BOSTON (AP) — Officials of the Suffolk Downs thoroughbred race track told state gambling regulators on Tuesday that it is in discussions with several potential casino operators but may not have one in place before host community votes scheduled for next week.

The search for a new operator began when Suffolk Downs cut ties with Caesars Entertainment after being briefed on several issues that surfaced during a background check conducted by Massachusetts Gaming Commission investigators.

The 78-year-old track, which straddles the East Boston neighborhood and Revere, hopes to compete for the sole eastern Massachusetts resort casino license available under the state’s 2011 gambling law.

Suffolk Downs officials spoke at a suitability hearing held by the five-member commission to determine if the track is qualified to proceed with its casino bid. All gambling applicants and their partners must clear a background check conducted by the agency.

Charles Baker III, secretary for Suffolk Downs, said the track is seeking a “first class operator” to replace Caesars and is in discussions with several companies, including some that already have expressed interest in Massachusetts and have been vetted by the commission.

Baker said he could not promise a partner would be in place by next Tuesday, when votes are scheduled in East Boston and Revere on host community agreements negotiated by Suffolk Downs. Baker said a new operator would be in place by Dec. 31, the deadline for final casino applications, and that any new operator chosen must agree to honor the host agreements.

The commission briefed track officials earlier this month on issues that surfaced in its background check of Caesars, including the company’s now-ended relationship with a New York hotel company subsidiary, an executive’s previous work in online gambling, and Caesars’ now-settled dispute with a high-roller over millions of dollars in gambling debts. The panel also cited Caesars’ nearly $24 billion debt.

Caesars said it strongly disagreed with the findings but agreed to withdraw at the request of Suffolk Downs.

Thomas Reilly, a former Massachusetts Attorney General who was retained by Suffolk Downs, said Tuesday the track was surprised to learn of the commission’s findings but responded swiftly.

“Suffolk was blindsided by this but acted very quickly to deal with it,” Reilly said.

Caesars said in a statement after the hearing that it had shared with Suffolk Downs “all pertinent information regarding the suitability investigation” and was “equally surprised” by the investigators’ recommendation.

Karen Wells, director of the commission’s Investigations and Enforcement Bureau, said a background check of Suffolk Downs found nothing to prevent it from being deemed suitable to proceed with a casino bid. The commission will issue a final determination on suitability at a later date.

The panel also decided a scheduled referendum on the Suffolk Downs proposal will be held next Tuesday in East Boston and Revere. Residents will get information to make sure they know Caesars has withdrawn.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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