Massachusetts should stop bailing out floundering race tracks

NO industry in Massachusetts has cried ``wolf'' louder or more often than the race tracks have. State lawmakers have gone out of their way, particularly in the last few decades, to respond to such pleas from promoters of these legalized gambling operations.

Now owners of at least one track - Suffolk Downs in East Boston - are back again seeking financial help and warning that if it doesn't come soon it may be forced to shut down.

While the future of the horse-racing track may well be in jeopardy, it is questionable whether more money from what the state gets in taxes from the parimutuel-gambling facility would do much to keep Suffolk Downs going. Indeed, there is no guarantee that even a massive increase in support for the track would ensure its survival.

No matter how big a revenue surplus the commonwealth might have, it is in no position to bail out those running what is, many say, a losing proposition - even if that were in the best interests of the public as a whole.

State officials have already gone as far as they should to try to help horse-racing interests, including not only a bigger cut of money wagered but also what amounts to year-round racing at Massachusetts horse and dog tracks.

It should be emphasized that such operations are hardly big revenue producers for the state.

The yield from Suffolk Downs was slightly more than $7 million last year. That was about $3.7 million less than the state netted in 1985, when lawmakers approved the latest race-track aid measure.

That 1985 legislation reduced the state's share of the money that is bet at the track.

Under the current statute, 81 cents of every dollar wagered goes to the bettors.

The remaining 19 cents is divided several ways: the track owners keep 7 cents; 8.5 cents go to the horse owners for their purse; the commonwealth takes 3 cents for taxes; and the remaining 0.5 goes for improvements at the track and the promotion of horse racing.

That Suffolk Downs may be in dire financial straits is not suggested by the more than $214 million wagered there in 1986.

That was up from $204 million the previous year, when the state, with a larger piece of the pie, took in nearly $11 million from that 250-day gambling operation.

Although nobody in government appears ready to recognize it, over the years the commonwealth has done more for racing interests than it has for perhaps any other industry - and that includes some with substantially more employees.

If Suffolk Downs or any of the three Massachusetts dog tracks were a shoe factory, a corner grocery store, or a movie theater threatened with closing, those on Beacon Hill might not be all that concerned, at least to the extent of rushing through special rescue legislation.

The East Boston track, under its various owners through the years, has had not only a very sympathetic ear in lawmaking circles but the benefit of what amounts to a horse-racing monopoly in the state.

Except for a brief period two decades ago, when developers of a track in Hancock, in the Berkshires, tried to make a go of a facility, Suffolk's only competition has come from tracks in neighboring states. And except for Rockingham Park, in southern New Hampshire, these have either shut down or converted to dog racing.

Closing down the East Boston track would, of course, wipe out several hundred jobs. It is unrealistic to assume, however, that most of those involved would not find employment elsewhere in the state.

At this point it is not clear what the Suffolk Downs owners are looking for specifically to ensure continued horse racing at the track after the current season ends in December.

Those sounding the warning presumably will be moving behind the scenes to propose ways to make their operations more profitable.

One thing is almost certain: Whatever they come up with will cost state taxpayers dollars.

Renewed lawmaker concern for the future of horse racing in the state could boost prospects for passage of controversial legislation that would clear the way for an off-track parimutuel betting parlor in western Massachusetts. A special local-option measure allowing such a theater-type operation in Chicopee passed the House in mid-July, just before the current informal legislative summer recess.

The legislation would share a portion of the money bet off-track on Suffolk Downs races with the track.

This could be a foot-in-the-door to perhaps greatly increased wagering in Massachusetts and quite possibly contribute to a whole new generation of bettors - those who might never go to Suffolk Downs or any other tracks.

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