12/02/2002 12:00AM

In '03, Rockingham to be harness-only

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SALEM, N.H. - Rockingham Park has announced that it will conduct a harness meet only in 2003, apparently ending more than 90 years of Thoroughbred racing in New Hampshire.

On Monday, Rockingham received permission from the state racing commission to race 100 harness dates between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. The track previously held harness racing from 1957 to 1980, when a fire destroyed the grandstand.

In October, Rockingham signed a deal to develop its property, which lies along the Massachusetts border, but agreed to race through 2004. With purses for Standardbreds significantly lower than those for Thoroughbreds, harness racing offers a cheaper alternative for Rockingham over the next two years.

"Our options were somewhat limited," said Ed Callahan, vice president and general manager of Rockingham. "We couldn't reach a deal with the Thoroughbred horsemen. We could close the track or we could run a harness meet. There are no other options in this industry right now."

The switch will leave Suffolk Downs as the only major Thoroughbred track in New England and creates a huge hole in the racing season.

In recent years, Rockingham and Suffolk have raced as a circuit, with Suffolk running from January to early June and from mid-September until late December, and Rockingham holding a meet during the summer.

Thoroughbred horsemen had hoped they could negotiate a new contract, but will now look to extend Suffolk's meet beyond its June closing.

Manfred Roos, president of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said: "We can't leave too much space during the summer because then a lot of horsemen will leave and not make it back in September. But these are all things that will be worked out, and we'll just have to deal with them and get through. I'm sure Suffolk will work with us."

Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Bob O'Malley said he intends to meet with the horsemen in the next few days to discuss Rockingham's decision.

Thoroughbred racing has had a colorful history in New Hampshire over the past century. Rockingham held a surreptitious Thoroughbred meeting in 1906 before parimutuel racing was legal. Fairs and expositions were held on the site until wagering was legalized in 1933. Then, under the direction of Lou Smith, the track began a 49-year run that saw luminaries such as Seabiscuit and Discovery race there. The New Hampshire Sweepstakes was instituted in 1964 and was tied to the state's lottery. It was the richest 3-year-old race in America during the mid-1960's and was won by 1965 Horse of the Year Roman Brother.

Hall of famer Dr. Fager raced at the Rock in 1967 and set track records that still stand. Following the 1980 fire, the track was closed until the current owners, Rockingham Venture Inc., reopened it four years later. Competition from casinos in Connecticut has been blamed for steep declines in business over the past decade.