SEABROOK, N.H. – The bones of the old grandstands are easy to find. Long, sloping steps eventually end at a newly constructed wall, glass door, or window.
With greyhound racing decamping to two West Virginia tracks by 2023, owners of the facilities legislated into oblivion have been left to figure out how — or whether — to make something of empty, often dilapidated structures surrounding fallow dirt ovals.
Some owners and executives have gotten creative. Some have seemingly surrendered when society began thinking differently of their sport. Local gambling laws and the ambitions or financial muster of ownership have a lot to do with it.
At Bally’s Twin River Lincoln outside Providence, R.I., sports betting kiosks have been pushed into corners of the old grandstands and the racing surface has become a parking lot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., at a Derby Lane track made famous as a backdrop for a scene in Oceans Eleven, the infield grass still grows lush but the space sits unused. The family that owns Raynham Park in Massachusetts hopes to transform the dilapidated track into the state’s biggest retail sportsbook.
The Brook, an employee-owned charity casino has tried to establish a niche with poker, historical horse racing, and soaking up all the sports betting business it can before Massachusetts launches its market. And by being what it can be.
“The family that owned it really did want to see it continue as a gaming facility,” said Andre Carrier, chief operating officer of the company that owns The Brook. “They didn’t really want to see it kind of be used for an Amazon warehouse.”
And in South Florida, Magic City Casino dropped greyhound racing before it became illegal in the state, hoping a bet on another flickering sport — jai alai — pays off.
One exit into New Hampshire and a few minutes off Interstate-95 is The Brook. It’s easily identified as a former greyhound track by its architecture and the expanse of land behind with an old tote board still standing watch. A wood-and-wrought metal motif, including a fire fountain perched in the middle of the valet circle, quickly indicate this facility has aspirations beyond being something that used to be on Yankee Greyhound Way.
The property had “eroded fairly substantially” when Eureka Casino Resorts bought it in 2019, Carrier said, with a Visqueen tunnel and dumpster system the only remedy keeping “the hanging gardens of Seabrook” from flooding when the rains came heavy.
Greyhound racing had been banned in New Hampshire since 2010, ahead of a growing trend, but the owners of Greyhound Park had halted live racing five years before that because of withering attendance.
Gambling in New Hampshire is limited to “charity” casinos, a lottery, and since legalization in 2019, a single sports betting license secured by Boston-based DraftKings. As a charity casino, The Brook must donate 35% of all revenues and is then taxed by the state. It’s sent more than $5 million to more than 75 charities since 2019. Historical Horse Racing machines, which look very much like slot machines but generate outcomes through a database of horse racing results, are taxed at a different rate. Sports betting brought its own possibilities.
“We were fortunate that as we arrived, New Hampshire was contemplating sports betting and then also contemplating historical horse racing,” Carrier said.
Sports betting in New Hampshire is available state-wide via mobile, but even on a mid-afternoon weekday in July, with only a few baseball games and Wimbledon being played live, a few dozen patrons had taken positions in the mini living rooms or loungers situated before three main TV screens. Half of The Brooks’s sports betting revenue is generated from customers driving north from metro Boston, Carrier said. That figures to decline once Massachusetts launches its state-wide mobile sports betting operation, perhaps before 2023.
Most of the older male patrons in the DraftKings sportsbook — the largest retail parlor in the state — had come for the pari-mutuel simulcast, as evidenced by their flipping from tennis to dog racing from the Yankees to Aqueduct when they settled into a nook to scour a Racing Form.
This could have passed for any otherwise typical sportsbook in a small casino in Anywhereville, USA, if not for the tell-tale steps that led down to the ticket counter and a door to what was once the apron of the track.
Beyond the sportsbook is an expansive party deck with a large TV screen the centerpiece and numerous heat lamps for the cold days not so far away.
“I think in New England there’s a notorious want to stay outside as long as we can,” Carrier said. “We extend the season. I think for football, we’ll be out there as long as we can.”
The Brook Isn’t the Encore Boston, Knows it, Embraces it
The Brook is unique in that it is employee-owned through Eureka. Labor/ownership there is helpful and proud of their little corner of a little state but newcomers coming up from Boston are sometimes warned “don’t expect the Encore.”
Fleetwood Mac isn’t likely to come rolling through Seabrook, but Fleetwood Macked will be in the remodeled Season’s Showroom on Oct. 6. And that’s OK, Carrier said. They’re the largest charity casino in the United States. They boast the largest off-track betting facility in New England and were the first there to roll in HHRs.
“I think what I tend to do is try to think about what do we do well, be it with facility or service,” Carrier said. “Interestingly in organizations of this size, you’re actually much more nimble.”
