“We are all dumbfounded, you know?” said Jim Hardy, leading driver at the five-eighths-of-a-mile harness track. “A lot of people are just starting to find out about it.”
“It” is the revelation by state investigators that Gary Piontkowski, the longtime charismatic leader of the struggling racetrack, had been regularly making cash withdrawals from the Plainridge money room. The takings raised such a red flag with investigators vetting the Plainridge application for the slots license, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission convened a special hearing in Boston to sort the matter out.
Piontkowski resigned suddenly in April, citing unspecified health concerns, but Plainridge owners and officials revealed he instead had been forced out over the almost daily withdrawals.
“Right now we are just trying to take it all in,” Hardy said. “I don’t know the facts whether he [Piontkowski] was authorized doing it or not. I just read what was in the paper this morning.”
An additional wrinkle came Thursday morning when it was revealed Timothy Petersen, the chief financial officer at Plainridge who first questioned Piontkowski’s actions, had resigned and would not appear before the Gaming Commission.
“We don’t know what to think,” trainer Barry Farrar said. “All we know is what we read in the paper and this is stuff they wouldn’t have shared with us anyway.”
Farrar, who keeps the Gaming Commission’s website bookmarked on his home computer, said the horsemen had a representative attending the hearing while most of them focused on getting their horses ready for Thursday evening’s races.
Bill Abdelnour, a retired school teacher turned harness driver, spent the morning jogging horses around the banked oval track in Plainville and talking with fellow horsemen who, like him, see slot machines as the only way to keep their horses racing in Plainville.
“I think there’s some general concern about what’s going on,” Abdelnour said from home in Worcester, where he was following the daylong hearing online. “I think the majority of us feel if there were mistakes made in the past, they have been corrected and they are moving forward.”
Abdelnour also praised Piontkowski as the savior of harness racing in Massachusetts. Piontkowski had led the team that built Plainridge just up Route 1 from the former Foxboro Raceway, which closed to harness racing in 1997. Plainridge opened with Piontkowski as the helm in 1999 and continued to race despite losing money.
“We just feel privileged to be here and there is not a person down here who does not believe Gary Piontkowski got us here,” said Abdelnour, president of the New England Amateur Harness Drivers Club. “What went wrong, I don’t know. I hope the commission understands that the people who are up there now are righting the ship. We are a country of second chances.”
Hardy, a member of the board for the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, said the horse owners, trainers and drivers likely would be meeting soon to discuss the recent turn of events.
Plainville voters are scheduled to weigh in on the town’s host community agreement with Plainridge on Sept. 10. Without the voters’ approval, the application cannot go forward, and without the license, Plainridge would not be able to expand to install 1,250 slot machines. Instead, the track would close.
Hardy tried to put a positive face on the uncertain future.
“We have had a great season so far. We are all excited we are so close to getting the license,” Hardy said. “It’s been a long painful wait.”
Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.