Rain can’t dampen Opening Day at Suffolk Downs
Larry Collmus remembers it like it was yesterday. The former Suffolk announcer, who has moved up the charts to handling the calls for Triple Crown races, including Saturday’s Belmont Stakes in New York, says his first Suffolk Downs memory was Jan. 1, 1992 - Opening Day.
“I was coming from California and it was something like 65 degrees on Jan. 1 and said, ‘What’s the big deal?’ ’’ said Collmus Saturday morning in the press box at Suffolk Downs, where he was making a cameo appearance, calling the sixth and seventh races on the Opening Day’s nine-race card. “Of course, it snowed the next day.’’
There was no snow Saturday, but plenty of rain and a sloppy track. It wasn’t enough to dampen the enthusiasm at the track, which opened in 1935 and seemingly has been on life support for a long time. The East Boston oval opens this racing season with a renewed sense of optimism with the prospect of a gaming license and a casino part of its future.
Tammi Piermarini, Suffolk’s leading jockey last season, began the season riding a 3-5 favorite, Rinuncio Bobo, in the first race - a $9,000 claimer for 3-year-olds and up- and there was a bit of controversy right away. Piermarini leveled an objection against Diamond County, a 20-1 long shot, after the horses dueled in the slop down the stretch. The objection was overruled by the stewards, but Andria Terrill, riding 7-2 second choice Howard the Aviator breezed past both horses for the victory.
That race started Suffolk’s 2012 season, which will feature three days of live racing the next two weeks (Monday, Wednesday, Saturday) and four days (Tuesday added) the remainder of the meet. It was the start of a long day for Piermarini, who had rides in eight races, but failed to come up with a winner.
Suffolk’s future is linked to a casino complex being built in conjunction with the track, a vision that, using the most positive scenarios, is two to three years from reality.
The day-to-day business of horse racing, which has shrunk in New England to where Suffolk is the last thoroughbred track remaining, has far more value for horsemen and track employees.
T.D. Thornton, who has been calling the races on and off since the early 1990s, remembers when the MassCap was resurrected in 1992 at Suffolk after a short hiatus and the legendary champion Cigar won the race in 1995 with a vintage performance.
“A great day,’’ said Thornton, recalling that memorable Saturday. “A bunch of us went out to dinner after the race and then came back to the barn area later that night and said, ‘Let’s see how the champ is doing.’ We went back and fed him some hay. We started doing that [with each winner] every year.’’
The MassCap is now a hit-or-miss event as track officials try to line up horses and purses worthy of championship races. On Saturday, with rain nearly constant, the stables were filled and the track had a sense of life, which is not always the case at Suffolk.
Having as much fun as anyone was 23-year-old jockey Jacqueline Davis. A Dorchester native, Davis has a strong New England horse-racing pedigree as a graduate of Chris McCarron’s North American Riding Academy, as well as being the daughter of veteran jockey Robbie Davis.
Davis began her third season at Suffolk with wins on her first three mounts, riding Dan’s Commander to victory in the second race, Glory’s List in the fifth, and Last Laugh Now to a 12-length romp in the seventh - the Benjamin Classic, an $18,000 maiden. Davis had four wins for the afternoon, rolling to victory in the ninth aboard Gambler’s Honour.
“So far so good,’’ said Davis after guiding Glory’s List to the Victory Circle in a $9,000 maiden claiming race.
Although she grew up in New York and spent the winter season at Aqueduct, Davis has adopted Boston and Suffolk.
“I’ve come to think of Boston as my home,’’ she said. “Everyone has been so accepting and welcomed me with warm arms.’’
None more so than the Suffolk crowd of 6,834 Saturday. Still, Davis is aware of Suffolk’s precarious future as much as anyone.
“I’ve been at tracks where the future has been uncertain,’’ said Davis. “But there is too much history here. They can’t get rid of it. They just have to get the casino and make more money and everything will be fine.’’
Veteran trainer John Assimakopoulos also had a smile on his face as his only horse of the day, Symphonic Hero, won the feature, a $19,000 allowance over a mile and 70 yards for 3-year olds and up.
In the end, there were much more smiles than frowns.
“It went as well as it could considering the weather,’’ said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk’s chief operating officer, who spends most of his time dealing with the gaming issues and the casino project. “People were having a good time and I’m sure next week [with wagering on the Belmont Stakes part of the festivities] we’ll have an even better crowd.
“I walked through the paddock and said hello to some horsemen who have come back,’’ said Tuttle. “They are excited to be here. The whole jockey colony. Things seem like they are headed in the right direction.’’
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.