June 6, 2023

Approaching its final call to post, an appreciation for Suffolk Downs

Suffolk Downs (c) NTRA

By Sunday evening Suffolk Downs will be added to a growing and disappointing list. It’s not just a tally of Thoroughbred racetracks relegated to the dustbin of history, which is lengthy anyway, but a particular group of tracks I had hoped to visit but never got around to for one reason or another (mainly financial).

Hello Suffolk, welcome to the club. Your fellow members include Atlantic City, Garden State Park, and your former neighbor Rockingham Park. Just so you know, don’t bother seeking a leadership position. Hollywood Park has been designated club president-for-life.

Like several of its fellow New England colleagues long since passed, Suffolk was born in the Great Depression years and proved an immediate hit. However, it was the centerpiece of a circuit that saw its national relevance decline soon after World War II when a troika of New Jersey tracks usurped it as a regional powerhouse.

Great horses continued to appear at Suffolk and on the New England circuit, but only from time to time. The Massachusetts Handicap was the primary enticement, won by the likes of Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Stymie, Riva Ridge, Lost Code, Cigar, Skip Away, and many others.

The list of horses that missed out on Mass ‘Cap glory is similarly impressive: Discovery, Challedon, Gallorette, Bald Eagle, Gun Bow, Drumtop, Broad Brush, Formal Gold, and Real Quiet scratch the surface.

It’s been forgotten, but in its first quarter-century of existence Suffolk was also an occasional proving ground for up-and-coming juveniles, courtesy of the Mayflower Stakes. Alsab won the 1941 edition and eventually made his way to the Hall of Fame. The same for Sword Dancer, who won in 1958 and then was Horse of the Year at three. Immediately after Sword Dancer was Bally Ache, who sadly met an untimely demise after winning the 1960 Preakness, Flamingo, and Jersey Derby.

The Sixties saw two memorable events held at Suffolk Downs. In 1969, legendary Major League Baseball owner and promoter Bill Veeck, then the owner of Suffolk, created the Yankee Gold Cup, a two-mile grass race with a purse that grossed more than $250,000, a hefty sum at the time. Held 50 years ago this weekend, it proved a one-off event as the mutuel handle on the race fell well short of the purse. However, when adjusted to inflation, it probably remains the richest race ever run in Suffolk’s history — the equivalent of more than $1.7 million in today’s dollars.

On August 18, 1966, Suffolk Downs hosted a concert performed by four Englishmen — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — on their last tour of America. The Beatles collectively ceased performing live 11 days later.

Far from being an authority on Suffolk Downs or the history of New England racing in general, there will always be in my mind one horse synonymous with Suffolk Downs. The locally-based gray Waquoit went from shock winner of the 1987 Mass ‘Cap (under Boston native Chris McCarron) over the heavily favored Broad Brush in one of the great stretch duels of the era to one of the best stayers of his day with victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and Brooklyn Handicap (G1) twice, all at 1 1/2 miles. He also finished a solid third to Alysheba in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) against one of the best fields ever assembled for the race.

When you think about it, Waquoit embodied what Suffolk Downs has been. Not the very best, occasionally great, forever memorable.

Requiescat in pace.