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  Tale of Two Tracks!     

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2020 Update: Rockingham Park is now dead. By now it could be the Tuscan Village. Rockingham died a slow painful death a far cry from it's glory days of the past. I feel two events lead to it's demise, one was fate the other planned.

The fate part, of course was the fire, in hindsight the track should probably never have been rebuilt. It wasn't the Lou Smith days anymore, it wasn't the same climate for racing. The new owners went all out, but had an event in 1964 doom the track and for that fact racing in general.

New Hampshire, loves nothing better than sucking money out of it's neighbors, whether it's cheap booze or cigarettes, but in 1964 they came up with the grand daddy of them all, a "Sweepstakes". The New Hampshire Sweepstake's would draw top horses and be worth twice what the Kentucky Derby was running for, but did it open a can of worms?

After all what is a sweepstakes, it's a lottery and was this the great granddaddy of Megabucks. Other State's would see the potential for other sources of gambling revenue and the average bettor could just go to the corner store and have the possibility of winning more than they could ever at the track. Maybe it's not fair to lay this on New Hampshire, it was inevitable someone would do it, but they did it first.  

In the early seventies there was a song called American Pie, that told of the day "The Music Died". Well I have a theory about the day "New England Horse Racing Died" that day was July 29, 1980. The day of the Rockingham Park fire. Which left Rockingham Park with two distinct periods in it's history.

Rockingham Park is located in Salem, New Hampshire, about 32 miles from Boston, Massachusetts. The original track had a one mile dirt oval, with an inner half mile harness track. It featured a glass enclosed grandstand and clubhouse. The grandstand seating 9,000, the clubhouse sat 4,000 and another 500 in the dining room. There was parking for 25,000 cars and the stables could accommodate 1,125 horses.

The "New Rock" had the same one mile dirt oval, but replaced the inner harness track with a 7/8 mile turf course. It included a new grandstand that sat 5,000, the original clubhouse was still in use, total capacity was listed as 20,000. Parking was cut down to 5,000 cars as most of the old massive parking lot was now a mall. The stable area was increased to 1,600 stalls.

Rockingham ParkLabor Day Double Header

Rockingham Park first opened in 1906 for a twenty one days of racing and wagering. Things went ok for a couple of days, then on the third day the "Pinkertons" swarmed in and shut down gambling, which just happened to be illegal in New Hampshire at the time. After that the meet went on, but there wasn't much interest anymore. Another meet was never scheduled, and racing went dormant for over twenty five years. During that period the track hosted multiple events which included airplane and motorcycle racing, but in 1933, things would "ROCK" again.

Rockingham Park's Finally in 1933 the citizens of New Hampshire, came to their senses and legalized pari mutual racing in the state. Lou Smith who now owned the track wasted little time and conducted a race meet that year. From that point on Rockingham Park became the premier racing site in New England, with it's traditional summer meet. Traditionally a thoroughbred venue, a spring and fall harness race meets were added in 1958 to compliment the summer race meet. Things were rolling at the rock, but there was a bump in the road ahead.

Rockingham ParkClubhouse Entrance

On July 29, 1980 as training was going on at the track, a fire broke out in the grandstand, by the time it was contained the grandstand had been leveled and the clubhouse heavily damaged. The remainder of the meet was cancelled, and with horse horse racing already eliminated from Rhode Island and Vermont, it wasn't clear if racing would ever return. It took four years before it did return, but would it be the same?

The track re-opened in May of 1984 with many a change. The grandstand was a state of the art facility tastefully built into the old clubhouse. Harness racing was also a thing of the past, as Rockingham was now committed to exclusively run thoroughbreds, the half mile harness oval would soon be replaced with a turf course. Lighting was also expanded to cover the mile track in anticipation of night racing. It sounded to good to be true for fans and horseman alike, and it was! With the absence of Rockingham and the demise of thoroughbred racing in Rhode Island, Suffolk Downs ruled the roost, and wasn't about to give anything up.

Rockingham ParkRock Trots Opening

Soon after coming back on line, Rockingham went toe to toe with Suffolk Downs. They deviated from their traditional schedule and starting running pretty much year round against the East Boston oval which was doing the same thing. Eventually an agreement was reached and things returned to normal, but by then interest in horse racing was waning and both tracks would suffer. Actually after their schedule agreement the first race at Suffolk Downs was actually run at Rockingham Park to satisfy some lame State law, that said simulcasting could only be provided when live racing occurred. That law was soon changed. Finally in 2002 thoroughbred racing would cease to exist at "The Rock", but an old friend would return.

 In 2003 the harness horses returned to Rockingham for a short Memorial Day to Labor Day run. This time around the sidewinders ran on the one mile oval, they even held a race on the turf course. Trying to keep the track alive till racinos were legalized, the harness races also fell short and were discontinued after the 2009 season. Rockingham Park void of live racing became a simulcast and charitable gaming facility.

Although not technically closed, it seems there is little chance racino wagering will ever be legalized in New Hampshire, giving the track little chance of survival. The "Old Rock" was deep in tradition with a fine yearly stakes program, topped off by the popular Labor Day, morning, afternoon double header. During that period       Atlantic Seaboard Circuit races were conducted during the harness meet. The "New Rock" can't be accused of not trying, it introduced The New Hampshire Sweepstakes which ran for $250,000. It was also part of the short lived American Championship Racing Series, hosting the New England Classic. So don't "knock the new rock", they tried, it just wasn't 1933 anymore.

I have a lot of memories about "The Rock", my son practically learned to walk in the grassy area near the administration building. I also remember going to the Granite State Potato Chip Factory and getting a box of chips right off the production line after the races. The "New Rock" was a nice enough place, but for me it wasn't the "Old Rock", it was like going from the Boston Garden, to the fleet center. Or if you were a Springfield Indians fan, like going from the old coliseum in West Springfield across the river to the Springfield Civic Center, it just wasn't the same. "The Rock" is still standing as a simulcast, poker playing, bingo parlor, with little chance of grabbing that brass racino ring. To quote a take on our state motto "Live Casino or Die".

On July 12, 2016 I said my final farewell to the "Rock". It had been fifty years since the first time I saw it, I still remember the way the old grandstand looked and although the road around the track had changed you still entered in the same place behind the clubhouse turn. In those days the entrance led to the massive parking lot, which today is mostly the Mall of Rockingham. Inside there wasn't much going on most of the action was in the poker room, under the old clubhouse mural of happier times. The place was a little run down but the big shock came when I went out on the apron.

What had happened to pristine Rockingham Park? The infield was now a forest, the turf course was overgrown the dirt track also, the tote board looked ready to fall down and the old admin building was not far behind. It was sad to see and hard to take but nothing is forever. As I drove away that day I took a final look in the rear view mirror of a sight I would see no more. On August 31, 2016 Rockingham Park shut it's doors forever. About a month later all that remained was auctioned off, the wrecking ball soon to follow! No more "Road to Rock".