Thoroughbred racing made its debut in Massachusetts on July 10, 1935. When Suffolk Downs opened its doors for the first time to 35,000 fans, it offered New Englanders their first opportunity to watch and bet on the eight races presented on that day. Seventy-five years later, Suffolk Downs, now officially known as the Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, continues as the only thoroughbred racetrack in New England under a board of directors chaired by Bill Mulrow.
The history of thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts began in 1934 when the legislature legalised pari-mutual betting and created a state racing commission. The directors of the Eastern Racing Association immediately saw the potential offered by thoroughbred racing and began building the racetrack they named Suffolk Downs.
The directors of Eastern Racing Association committed a budget of $2 million to the project and insisted that the new racetrack rival the best tracks in the country. The facility was completed in 62 days and featured the first concrete grandstand in the country. A seating capacity of 16,000 people made it the nation’s biggest grandstand of the time. The track also featured a 5,000-capacity clubhouse that was larger than any racetrack facility in the world.
Fans soon flocked to the new Suffolk Downs, which boasted an average daily attendance of 15,000, peaking in 1945 at slightly more than 18,000. One reason for the early success of the racetrack was the creation of the Massachusetts Handicap. First run in 1935, the race has featured such notable names as jockey George Woolf, who won the first Massachusetts Handicap aboard Top Row. Seabiscuit won the race in record time in 1937, ridden by future Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame jockey Johnny “Red” Pollard.
According to Bill Mulrow, thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs continued its popularity through the 1960s, when a major renovation of the track included the enclosure of the original open-air grandstand to join it to the clubhouse. The newly renovated racetrack continued to experience success until 1989 when, at the end of the racing season, the track was forced to close.
Suffolk Downs remained closed for two years until Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC assumed ownership of the facility. Physical improvements to the clubhouse and other areas of the racetrack preceded its reopening in 1992. The Massachusetts Handicap returned in 1995 with Champion Cigar winning the race ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. Bailey returned in 1996 for his second consecutive Massachusetts Handicap win with Champion Cigar.
The continued fan interest in thoroughbred horse racing in New England is clear from the attendance figures at Suffolk Downs: The Massachusetts Handicap in 2007 drew a crowd of more than 19,000 people.
As it has done since it opened in 1935, Suffolk Downs has committed itself to the growth of thoroughbred racing in the region without losing sight of its obligation to the welfare of the horses that are the key component of the sport. Today, all racetracks in the United States impose an anti-slaughter policy on owners and trainers, but Suffolk Downs led the way as the first racetrack to implement the policy.