Suffolk Downs makes final stand for New England thoroughbred racing

Saturday should be a day to celebrate horse racing in America a the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, will leave the gate in New York just after 6:30 p.m.

In New England, though, there is an ominous tone to the day.

Nearly extinct here, Thoroughbred racing makes one of its final stands, with Suffolk Downs hosting its penultimate live weekend of action … ever.

Suffolk will race live this Saturday and Sunday, then again on June 29 and 30.

With Salem’s Rockingham Park now leveled for yet another mall/office building/condo mess, Suffolk is New England thoroughbred racing’s final hope.

Make that was.

After years on life support, Suffolk has succumbed.

The huge piles of dirt sit at the ready in the parking lot of the fabled East Boston oval. They will fill the chasm left by the edifice’s demolition in a month or so. No, the final stakes race in East Boston won’t be called the “Bull Run,” but this is the last stand, for sure.

“Suffolk Downs race track has had more comebacks than anyone since Lazarus,” said Nashua born Suffolk Downs race caller/historian T.D. Thornton. “But this time, the end is coming.”

The voice of Suffolk Downs and the author of an amazing tale, “Not by a Longshot,” his book about the people, community and substance surrounding a season of racing at Suffolk, Thornton remains enthused and optimistic that these final racing days there are to be enjoyed and not mourned.

“This is not a funeral, and if it is, I’ll do everything I can to be sure it’s an ‘Irish Wake,'” laughed Thornton, who was introduced to racing as a youngster by his dad, former trainer Paul Thornton.

“Suffolk and the entire New England racing community have been so good to me and my family over the years. I plan on doing everything I can to give Suffolk Downs a respectful and honorable sendoff and do it with our heads held high.”

If you’ve happened to catch any of the Suffolk Downs racing in spurts since 2014 when the place ended full-season live cards, you will have noticed that the product is excellent.

Purses are high. Good horses, lots of them, are entered and run. There is plenty of turf racing, and management has gone out of its way to make the experience a positive one for all, with food trucks, family entertainment and plenty of amenities.

Chip Tuttle’s group is indeed making it an honorable end.

As it should.

Suffolk is packed with history and grandeur, starting with the legendary MassCap and champions like Seabiscuit and Cigar coming to town.

I often tell the story of my dad, a blue-collar guy with a love for the track, once seeing this striking colt win an allowance at Rockingham one afternoon, and him telling me straight out, “Watch this horse. He’s something special.”

Years later, Waquoit would make Suffolk Downs history, beating a rugged champion Broad Brush in a MassCap for the ages.

So yes, Suffolk is personal. It’s quirky, always has been.

I look back at Suffolk and think of the legendary New England riders.

There was Carl Gambardella, who was every bettor’s favorite and regularly the leading rider. Well, he was the fans’ guy until he disappointed at low odds.

Then he was just the guy “stiffin” the favorite.

Rudy Baez and Stew Elliott also carved legends there in the 80s and 90s.

And Suffolk was a place that saw women riders excel, too … names like Denise Boudreau, Tammi (Campbell) Piermarini and Jill Jellison. And yes, Suffolk is where Dodie Duys fought Gamby in the jocks’ room.

The race track is theater. And without it, Boston loses.

“It certainly detracts from Boston as a major league city,” said Thornton, noting that the nearest track to us is now Saratoga in New York, which while spectacular is over 200 miles away.

“Major league cities have race tracks. Boston now has the largest population base without one.”

Thornton remains positive, though, and driven to make it right. When the newest big box store, doctor’s park or row of townhouses overtakes this brilliant green gem, pristine open space just a T stop or two from Logan Airport, all that will be left is the memories, and he feels a responsibility to make at least one or two more good ones.

“I’m very much excited about these final two weekends of racing,” Thornton said. “What Suffolk Downs means to me, I can’t put in a few words. That’s why I wrote the book. Just like usual, I plan to let the horses and riders tell the story.

“But I’ll tell you, I know it’s going to be tough not letting my emotions come through in that final stretch run.”

Not just tough for you TD. Tough for a lot of us.

Contact Hector Longo at 594-1253 or hlongo@nashuatelegraph.com.