Rockingham Park, New England's first track that debuted with a Thoroughbred meet in 1906, has reached the finish line and will shutter its doors for good Aug. 31.
President and general manager Ed Callahan confirmed May 27 that the ownership group has reached agreement with local businessman Joe Faro for the purchase of the remaining 120 acres of the property. Faro purchased the 50 acres that had comprised the majority of the stable area about 18 months ago for $9.6 million; and almost all of the barns, dormitories, and other structures have already been demolished.
"Simulcasting and the charitable gaming will come to an end Aug. 31," Callahan said. "All of our employees and the numerous charities that benefited were notified today. It's a sad day."
The news most likely is the final chapter in the glorious history of Rockingham, which hasn't conducted a live Thoroughbred meet since 2002 but still holds an important place in the history of the sport. It held harness meets for several years after Thoroughbred racing was abandoned.
More than one-third of the jockeys and dozens of the trainers enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame competed at the track over the decades, and many also have ties to the Triple Crown.
Eddie Arcaro rode Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), and photos of when he was a member of Rockingham's jockey colony still hang in the clubhouse. Other Triple Crown winners who rode at Rockingham include Johnny Longden (Count Fleet, 1943), Ron Turcotte (Secretariat, 1973), and Jean Cruget (Seattle Slew, 1977).
Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, who started as a teenage groom on the Rockingham backstretch, rode Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Former Rockingham regulars Stewart Elliot (Smarty Jones, 2004), Jose Santos (Funny Cide, 2003), and Jorge Velasquez (Pleasant Colony, 1981) also captured the first two jewels in the Triple Crown.
Triple Crown-winning trainers "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox, 1930; Omaha, 1935), Ben Jones (Whirlaway, 1941), Max Hirsch (Assault, 1946), Horace Jones (Citation, 1948), Lucien Laurin (Secretariat, 1973) and Lazaro Barrera (Affirmed, 1978) ran horses at Rockingham during the golden eras of racing.
"We anticipate there will be an auction of equipment, furniture, and memorabilia Sept. 24-25," said Callahan, who noted the racing memorabilia, trophies, and artwork with the greatest historical significance will be donated to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the New England Sports Museum, and the New Hampshire Museum of History, among others.
The fate of the track was sealed when the ownership group failed during every session for more than 20 years to get casino gambling passed by the New Hampshire legislature. Without expanded gambling and with increased competition from casinos in neighboring Massachusetts and Maine and nearby Connecticut, the business was no longer sustainable.
In 1991, the year the first Native American casinos in Connecticut opened, Rockingham handled more than $200 million on live and simulcast Thoroughbred racing, but the numbers dropped every year thereafter.
By fiscal July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006, total pari-mutuel handle had dropped to $75,483,736, according to statistics provided by the State of New Hampshire. A decade later Thoroughbred handle had plummeted to $27,522, 208 for fiscal year July 1, 2015, through May 22, 2016, which are the latest figures reported.
"The closure of the racetrack is coming way too quickly, that's for sure, but what can you do? Now it's onward and upward," said Callahan, who has held the reins at Rockingham since the current owners purchased the track in 1982 after a 1980 fire that destroyed the grandstand and other structures.
By law, the simulcast and charitable gaming licenses are non-transferrable and cannot be included in the purchase price, which was not disclosed.
Faro, owner of the Tuscan Brands chain of upscale Italian restaurants and food markets, is redeveloping Rockingham's former stable area into "Tuscan Village," which will be a mixed use project also including high-end townhomes, luxury rental apartments, a steakhouse, hotel, movie theater, bowling alley, and office and retail space.
Faro could not be reached for comment on his plans for the rest of the property or whether he intends to apply for a simulcast and/or charitable gaming license, or perhaps even consider the return of live racing one day. Meanwhile, Rockingham's remaining simulcast customers will have to go elsewhere.
Yankee Greyhound Racing, which has not held live dog racing since it was outlawed in the state in 2009, is also on the market for real estate development but remains open for full-card simulcasts in nearby Seabrook, N.H. Suffolk Downs, which will offer six days of live racing in 2016, is located about 20 miles from Rockingham in East Boston, Mass., and still simulcasts year-round.