Thoroughbred horse racing and harness racing tracks across New England continue to have a tough time of it. Between Massachusetts, New Hamphire and Maine, not counting the annual fairs, New England is down to five live racing venues: Bangor Raceway & Scarborough Downs in Maine, Plainridge Park Raceway & Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. But after September 1st, it will be down to four.
While Suffolk Downs in Revere, MA is holding on trying to continue thoroughbred horse-racing in New England, 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.
- In 1906, in the small New Hampshire village of Salem Depot, a group of investors opened a new racecourse – Rockingham Park.
- More than 10,000 people from Boston, Rhode Island, and New York flocked to its maiden 21-day meet.
- It had taken less than a year to build and cost $1 million.
- Upon its inauguration, it was popularly referred to as “the finest racecourse in the world.”
- Rockingham faced one fatal hurdle: gambling was illegal in New Hampshire. Without on-track wagering, Rockingham was not economically viable and no meeting was scheduled for the next year, nor the next, nor the next.
- The Great Depression proved to be Rockingham’s unlikely saviour.
Lynne Snierson in BloodHorse.com wrote that “over a hundred years later, President and general manager Ed Callahan confirmed that the ownership group has reached agreement with local businessman Joe Faro for the purchase of the remaining 120 acres of the property 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.”
- 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).
“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.
How did it come to be the end for the historic horse track? According to Lynne Snierson, its fate 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.
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.
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While more people follow the Triple Crown of racing more than ever before because of television and numerous casino race books not even open 10 years ago across the country, it is sad to report the the closing of yet another venue, which inevitably means loss of jobs for many. I can only hope that that the influx of casinos in Massachusetts can help those who worked in Rockingham, and also Suffolk Downs.