by Lynne Snierson
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas has upped its ante significantly for the casino project it hopes to develop at Rockingham Park, and though new architectural renderings include a redesigned one-mile main track and a seven-furlong turf course, the company hasn't decide whether Thoroughbred racing will be revitalized at the 107-year-old landmark.
"Our plan is to restore live racing. We haven't made the decision whether it will be Thoroughbred or Standardbred racing," Millennium co-owner and co-chief executive officer William Wortman told BloodHorse.com. "It's just too early to do that."
Wortman was at Rockingham May 8 to show off the new plans for what will now be a destination resort casino.
Millennium owns the option to purchase Rockingham, which debuted in 1906 with a 21-day Thoroughbred meet as New England's first track, should expanded gambling legislation pass in New Hampshire. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan supports a single, high-end, highly regulated casino to be located near the state's southern border with Massachusetts; the license would be awarded through an open competitive bidding process.
Hassan included an $80 million casino license fee in her biennial budget even though expanded gambling is not legal in New Hampshire. During the current session, the state Senate passed legislation to allow a single casino with the $80 million license fee, a minimum investment of $425 million over five years by the casino developer, 5,000 slot machines, and 150 table games.
The bill is now being debated in the House of Representatives, which did not include the $80 million license fee in its version of the budget and has killed every expanded gambling bill brought forward in modern times.
"At this point in time, we are looking at passing the law in this state first. Nothing happens unless the law passes," said Wortman, who personally owns 20% of Rockingham. "Then if we get past that, we have to go through a bidding process. Even if the law passes, we don't know if we're going to be the licensee.
"There are so many other things that have to fall in line before we make a decision about (what type of) racing. At this stage, it is premature."
When Millennium unveiled its initial plans for a revitalized Rockingham Park in 2007, the project carried a cost of $450 million and was primarily a venue for slots. During debate in the House over the past several weeks, public policy and gaming experts testified that a facility of that size and scope would be unable to compete with an upscale, destination resort casino in Boston costing $1.2 billion or more and situated only 30 miles from Rockingham.
Suffolk Downs and partner Caesars Entertainment submitted a formal proposal to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for a billion-dollar destination resort casino on the racetrack grounds in East Boston; casino magnate Steve Wynn filed an application for a $1.2 billion project in nearby Everett; and Foxwoods Resort Casino is the third competitor for the sole casino license designated for the Boston region. Millennium's initial plans were drawn up before expanded gambling was legalized in Massachusetts in 2011.
"We have redeveloped our site, and this model is significantly larger than the first model," said Wortman, who put the cost at more than $600 million. "The simple answer is that we are in a much more competitive circumstance in today's marketplace. We have to develop a product that is competitive with whatever is coming in Massachusetts."
The new plans for Rockingham add a 300-room resort hotel, a convention center with meeting room space, a full service spa, an entertainment venue with 1,500 seats, and an outdoor festival area. The gaming floor area has been redesigned to be more upscale, and there is room for expansion on the 170-acre grounds at Rockingham.
Bob Elliott, a Republican state representative from Rockingham's district, said a special 45-member House subcommittee working on the Senate bill will vote May 16 to either pass the bill or deem it inexpedient to legislate, which would effectively kill it. He said the consensus is 20 members will vote to pass the bill, 20 will vote against it, and five are undecided.
If the bill clears the committee, a minimum of 199 members of the current 397-member House will have to vote in favor of the bill for it to pass.
There are four other developers, including New Hampshire's only NASCAR track, that have expressed interest in bidding for the sole casino license, and Wortman said he expects several more to emerge should favorable legislation be enacted. He said if Millennium wins the bidding process for the license, the new Rockingham Park would take 18 months to construct and could be operational by 2015.
There are no provisions for the restoration and regulation of live horse racing or any enhancements for breeders in the Senate bill. New Hampshire law allows Rockingham, which last held a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and a Standardbred meet in 2009, to offer full-card simulcasts without running live races.
Nonetheless, Wortman said Millennium "absolutely" intends to include live racing in its plans for the destination resort casino.
"Just to be clear about it, we are rebuilding the racetrack, and rebuilding a track is a very significant capital cost," he said. "We are rebuilding barns because all of those old barns out there now have to go.
"We're not going to make that kind of capital contribution into the project and not use it. But the important thing to remember is that we are rebuilding the track. No one is going to spend that kind of money just to have a track."
The full House is expected to vote on the bill as early as May 22 though it may be delayed for another week.