High hopes at Suffolk
Optimism in air for track’s opener
John Assimakopolous has heard that familiar announcement, as another horse race was about to unfold, for more than 40 years. As a teenager, he first came to Suffolk Downs with his father Charlie, a longtime horse trainer - a profession John now proudly calls his vocation, if not his passion.
Tammi Piermarini also has heard - and acted on - the call. The 44-year-old jockey, who is also a mother of three, carries with her a sense of anticipation and excitement as she prepares to ride eight mounts on Suffolk’s nine-race card on opening day Saturday.
Suffolk, which began operating in 1935, starts this season of racing with more optimism than anyone can remember in recent years. Still, that optimism, which comes from the hope that a long-awaited gaming license will add slots and a casino to the Suffolk complex, is tempered by the reality that there are still major hurdles to clear.
“I’m excited about being back at Suffolk, with positive news on the gaming issues, more horsemen, and better horses,’’ said Piermarini. “I’m hoping if the gaming issue goes well, hopefully the crowds will come back and that will bring back some of the excitement we felt around here when I first came here as an exercise rider in the 1980s.’’
“Clearly, there is a sense of optimism,’’ said Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle, who has been living a roller coaster life as the issues are evaluated, discussed, and voted upon. “It’s another new season, which brings a sense of renewal. By the same token, there are a lot of steps to be taken in seeking a gaming license.
“No one is counting any chickens before they are hatched. We are taking nothing for granted. But we also understand that to be successful we have to deliver a quality program.’’
The program New England racing fans get this year is three days a week of live racing (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays) for the next two weeks, four days (adding Tuesdays) from mid-June through September, and then a return to three days from Oct. 1-29. Purses will average more than $103,000 per day with what Tuttle hopes will be full fields of horses.
“The one thing we have learned through the years is that there is an audience for racing if you provide a good product,’’ said Tuttle. “We hope to consistently put together races with nine, 10, or 11 horses.
“On Saturday, we have 85 horses in nine races. It’s a nice card. We might have more than 200 horses on the grounds this summer, which is a good sign in itself.’’
The feature on opening day will be a $19,000 allowance over a mile and 70 yards for 3-years-old and up.
There will be other attractions. On Saturday, former Suffolk announcer Larry Collmus, who is now NBC’s “Voice of the Triple Crown,’’ will make a brief appearance and call a few races before heading to New York to prepare for next week’s Belmont Stakes, in which I’ll Have Another will attempt to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
The feel-good atmosphere is definitely present on the backstretch this spring.
“I’m an optimistic guy, but I’m getting more and more optimistic each day,’’ said Assimakopolous. “Being back here racing, optimism is definitely in the air. There are people in Suffolk management who want to save racing, and that makes me feel good.’’
Assimakopolous, who like most Suffolk trainers and riders migrates south each fall when the East Boston track closes for the season, remembers the sense of uncertainty ever year about whether the track would reopen the following spring.
Although nothing has been agreed upon regarding gaming licenses in Massachusetts, the withdrawal of the bid by Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn for a Foxborough site has increased the sense of anticipation that when the final votes are taken, Suffolk will be still standing.
“I wish it could come quicker,’’ said Assimakopolous, who currently has 10 horses on the grounds and hopes to top off at 15. “It all seems optimistic. I believe in that. It’s got to happen. It’s an industry that needs help.’’
Piermarini, who rode this winter at Turf Paradise in Arizona, said the signs she saw were positive.
“It’s the closest we’ve ever been to gaming,’’ she said. “I think it creates a feel of excitement, which is great.’’
The excitement begins with the first race at 12:45 p.m. Saturday.
Tuttle will be rooting as hard as anyone for things to work.
“I first came here in 1991, was here until 1997, left for a while, and then came back,’’ said Tuttle. “This group of horsemen and jockeys have stuck with us through some difficult times. We want to do whatever is possible to make it work.’’
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.