Mass Breeders Continue to Push `Best-Kept Secret'

Suffolk Downs | Chip Bott


They call it the best-kept secret in racing, and why wouldn't it be? A state with no horse racing pays out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to Thoroughbred racehorses registered in that state winning at tracks all over North America. It's almost impossible to comprehend.

Paul Umbrello, the Executive Director for the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a member of the board of directors for the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association says that their goal is to ensure that they not only let the cat out of the bag, but also do their best to keep an industry alive that was once the richest racing region in the country.

Dorchester, Massachusetts native Chris McCarron once said that when he was young, there were 17 different racetracks in the New England region, from Suffolk to Rockingham to the Three-County Fairs. My parents hit them all, and would tell us tales about seeing Decathlon run at Narragansett, or how they kept a $5 show parlay going for six months at Lincoln Downs. But now, since the sale and final closure of Suffolk Downs in 2019, that rich vein of racing has all but dried up.

If the MTBA has anything to say about it, that will change.

Thanks to a revenue stream from gaming in the state, the MTBA continues to be funded, and the organization has done a good job convincing legislators that this once-viable industry deserves another chance to be so again.

Attempts to build a new track in Massachusetts have so far faced an uphill fight-requiring a two-thirds-majority approval in towns where they would be built-and none of these objectives have succeeded so far. But people like Umbrello are determined to make it happen, and it's important to note that anyone who does build a track will also be given a sports-betting license, thanks to legislative efforts from the horsemen.

“We are still actively looking and hoping to find land to bring Thoroughbred racing back,” said Umbrello. “Obviously, that will help our Massachusetts breeding farms, and our Massachusetts breeding program. But of all of the states, it's probably the most challenging,” he said, adding that the price of land in the state, the scarcity of large parcels of land near metropolitan centers, and the two-thirds vote had hampered efforts thus far. This January, the most recent proposal failed in the town of Hardwick, just west of Worcester.

So if there are no tracks, and no races restricted to Mass-breds, exactly what is it that the breeding fund is funding?

The program, which Umbrello calls the best in the country, offers bonuses to Massachusetts-breds who finish first, second or third at any racetrack in North America.

Here's how it works:

*A supplemental incentive of $10,000 is be added to the purse of any unrestricted race in which a Mass-bred horse is entered at a licensed pari-mutuel race meeting authorized by the state racing commission.

*This supplemental incentive will be distributed as follows: 60%, 20%, 10%, 5%, 3% and 2% to the first six finishers.

*Additionally, breeders (25%), owners (10%), stallion owners (15%), and `developers' (the horse's first owner of record, 20%) earn awards based on the race's purse, on top of any money they might win in the race. That developer award protects people who go through the trouble of breeding a Mass-bred only to see it claimed away because of the incentives.

Becoming a Mass-bred is fairly easy.

Bring your in-foal more to the state by Oct. 15, and the foal born the subsequent year will be a registered Mass-bred. Or, bring a mare in at the beginning of the year, have her drop the foal in Massachusetts, and breed back to a Massachusetts stallion. To become a Massachusetts stallion, bring him to the state by Feb. 1 of the breeding year to cover mares.

The MTBA is also advancing an accredited program they call a “dual-citizenship concept,” which means that if your horse spends at least three months on a Massachusetts farm, he can pair with the state in which he was registered to gain an additional 30% of purses.

To show how this money can add up, they point to the Mass-bred poster child Dr. Blarney (Dublin), a 10-year-old gelding with 26 victories, lifetime earnings of $765,218, plus an additional $175,978 in Mass-bred incentives and awards.

But at the end of the day, it's not so much about the individual awards, but about an attempt to save a rich heritage that, once lost for good, will never be able to be resurrected.

“Racing gives people the incentive to reinvest,” he said. “These incentives give people a reason to come in and breed. We're trying to get outsiders to come in and do that. It's the preservation of open space.”

It's also the preservation of a way of life. Horses arrived in Massachusetts between 1629 and 1635, and informal racing was so popular that they had to ban racing in the main streets of Plymouth in 1674 for the safety of the citizens. The first descendant of the Godolphin Arabian arrived in the state in 1756.

It was in this culture that Umbrello was raised. “We'd go to the fairs as a kid,” he said. “My cousins went on the rides. Guess what I did? At nine years old, I would go play the horses.”

Active investors are today still seeking to buy land in the state to build a track. The MTBA's breeding fund wants to keep the industry alive until then. “Farms are too valuable in Massachusetts,” said Umbrello, “but an accredited program should save these farms.”

With the money in the funds, and over $20 million already set aside for future purses, Umbrello asks a rhetorical question.

“Why not invest in Massachusetts? Why wouldn't you?”

*TDN Publisher Sue Finley is a registered Mass-bred.

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