Testimony Begins on NH Casino Legislation

Rockingham Park is in the mix for a casino under a bill passed by the state Senate.

by Lynne Snierson 

While stating that support for the introduction of casino gambling is at an all-time high in New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan opened testimony April 16 at a day-long hearing before the House of Representatives Joint Finance and Ways and Means Committee charged with reviewing a state Senate bill passed in March.

The bill, which was passed with bi-partisan support 16-8 in the upper body and is backed by the governor, allows one highly-regulated, high-end single casino to be developed along New Hampshire's southern border with Massachusetts. A study by the University of New Hampshire revealed that New Hampshire residents support the expansion of gambling by a 2-1 margin.

In 2011 Massachusetts legalized expanded gambling, and the newly created Massachusetts Gaming Commission is in the process of choosing the winning bids from among seven applicants for two destination resort casinos located in separate geographical regions, and the four applicants for one stand-along slot machine facility that may be placed anywhere in the state.

"We will lose as much as $70 million in revenue per year to Massachusetts if we do not adopt this bill. That's not a debatable issue. That's a fact," said Democratic Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a co-sponsor of the bill and long-time supporter of expanded gambling.

The legislation calls for an $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. There would be a 30% tax rate on slots, with 3% going to the host community, 1% for the abutting communities, and 1% to fund gambling addiction programs.

The remaining 25% of the revenue would be dedicated to the repair of roads, bridges, and highways; the state's public university and community college system; and the economic development of the depressed North Country region.

The governor included revenue from the $80 million casino license fee in her biennial budget. Under terms of the bill, the casino license must be awarded through an open, transparent, and competitive bidding process.

Rockingham Park, which is located on the border with Massachusetts and last held a Thoroughbred meet in 2002 and a Standardbred meet in 2009, is considered to be the odds-on choice to win the license. Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas holds the option to buy the 107-year-old track should legislation pass and it be the successful bidder.

Millennium has released plans for a $450 million revitalized Rockingham that includes the restoration of live horse racing. Nonetheless, Millennium's co-owner and co-chief operating officer William Wortman told The Blood-Horse in February that the company cannot at this time commit to live racing.

Moreover, he remains undecided whether Thoroughbreds or Standardbreds would be the breed if live racing were resurrected.

There are no provisions for the restoration and regulation of live horse racing or for preservation of New Hampshire farm land in the bill. Live Greyhound racing is outlawed in New Hampshire and the other New England states.

Wortman said many factors must go into the decision to restore racing at Rockingham, and they include what may develop at Suffolk Downs, New England's sole surviving Thoroughbred track, and other gambling and/or racing venues in the region.

Meanwhile, Suffolk Downs and partner Caesars Entertainment is in competition with Wynn Las Vegas and Foxwoods Resort casino for the lone casino license to be granted in the designated Boston-area region. Plainridge Race Course, the only Standardbred facility in Massachusetts, is competing against three other entities: the former Raynham Greyhound track and partner Greenwood Racing LLC, The Cordish Companies, and Rush Street Gaming for the single slots license.

The legislation in Massachusetts mandates that any facility currently holding a pari-mutuel license must continue live racing. Plainridge executives have stated that if the harness track's bid proves unsuccessful, it will cease all racing and simulcast operations and shutter its doors.

Testimony before the New Hampshire joint House committee continues April 17. A vote before the full House of Representatives is not expected before mid-May.

In related news, Dan Fick has been appointed associate commission steward by the Massachuestts Gaming Commission and its racing division.

Fick, who previously served on the Steward's Advisory Council of Racetrack Officials Accreditation Program, is a longtime racing industry official. He was formerly involved with a Texas horse group, chief executive officer and co-chair of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and executive director and vice president of The Jockey Club.

Fick also served as director of racing and racing secretary at Remington Park is a ROAP steward.