson said of the Suffolk meet. “There are a lot of good riders here that I know from other tracks.”

Suffolk, struggling to stay afloat two years ago before starting a rebound under new ownership, saw a small dip in its purses this season, and most of the people at opening day – owners, trainers, jockeys, and spectators – seemed to agree that the purses won’t grow until Massachusetts allows slot machines at the track to increase attendance.

“We’re hanging on,” said Thompson. “Hopefully, we’ll get the slots. I thank Mr. [Richard] Fields [owner] for trying.”

M.C. Reardon, the assistant trainer for Marcus Vitali, was wearing a big grin yesterday as Vitali horses repeatedly found the winner’s circle.

“It’s opening day, it’s awesome,” said Reardon, overseeing hotwalkers in the barn after the fifth race, in which Touch A Prince became the third winner of the day for Vitali and owner Michael J. Gill, joining Pop Rocket in the first race and Red Magic in the third.

“All of our horses have been training all winter, down at Penn National,” said Reardon, “and they’re not coming off the farm like some of the other horses. And we’ve been here longer than everyone. Our horses have been training on the grounds for a month. They have a routine; this is home.”

Reardon, a Lynn native, said this is the first time she has been back to Suffolk in five years, and she was impressed with the physical improvements, particularly on the backside.

“They’ve cleaned up the barns and the grounds,” she said.

But the purses remain small and are getting smaller.

“Well, we didn’t get the slots,” said Reardon.

“We installed a minor purse cut, only on allowances and maiden special weight races,” said Suffolk CEO Chip Tuttle, adding that the cut amounted to about 2 1/2 percent, even as wagering across the country is off some 15 percent. “We pay about $10 million a year in purses, about $100,000 a day. If we had expanded gaming, given the right formula, we could very easily double the purses.

“Today, we’re off to a promising start. The wagering is actually an uptick above last year, and the crowd is a little up. These days, holding steady is a little victory.”