Sunday, June 30th, 2019 was the last day of horse racing at Suffolk Downs. The track was built in 1935 in a span of just 62 days by 3,000 workers. Located on the border of East Boston and Revere, it consists of a one mile long dirt course with an inner turf course. 35,000 fans watched the first day of races on July 10, 1935. Over the years, some of the world’s best thoroughbreds raced there, including Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Whirlaway, John Henry, Funny Cide, Skip Away, and Cigar. The most famous annual race was the Massachusetts Handicap, or MassCap. Cigar won this race in 1995 and 1996 as part of his legendary 16-race win streak. Other stakes races over the years had names such as the Commonwealth Stakes, Constitution Handicap, Faneuil Hall Handicap, Paul Revere Stakes, and Yankee Gold Cup. In 1966, the Beatles played before 24,000 fans on the track’s infield.
If you have not been to Suffolk Downs, you have missed out on a truly unique and unforgettable experience. No, it is not glamorous. It does not have the pageantry or elegance of Churchill Downs or Belmont. But the dirty and dingy aesthetic is part of the charm. Suffolk Downs would not be Suffolk Downs without the uneven concrete floors, wafting cigarette smoke, grumbling and swearing old men, and ripped up tickets scattered across the ground. I will never forget the feeling of awe that I experienced each time I walked across the parking lot toward the track’s entrance. The sight of horses through the chain link fence and the sound of their galloping hooves so close to downtown Boston somehow never ceased to be miraculous. Once inside the grounds, one could get a close-up view of the horses warming up and being saddled in the paddock, line up to place a bet, try to snag a spot by the finish line, head upstairs to the grandstand, or stop for a snack at the hot dog counter or the Deli Grill. TVs scattered throughout the building showed races at tracks all over the country, as well as the occasional Red Sox game. Silks of past MassCap winners hung from the ceiling of the cavernous area under the grandstand, and dozens and dozens of betting windows receded into the distance.
My personal favorite memory from Suffolk Downs was the 1999 MassCap. I bet $10 on Real Quiet, who had come within a nose of winning the Triple Crown the previous year and who I credit with making me a fan of horse racing. My dad was amazed that my 10-year-old self had been able to place the wager without being questioned by the employee at the betting window. I remember my crushing disappointment when Real Quiet finished third to Running Stag. My grandfather had bet on Behrens, who finished second.
Looking back, I wish that I had visited the track more often. With live thoroughbred racing happening there every day, there was no particular urgency to go. The track would always be there, or so I thought, so other things took priority.
Sadly, interest in horse racing has waned in Massachusetts, and attendance at Suffolk Downs declined in recent decades. When casino gambling was legalized in Massachusetts, Suffolk’s owners proposed building a casino next to the track in hopes of revitalizing racing. However, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission denied them a casino license (the license was awarded instead to the proposal that became Encore in Everett) and in 2014 it was announced that the track, unable to make a profit, would be closing. After limited days of live racing over the past five years, the last day finally came one week ago.
7/10/1935 – 6/30/2019