07/28/2004 11:00PM

Rockingham proceeds with turf plan

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Rockingham Park is moving ahead with plans to run three turf races at the end of its harness racing program Sept. 5, but the track, located just outside of Boston in New Hampshire, is facing resistance from the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The New Hampshire Pari-Mutuel Commission conditionally approved Rockingham's request for the one-day license needed to run the races. But animosity between Rockingham and the HBPA has led Rockingham general manager Ed Callahan to seek horsemen's approval for the turf races through a different group, the New Hampshire Thoroughbred Breeding and Racing Association, rather than the HBPA.

Anthony Spadea, acting president of the New England HBPA, says his group is the only organization that represents the region's horsemen. Spadea said the HBPA will fight the move to bring in a new horsemen's group, but does hope to eventually negotiate with Callahan to bring more racing to the circuit of Rockingham and Suffolk Downs, in East Boston.

"We're the only recognized group of horsemen in New England," said Spadea. "As far as I know, we're the only duly elected organization to represent horsemen, and I'm not aware of any other group that can claim they represent 51 percent of the voting Thoroughbred horsemen here. I hope that Mr. Callahan will eventually work with us, because we all want the same thing: more racing, a congenial circuit, and a chance for our members to avoid relocating and live in one location."

National HBPA president John Roark has sent a letter to Callahan warning that a move to work with a nonrecognized horsemen's group would be in violation of the Interstate Racing Act. Legal advisers for both the national and the local HBPA have yet to determine what recourse they might have if Rockingham goes forward without their approval. During a dispute that involved Rockingham and the horsemen in 2002, several horsemen's groups across the country withheld their approval for New Hampshire tracks to simulcast their races.

The New Hampshire Thorough-bred Breeding and Racing Association is led by president Mike Sherr, who says his organization is not new. He said the group gave awards to grooms and trainers when Thoroughbreds last raced at Rockingham in 2002.

Callahan and Sherr confirmed that they have had discussions, but Sherr said no contract was in place, and he did not want to comment until after Rockingham had secured full approval for the flat races. Sherr is a Rockingham employee.

The races are scheduled for the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, a dark day at Suffolk. Rockingham has approached Suffolk's racing office personnel for help carding the races.

New Hampshire passed a law this year allowing tracks to hold races for different breeds at the same time. Callahan initially approached Bob O'Malley, Suffolk's chief operating officer, to make sure the move would not ruffle feathers at the East Boston track. O'Malley went to the New England HBPA's Spadea to gauge the horsemen's interest. The New England HBPA issued a statement lauding the possibility of the extra races, but was unaware of Rockingham's plans to work with the New Hampshire group at the time.

Rockingham wants to hold more Thoroughbred races next year as a way to increase interest in its harness racing. Rockingham ended eight decades of Thoroughbred racing last year when the track and the HBPA could not reach a contract agreement.

* Ask Queenie, a New England Turf Writers' award winner, is the formidable favorite in Saturday's $40,000 Mystery Jet Stakes for 3-year-old Massachusetts-bred fillies at six furlongs. She is the only stakes winner in a seven-horse field that includes five maidens, one a first-time starter.