Sports

Stakes high as Suffolk Downs opens

EAST BOSTON – On Opening Day in baseball, hope springs eternal and every team has World Series dreams. As the live racing season begins at Suffolk Downs today, horsemen, management and fans have somewhat more modest aspirations: They simply hope for future opening days.In gambling parlance, you might says Suffolk Downs is “all in” in its attempt to get the casino license earmarked for the Boston area. Having entered into a partnership with Caesars Entertainment, Suffolk Downs’ primary competition is Steve Wynn, who is seeking to open a casino a few miles away in Everett.And while optimism abounds at the racetrack – not only for the dawn of a new season, but also because those associated with Suffolk Downs genuinely feel there are many reasons the casino should be there – most understand that the reality is the track may not be able to survive without it.”The track has not been profitable since 2005 or 2006,” said Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle. “Our ownership has invested a lot of money to keep the racing operation going. They made a commitment to racing and have honored that commitment. Absent a resort casino development on the property, it’s hard to envision a scenario where racing can continue.”That makes perfect sense to Jay Bernardini, one of the track’s top trainers, whose 42 wins last year were second only to perennial champ John Rigattieri, who captured the title for the ninth straight year with 49.”The casino is essential,” said Bernardini, a Lynn resident who has been involved with horse racing for virtually his entire life. “The racetrack has a tough enough time competing with the Lottery. I don’t think it could compete with a casino as close as Everett. We are all counting on the Gaming Commission to take that into consideration.”The casino issue should be resolved by early next year. For now, the focus is on the racing season that will run through Nov. 2. And Bernardini might just be ready to dethrone Rigattieri as the leading trainer.”We built and planned for the Suffolk Downs meet,” said Bernardini, who spent the winter racing – and claiming – horses in Maryland, one of many states that has seen its racing product flourish thanks to the infusion of casino revenue. “With good health and good luck I think we’re going to be competitive.”If there is strength in numbers, Bernardini has a good shot, with 43 horses in his barn (including the Vince Wilfork-owned Seventyfivespecial) as of Wednesday and a few more on the way, after he acquired at least 15 over the winter.”Maryland has raised purses 30-40 percent the last couple of years with money it gets from the casino,” he said. “It’s a very competitive circuit.”That notwithstanding, Bernardini grew up on the New England circuit and that’s where he wants to stay, at least for the six months that Suffolk races.”I don’t want to have to uproot my family (wife Carol and son Kyle) in order to make a living,” he said. “Whether Suffolk gets the casino will definitely affect our business.”Bernardini grew up in the horse racing business, earning $1 a day working for trainers at Rockingham from the time he was nine. He was an honor roll student at Salem (NH) High, but by the time he graduated in 1984, he was already working full-time on the backstretch.”Horses are my passion,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve never worked another job other than this.”As an assistant trainer, he worked for the highly regarded Vinnie Blengs and Tim Hills, both of whom experienced success on larger circuits as well as in New England. Bernardini would work for Blengs at Gulfstream in the winter then come back to Rockingham and Suffolk Downs for the summer. He was still in his 20s when he went out on his own.Through hard work and attention to detail – Bernardini’s barn is cleaner than some houses – he gradually expanded his client base. Over the years, horses he has trained have won 15 percent of their starts, been in the money 41 percent of the time and earned more than $6.3 mi

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