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Racetrack deal may stoke debate on gambling

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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Suffolk Downs’ partnership with casino giant Caesars Entertainment Corp. is a signal that the debate over casino gambling in Massachusetts is hardly over, and that Las Vegas gambling interests still consider the state a potential market for expansion.

Just hours after the alliance between Caesars and track owner Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC was announced yesterday, the Legislature’s Joint Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee said it would hold hearings next month on expanding gambling. Thirteen expanded gambling bills have been filed this session.

Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who cochairs the committee, said the Suffolk-Caesars deal appears aimed at accelerating the legislative process, which has moved slowly since a campaign on Beacon Hill to legalize casino gambling collapsed last summer.

“They may want to create a perception that they’ve got a strong hand,’’ he said. “I think that carries greater weight with the public than perhaps public-policy decision makers.’’

Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, said yesterday’s announcement was not aimed at jump-starting the debate in the Legislature. He said gaming companies have expressed interest in partnering with the track for the past decade, but that the deal with Caesars Entertainment really came under serious consideration in the past few months.

“Predominantly, the decision was made based on our desire to have a best-in-class partner,’’ said Tuttle, adding that Caesars also has local ties. The company is headed by Massachusetts resident Gary Loveman, who directed all inquiries to Suffolk Downs.

Suffolk Downs representatives said they hope the deal with Caesars, first reported by the Boston Herald, will help their bid to build a resort-style gaming destination with hotels and retail space if casino gambling is legalized here. That kind of development, they estimate, would result in thousands of construction and permanent jobs — helping to revive the track and benefiting the surrounding communities.

Caesars Entertainment bills itself as the world’s largest casino entertainment company, and operates resorts on four continents under the Caesars, Harrah’s, and Horseshoe brand names. Whether Suffolk Downs would take on one of those brands has not been determined. It was also unclear what, if any, investment Caesars is making in Suffolk Downs. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

The racing industry in Massachusetts has struggled to attract patrons in recent years, and many tracks have supplemented their business with simulcast racing. Still, there have been casualties. Last year, Revere’s Wonderland Greyhound Park had hoped slot machines would save the jobs of its 85 employees after a 2008 ballot initiative banned dog racing in the state.

But Wonderland closed when gambling legislation died in a dispute between Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders over slot machines at racetracks.

Revere Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino said his city is a strong supporter of expanded gambling, and said he considered an alliance with Caesars a positive sign for the future of Suffolk Downs.

“The city looks at a potential casino as a major revenue producer,’’ he said. “In the absence of a casino [at Suffolk Downs], that place will be closed down just like Wonderland is. And we don’t need two empty, abandoned racetracks in this city.’’

But others questioned the impact of the deal, especially given that the issue doesn’t seem to be advancing quickly at the state level.

“First, you’ve got to get legislation passed,’’ said casino developer David Nunes, managing partner of Crossroads Massachusetts LLC, which has proposed a casino complex in Milford.

Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo have been negotiating behind closed doors to come to a resolution on the gambling issue. Patrick, however, recently has soured on the issue, saying it “sucks all the oxygen’’ from Beacon Hill, detracting from his other priorities.

Asked yesterday if State House leaders were any closer to a deal on gambling, Murray shook her head no.

Globe reporters Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson contributed to this report. Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.