Racing at 'Rock' Hinges on Many Developments

by Lynne Snierson

Though the return of live racing remains part of the revitalization of Rockingham Park if expanded gambling is legalized in New Hampshire and Millennium Gaming wins a competitive bidding process for a casino license, it is no sure bet that Thoroughbreds will compete once again at the 107-year-old track.

"Our plan here at The Rock is to have live racing," said William Wortman, co-principal and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas-based gaming company that also owns the The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in western Pennsylvania. "We said that from the start and we haven't wavered from that. But we haven't determined exactly what type of racing or how much racing. We have to go through that entire process."

Wortman made his remarks Feb. 7 at a public town hall meeting held at Rockingham to detail plans for a $450 casino project and update the status of the effort to pass favorable legislation in the current legislative session. In the past, officials of Millennium, which holds the option to purchase the racetrack, have stated consistently Thoroughbred racing would be revived.

Millennium's architectural renderings of the new Rockingham Park include a full field of horses and jockeys racing through the clubhouse turn on the main track as well as a depiction of the existing the turf course. Rockingham, which has not hosted a Thoroughbred meet since 2002, switched to harness racing in 2003 and ended all live racing after the 2009 season.

"It is our intent to have live racing," Wortman said. "But that is going to depend upon a bunch of things like Suffolk Downs, what they do, and whatever else is happening in the region. But it is our intent to move forward with racing.

"We think that there is an advantage to doing that, not only from the standpoint of an on-going operation, but secondarily, we're the only location in the state of New Hampshire that has the ability to have live racing. We think that's a good advantage."

Suffolk Downs and partner Caesars Entertainment has filed a formal application with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to develop a $1 billion casino on racetrack grounds. The proposal is competing against another $1 billion plan filed by Steve Wynn and a third multimillion-dollar plan by David Nunes for the designated Boston area.

Rush Street Gaming and The Cordish Companies, which also met MGC requirements, may also jump into the fray and compete for either a full casino license or a stand-alone slot machine parlor in the Boston market.

The license is expected to be awarded by the end of February 2014. Under the terms of legislation in Massachusetts, Suffolk Downs would be required to continue live Thoroughbred racing if the track wins the license.

A casino bill filed by New Hampshire Sens. Lou D'Allesandro, a Democrat, and Chuck Morse, a Republican, will be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee Feb. 19. The bill provides for revenue from slots to be taxed at 30% and from table games at the rate of 14%.

There would be one destination resort casino located along New Hampshire's southern border with Massachusetts; a 10-year license would cost $80 million.

A competing bill filed by Republican Rep. Edmond Gionet would establish two casinos, one in the White Mountains region and another along the southern tier. Winning bidders would have to invest a minimum of $10 million in each facility and would pay $10 million for the license plus a yearly renewal fee of $ 1 million. The bill will be taken up in a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing Feb. 21.

There are no provisions for live racing, purse supplements, or incentives for the breeding industry in New Hampshire in either bill.

D'Allesandro, who attended the town hall meeting, noted that the political climate for expanding gambling is now more favorable than ever. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan campaigned on an expanded gambling platform and was elected last year after Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat who had promised to veto any pro-gambling legislation, retired after four terms in office.

"This is the best chance we've ever had. The stars have aligned," D'Allesandro said. "The bill will pass the Senate with bipartisan support and then it will be up to the House. This is an economic development tool. We need jobs in this state and we need economic recovery. We need private capital spent. This bill makes a lot of sense."

Hassan's budget is due the week of Feb. 10, and there is no comment at this time if an expanded gambling provision will be included. In the modern era, every bill to expand gambling has been killed in the House.

Wortman, who is aware that Millennium Gaming will not be the only bidder to develop a casino in New Hampshire, said if the bill passes by the end of the session July 1, he expects the license to be awarded by early 2014. With construction time on the new 425,000-square-foot facility projected to take 18 to 20 months, the ribbon on a new Rockingham Park could be cut by 2016

Rockingham Park president Ed Callahan said that during construction, full-card simulcasts of Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Greyhound racing, as well as charitable gaming, would continue in a temporary facility.

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