11/29/2002 1:00AM

Rockingham may drop flat racing


SALEM, N.H. - Rockingham Park, which has previously announced plans to develop its property following the conclusion of the 2004 racing season, is close to deciding whether it will request a Thoroughbred or a harness meet for next summer. Rockingham president Ed Callahan said "some sort of an announcement" would likely be made early in the week.

New England Thoroughbred horsemen are still hoping that an agreement can be reached and plan to submit a new offer to Rockingham management.

Manfred Roos, president of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said, "We're sending a final message" to Rockingham, "letting them know we want to do anything it takes - within reason - to run Thoroughbreds there this summer."

While negotiating a potential purse contract with the region's Thoroughbred horsemen, Rockingham management also has investigated the possibility of bringing harness racing back to the track for the first time since the 1970's. It would be less expensive for Rockingham to conduct a harness meet because purses would be much lower than those needed to support a Thoroughbred meet.

Neither Callahan nor Roos would comment on specifics involved in their negotiations, but Roos has said horsemen would be willing to run fewer days and structure a contract based on betting handle rather than insisting on guaranteed purses.

Bob O'Malley, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, has said that if Rockingham didn't conduct a 2003 Thoroughbred meet he would consider extending Suffolk's meet past its projected June closing.

Rockingham's once-proud meet has declined precipitously over the past decade. The track's signature event, the Grade 3 New Hampshire Sweepstakes, was once the richest turf race in America and was won by 1965 Horse of the Year Roman Brother. Dr. Fager's track records still stand today.