After an expansion and remodel, it’s about knowing the room, Carrier said, knowing the patron and making every one of them feel at home.
No, The Brook doesn’t match the Encore Boston glass and steel casino complex perched on the Mystic River in posh or swagger, doesn’t offer the same games, doesn’t have those tremendous red Venetian glass chandeliers. But, a few steps inside the front door, past the video roulette tables and HHR machines, there’s a sportsbook that actually takes bets. Meanwhile, The Encore has a row of ticket windows it can’t yet use and a sportsbook where patrons eat hot dogs and yell at the Red Sox on television.
That doesn’t mean that The Brook is a mom-and-pop. Carrier, a New Hampshire native who admits seeing the place thrive is personal, is a former Golden Nugget executive who made his first proposal for casino gaming before the Massachusetts legislature in 1993. Meanwhile Eureka, Carrier asserts, is full of “generalists” and “almost any one of my senior team could go and, you know, either has run their own business or could tomorrow.”
“Being able to come back home and do this at this point in my career is really meaningful,” Carrier said. “I believe in this business model. I believe in charitable gaming, a 100% employee-owned casino. You’re contributing on the community level, a tax-based contribution. You’re contributing on a community level, especially in a state like New Hampshire that has no income-tax funding, what are essential social services.”
Magic City Casino
The backdrop behind the former greyhound track at Magic City Casino is in stark contrast to The Brook. The entirety of the seating bowl remains. There’s not a fire pit to be found — not unless the temperatures dip into the 60s, here in South Florida — and the horizon is dotted not trees, but the high-rises Miami rising to the east.
In the infield of the dog track, some sort of metal scaffold structure was under construction, the only clue to this American-Gladiators-reminiscent set up a video board on the backstretch teasing a message: “Sports Challenge America.”
Sports Challenge America will be another big swing for MagicCity Casino, a family-owned business that pivoted away from greyhound racing and toward jai alai — building a new $600,000 fronton in 2018 — as both sports gasped for air in Florida. Greyhound racing was outlawed beginning in 2021, and jai alai remains alive only at Magic City, but with renewed hope after ESPN agreed to broadcast its “Battle Court II” season beginning Sept. 23. Big-swinging Magic City and other Florida pari-mutuel outlets also successfully litigated sports betting in Florida out of operation, although that case has reached the US District Court of Appeals.
Once completed, “Sports Challenge America” will contain basketball and tennis courts, a home plate and pitcher’s mound, soccer shot area and a 65-yard golf hole.
The concept: players pay to attempt feats of athletic brag-worthiness and bet on themselves to do so while amused patrons in The Sports Club — a would-be sportsbook — watch from above.
“In Florida, sports betting is illegal, but a skilled challenge where you’re betting on yourself is legal,” chief operations officer Scott Savin said. “So you would pay a fixed amount of money to try and make a half-court basket or a hole-in-one or three strikes in a row. And it’s all basically based on running these projections.”
Participants would shell out $10 with a chance to collect $5,000 for a hole-in-one or a $250 half-court basketball shot.
“I wanted to find something to match with the passive,” Savin explained. “Because if I’m watching a football game or baseball game — and I’m too old for this — but I get the itch to want to go out and play … well, OK. Or there’s a bunch of guys watching a football game here or basketball game, and then they’re like, ‘Hey, let’s all go down and try and make a half-court shot … OK.
“We haven’t found anywhere else in the country that has it.”
Savin is pleased with how he’s turned ideation into innovation, but he knows few in his position anywhere have such leeway.
“You have to have some — I mean, I know most of these dog track people, so I don’t want to be disparaging — but you have to have some ingenuity and you have to be willing to take a chance,” he said. “I’m also very lucky. This is a family-owned facility that I run for the family and they let me try things. I don’t have to answer to a board and we’re not a stock exchange company. Having the freedom that they allow is huge.”
The Brook, Magic City, Society Move on From Dog Racing
Both Carrier and Savin have artfully acknowledged the nostalgia many of their patrons feel toward dog racing while understanding it wasn’t part of the future of their company or sports in general — and why.
Nods to the greyhound heydey are laced around Magic City in the form of vintage photographs. A portrait of a distinguished-looking runner in a swank jacket hangs in Carrier’s office, perfectly framed for video conferencing.
It may be Charlie, the track’s old “logo dog” or it could be Master McGrath, who was so successful and renowned in the late 19th century that he inspired ballads.
It doesn’t matter. Like the George Washington portrait by the men’s room at The Brook and the Queen Elizabeth counterpart next to the women’s, it’s just meant to be part of the vibe.
And part of the way to the future.