For most people one of two things comes when they hear the words "Horse Track". The first is the big hats, big wallets, and big juleps environment of the triple crown tracks or Del Mar. With expensive restaurants, reserved boxes and a valet lot full of European sports cars. The other picture that comes to mind is the gritty, probably rigged, definitely tied to the mob racing where most of the crowd is there because that's what they do for a living. Suffolk Downs mixes both of these visions, albeit unevenly towards the lower class side. It still has a shred of dignity, even though its a tattered and worn shred.
Suffolk Downs was originally opened in 1935 after the legalization of pari-mutel gambling in Massachusetts. Built on 200 acres of mudflats in East Boston next to what would become Logan International Airport. It was completed in 62 days and was designed to hold 16,000 fans, making it one of the biggest tracks of the time. Daily attendance remained above 10,000 people through the early 1970's. It has seen some notable horse come and go, most famously would be Seabiscuit. It has hosted concerts for some of the biggest acts of all time, such as the Beatles in 1966, or more recently Radiohead.
Going to Suffolk Downs is a great way to spend a Saturday, I enjoy the entertainment and the rush of gambling even if my bets are low risk and low value. The less than gentlemanly attitude of the track is interesting and somewhat satisfying. The entry is cheap, the beer is reasonably priced, the food is edible and the grounds are surprisingly well maintained. However all of these characteristics are what make trips to the track have a depressing note to them. The interior of the track is full of well maintained grass and a pond with a fountain. The grandstands have a nice outdoor seating area with benches that is attached to an enclosed box seating area that features an on track restaurant and automated betting. The outside of the facility is also well maintained with flower beds spotting the bright green grass on the main entryway. It does seem that this effort that is put into making the track a friendly environment to people who are there for entertainment and not to make a living is wasted. The indoor grandstands with the box seats are almost entirely empty, even on a crowded day. The outdoor benches seem to be only full of bored kids or people who stepped out for a smoke. The most crowded part of the facility is the one that is the least well kept. The racks of old television simulcasting races from all over the country, with rows of seats that look unfit for an airport are what draw the biggest crowds. Almost no attention goes to the races that are actually happening on site, at most a couple hundred people will walk out to cheer on the local jockeys.
Its often this juxtaposition of the almost aristocratic with the working class that gives it what I guess I would call "charm". The horse track has historically been a place where the lower class and the social elites were both accepted. It seems that Suffolk downs has taken a hard hit in the category of dignity, not that this is a bad thing. There is definitely something funny to me, although its probably the cynic in me, about scratch ticket vending machines, and empty bottles of crown royal in the ash trays. Though I'm sure a lot of the people who spend their days here have what would be called a problem, a definite majority are just older folks from the area who grew up spending days at the track, and will continue to do so.
After visiting a few other, more famous tracks, I definitely came to appreciate what Suffolk Downs can offer. What it offers is a guaranteed way to have a fun Saturday without a big hit on your wallet. No 15 dollar entry fee, no 9 dollar beers but with the same the chance that you might walk away a winner. It makes me wonder what keeps this place from being more crowded, especially on these sunny fall days where its too cold to swim but still perfect for sitting outside in the sun. I also wonder why there isn't a push to draw in more of Bostons 250,000 college students when its accessible via the subway, and costs under 20 dollars for a day of eating, drinking and gambling. Although this article may make Suffolk Downs seem like a downer, I will definitely co continue to return, because there's no way around it, the place has character.
As in previous articles, photos link to respective flikr's, please give them a look as many have lots of other interesting photos.