06/06/2002 11:00PM

Denying sale, GM looks ahead


SALEM, N.H. - Despite another difficult winter fighting unsuccessfully with the New Hampshire legislature, Rockingham Park is ready to put its best foot forward Sunday as racing in New England shifts to its summer playground.

The 100-program meet opens as horsemen and fans worry that this might be the final season of racing at the 96-year-old facility.

"The place has not been sold, and we're not in negotiations to sell the place," said Ed Callahan, Rockingham's vice president and general manager, dispelling reports that circulated after track management was rebuffed in attempts to gain legislative relief earlier this year. "We plan on meeting the obligations of our license for 2002. We'll look at our request for future dates in the fall, and our hope will be to continue. We've gotten a lot of help from our horsemen this year, and we have less competition for horses from the Massachusetts fairs."

Disputes with horsemen have roiled Rockingham over the past seven years, but a contract has already been signed going into this season. Callahan said he hoped that having an agreement in place will help regain some of the intertrack wagering business lost during that time.

"All of our efforts have gone into getting that product as good as it can be," said Callahan. We'll offer $94,000 in daily average purses, and we're making progress toward keeping that on the rise."

Winter recruiting campaigns by Bob Destasio, the track's director of racing, and Racing Secretary Jim Pambianchi, the racing secretary, enticed several new outfits from Florida to take on returning training champion Ron Dandy. Winston Thompson will look to defend his 2001 riding title after fighting neck and neck with Suffolk Downs-leading jockey Joe Hampshire.

The main racing event of the season will be the $200,000 Grade 3 New Hampshire Sweepstakes on June 22. Last year's winner, Hap, is among the nominations along with graded stakes winners Key Lory and Ready to Roll from New Jersey.

In addition, the $75,000 Rockingham Breeders' Cup on July 4th and the Aug. 4th $100,000 Spicy Living Stakes are expected to lure top turf female runners later in the summer.

Post time for racing Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday will be 1 p.m. while Friday races will start at 7:30 p.m. The track will simulcast seven days a week. There will be a special program on July 4th and an early post time of 11 a.m. for the Labor Day program Sept. 2.

Rockingham will have five Family Days during the season as well as outdoor barbecue events. Daily Racing Form will co-sponsor handicapping seminars most Saturdays through the end of the meet on Sept. 22.