03/22/2010 11:00PM

Rockingham has hurdles, but hope


TUCSON, Ariz. - All racetracks are not historic. One that is, however, is Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H.

Since its first Thoroughbred race in 1906, Rockingham has highlighted the best runners, trotters, pacers, motorcyclists, human marathoners, and even pilots.

Seabiscuit, Dr. Fager, and Roman Brother ran there.

Greyhound trotted there and won his first race there as a 2-year-old in 1934.

Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, and Chris McCarron rode there, and Hall of Famers Stanley Dancer, John Chapman, and Jim Doherty drove there.

The great Finnish marathoner Paavo Nurmi appeared there. And after New Hampshire introduced the nation's first state lottery in 1964, based on a Thoroughbred race, the wily Lou Smith, who ran Rockingham with a bold and imaginative hand in those days, introduced the New Hampshire Sweepstakes.

Through all of those events and the fire that burned it to the ground in 1980, Rockingham survived and thrived.

Now politicians have brought it down but could revive it as early as this week.

The story of the denouement and the possible revival are part of horse racing's dependence on politics.

The current sideshow began last fall, when at the end of the 2009 legislative session the conference committee removed all funding for the New Hampshire Racing Commission to regulate racing.

The stated intent was to remove funding for live greyhound racing, which was being phased out, but funds for regulating horse racing went with it.

The legislature said it realized the problem and would fix it.

Before it did, however, the state budget sank out of sight, and revenues were not meeting needs. New Hampshire courts ruled that $110 million in the medical malpractice funds could not be used by the state to solve budgetary problems. The legislature voted on slots at tracks and defeated the measure.

Facing a $150 million deficit as 2010 dawned, the state talked but did not act or agree to restore funding for the racing commission. Rockingham, which pays some $290,000 in direct revenue and reimbursement from live racing, will not have that to offer, and the local economy surrounding the track will lose $12 million or so in economic impact. The track offered to have the state bill it for regulation, but the measure providing for that was defeated.

So where to from here?

This week, the Senate tackles Bill 489, which provides for slots and possibly table games at three tracks - two greyhound operations that have simulcasting but no live racing and Rockingham Park, the state's only horse track, which won't have live racing unless a racing commission is funded to regulate it - and three resort locations.

The tracks, of course, support the measure. Rockingham and one large resort would have to pay $50 million for their licenses to operate slots. The greyhound tracks and two smaller resorts would have to pay $20 million each.

Smelling that kind of real money, the Senate Finance Committee had the bill amended so that the first $50 million of license fees from Rockingham would go for health and human services.

If it passes this week, the bill moves to the Local and Regulated Revenue Committee of the House for an early April hearing and then possibly to the full House.

New Hampshire, of course, is just one little racing state. But in a big one, such as New Jersey, things are hardly better. Governor Chris Christie has spread responsibility for racing solutions far and wide among committees, and towering over all of them is the giant, snarling figure of the Atlantic City casinos, New Jersey's shadow government.

They have in recent years gotten what they want. On this issue, they want an end to subsidies to horse racing and no slots at tracks, particularly the Meadowlands with New York's Manhattan looming over the skyline eight miles away.

Like slots or not, at a venue like the Meadowlands they could cause purses to explode. In a bold experiment, the Big M's sister track, Monmouth Park, will try a drastically shortened Thoroughbred beach resort season with $1 million a day in purses.

There will be no runners at the Meadowlands this year, the trotters having to figure out for themselves how to maintain the track's prestige and standing as the western world's biggest and best harness meet.

Still to come are those committee recommendations in May. An earlier governor's advisory committee had decided on endorsing the casino approach at the Meadowlands, but when word of its intentions hit the boardwalk, 24 hours before the report was to be released, splinters flew all the way to Princeton and Trenton, and no more was heard about that common sense idea.

And you thought the health bill was tough.