Suf­folk rages against dy­ing of the light

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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.”

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