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Casino developer buys big Suffolk Downs stake

Firm plans complex and possibly gaming

Suffolk Downs has hosted horse racing almost continuously since 1935, but its fortunes have faded as racing's has. New partner Richard Fields has had success building casinos in Florida. (FILE/THE BOSTON GLOBE)

A developer with a successful track record of building casinos in Florida is now making a bet on gambling coming to Massachusetts.

Coastal Development Massachusetts LLC, headed by developer Richard Fields of New York, has purchased the largest ownership interest in the company that runs Suffolk Downs racetrack. He is expected to try to turn the tired horse-racing venue into a modern entertainment complex that would include shops, restaurants, live entertainment, family activities, and -- if state government embraces it -- casino gambling.

Fields raises horses and is a racing fan whose development projects include the Seminole Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla., which he developed with the Cordish Co. They opened about three years ago.

"He has an interest in racing without or without gaming," said Chip Tuttle, a spokesman for Suffolk Downs. "If there's an opportunity for gaming in Massachusetts in the next few years, obviously there's one there."

Field's company closed Friday on the purchase of the stake in Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC owned by Trish Moseley of Hamilton and other, smaller shareholders. Neither the purchase price nor Fields's ownership interest was disclosed, but one executive briefed on the deal, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Fields bought between 40 and 50 percent.

"My personal feeling is this is the best shot for racing to continue, and that's the only reason I did it," said Moseley, who with her husband James became co-owners of Suffolk Downs in 1997. James Moseley died in 1998.

Fields could not be reached for comment. But in a statement his company issued yesterday, the developer said that over the next few months his team would work on combining "the horse racing that has long defined Suffolk Downs with a world-class facility for everyone who visits our site."

In the same statement, Suffolk Downs president John Hall said Fields's investment "is a positive development for horse racing in Massachusetts."

Other parties involved in the transaction either declined to comment on Fields's new stake or did not return calls seeking comment.

Fields joins the other current owners of Suffolk Downs, partnerships controlled by local concessionaire Joe O'Donnell, New York retail developer Vornado Realty Trust, and Hall Properties Inc. of Boston.

Fields, a rancher and conservationist with property in Wyoming, is in competition to operate three New York racetracks. That state is expected to make a decision by the end of June. A thoroughbred racetrack in East Boston and Revere on about 170 acres , Suffolk Downs has suffered as horse racing has declined, surviving in part by simulcasting races from other locations.

If Suffolk Downs owners are unable to expand it with casino gambling, they could close the track and redevelop the site.

Governor Deval Patrick has convened a group to determine whether Massachusetts should have casino gambling. A Patrick spokeswoman said yesterday there is no timeframe for completion of the work of the group, which is headed by Dan O'Connell, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development.

State Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a Democrat from North Adams who is cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, has opposed gambling in the state. Bosley could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Suffolk Downs was built in 1935 and had horse racing until new owners purchased it in 1989, when it closed. Racing resumed in 1992, after the Moseleys and Hall assumed control through a lease. They were joined by O'Donnell and others and paid about $37 million to buy Suffolk Downs in 1997.

The track simulcasts all year round, and races horses on 100 days from May to November, usually four days a week.

The track also hosts concerts and events such as Cirque de Soleil, the traveling circus troupe. It has parking for at least 5,000 cars.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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