Suffolk rages against dying of the light
There is no Eclipse Award for resilience or persistence. But if there were, and the floor was open to nominations, the owners, trainers, jockeys, and fans of Suffolk Downs deserve to be on the short list.
The once-proud jewel of New England Thoroughbred racing has been reduced in recent years to a few Saturdays and Sundays each season, hardly enough to sustain a vibrant industry. As recently as 2014, the meet ran for 65 racing days, and before that the Suffolk Downs season was a going concern of more than 100 racing days.
This year, as last, there were eight racing dates spread out over the past four months. The fourth such mini-festival of 2018 is unfolding this weekend, with 22 races over the two days offering $750,000 in purses and another $400,000 from the Massachusetts breeders fund.
It’s a strange, compromise-laden sausage of a situation, mixing the forces of real estate, politics, casino cash, and a lingering loyalty to the idea that horse racing can somehow survive. With land development hanging over the property – as of this summer the site was still considered in the running for the coveted Amazon second headquarters – every gathering of racing fans seems like it could be the last, until one day it will be.
The struggles of Suffolk are hardly unique. Earlier this year the rug was pulled out from under Michigan racing with the sudden closure of Hazel Park. Colonial Downs in Virginia is fighting for a second life, while the writing on the wall for Pimlico seems clearer every day.
In the meantime, the purses offered this weekend at Suffolk are meant to grab the attention. For example, $5,000 and $7,500 claimers are running for $30,000 pots, even though a first-level allowance race offers $50,000. Such a disparity can be problematic over the long haul, but the Suffolk Downs of 2018 is there to offer a quick injection of cash to those who don’t mind shipping in their horses from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York.
“It’s great to see a lot of people with Suffolk Downs roots come back, even though they might not have raced here for some time,” said Lou Raffetto, the veteran executive who serves as racing consultant. “We use one end of the barn area, six barns, and they’re on their last legs. But the dorms are in pretty good shape. And there was a fire that took the backstretch kitchen in 2004, so we bring in a food truck and feed them all for free.”
Among the many familiar faces on the scene, one of the brightest belongs to Rudy Baez, the 13-time Suffolk Downs riding champion. Baez was rendered a paraplegic in an accident at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire in 1999, ending his career at age 49 with 4,874 winners. But that did not stop him.
While Suffolk was still going strong, Baez tried to turn his lousy luck into something positive as a unofficial liaison with the local jockey colony. He reported each racing day, rain or shine, to give younger riders counsel and inspiration, while offering a quiet reminder of what was at stake every time they answered the bell.
Reached at his home in Wakefield, Mass., earlier this week, Baez sounded as upbeat as ever as he approaches 20 years of life in a wheelchair.
“Every morning when I get up I’ve got to do something,” said Baez, a native of the Dominican Republic. “If you just sit around and take it easy, forget about it. Then your body will go the other way.”
The life expectancy for paraplegics was once considerably reduced because of their injuries. In recent years, advances in physical therapy and lifestyle have increased the chances of a longer life despite their injuries. Baez is determined to make the most of that chance.
“It’s so important to keep your upper body in shape, because your legs are no longer working,” Baez said. “I do things around the house all the time. I work out, try to stay strong.”
For years after his accident, Baez made regular appearances at fundraisers and hospital visits for fellow riders similarly injured and facing life with paralysis, often joining groups sponsored by the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. Lately, however, he has scaled back, for sobering reasons.
“They’ve got new kids doing that now, going around,” Baez said, referring to a younger generation of jockeys now wheelchair-bound because of racing accidents. “I’m still here, though. I’ll go whenever they need me.”
This weekend, Baez is needed at Suffolk Downs, where his legendary status is secure but not always recognized. He was asked if the group of riders descending upon the track Saturday and Sunday is in awe of his local record and exploits. He laughed, a little.
“No, they don’t know me,” Baez said. “There all young guys, maybe one guy who used to ride with me. I mean, maybe somebody told them about me, but that doesn’t matter.”
What matters, to Baez, is that there is still a remnant of the Suffolk Downs he knew, and he is still able to do what he did for more than 30 years as a jockey, which is keep showing up.
“You bet,” he said. “There’s 11 races, and I’ll be there at 10 o’clock in the morning.”