Will racing return to Rockingham Park?

Will racing return to Rockingham Park?

Artist's Rendition

New Governor Could Revive Rockingham Park

Newly elected New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan supports expanded casino gambling.

By Lynne Snierson

When newly elected New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, is inaugurated in January, it will be the first time in 12 years that the state’s chief executive supports the expansion of gambling. That could be a harbinger for the return of Thoroughbred racing to Rockingham Park.

“Time will tell, but while both candidates supported a casino in southern New Hampshire, Maggie has been in favor of it in the past and we anticipate she’ll be in favor of it in the future,” said Ed Callahan, president and general manager of Rockingham Park, which last hosted a live Thoroughbred meet in 2002. Hassan is the former president of the state Senate.

The Nov. 6 election also turned control of the New Hampshire House of Representatives over to the Democratic Party, so Hassan will have the advantage of working with her party. For more than 20 years, the House has killed every expanded gambling bill brought to the floor.

“We’re very hopeful that legislation can move quickly and we hope that Rockingham Park will be able to acquire a (casino) license not too far down the road and then we will be able to bring back live racing not too far after that,” said Callahan.

Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas, which owns The Meadows, a Standardbred racetrack and casino in Pennsylvania, holds the option to purchase Rockingham Park should the 106-year-old facility secure a casino license. Millennium officials have pledged to construct a $450 million state-of-the-art casino on the property, and they have stated consistently that returning live Thoroughbred racing to Rockingham Park is key to its revitalization. The track still maintains its turf course.

While running for the governorship, Hassan said she supported a high-end, highly regulated casino near the southern border with Massachusetts, but Rockingham Park was not pre-designated as the site. She advocated a transparent and competitive bidding process to increase revenue for the state.

Nonetheless, most experts agree that the racetrack, which sits on the state’s southern border only 30 miles north of Boston and off the first exit on I-93 would be the ideal location.

“I have not yet seen anything in writing, but I heard that Maggie said this morning (Nov. 7) that the first thing we need to do (once she is inaugurated) is pass the bill for a casino in southern New Hampshire because we need to beat Massachusetts to the punch,” said Callahan.

Massachusetts has yet to award any casino licenses even though expanded gambling legislation was passed a year ago, calling for as many as three full casinos in three separate areas of the state and one slots-only facility to be located anywhere.

Suffolk Downs, which has allied with Caesar’s Entertainment to construct a world-class casino on the track’s property in East Boston, is proceeding through channels established by the newly created Massachusetts Gaming Commission to win the sole license designated for the Boston region. The application at one time faced competition from a partnership of Wynn Resorts chairman and chief executive officer Steve Wynn and Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL New England Patriots.

Foxboro residents, however, rejected resoundingly the plan for a casino located directly across from the Patriots' Gillette Stadium. Another group headed by developer David Nunes also is pursuing the Boston-area license for a $1 billion resort-type casino to be built in the town of Milford. But Suffolk Downs, which has the backing of powerful Boston Mayor Tom Menino, is widely considered to hold the upper hand.

Suffolk Downs officials are working on host community agreements with the cities of Boston and Revere, which are adjacent to the track’s location. Once endorsed by the cities, the agreements then go before the voters of East Boston and Revere for approval. The referendums could be held within 60 to 90 days after the agreements are finalized. The license that Suffolk Downs seeks is expected to be awarded no earlier than the second half of 2013 but could be as late as February 2014. The project is expected to take three years to complete.

Meanwhile, Suffolk Downs concluded its 2012 live meet of 80 days Nov. 3. While final numbers have yet to be released, a track official requesting anonymity said that on-track handle declined while there was a slight increase in money wagered on the imported and exported simulcast signals. Attendance figures are not tracked.