Earlier this session, the state Senate voted — once again — to reject a casino gambling bill. The move prompted the owners of Rockingham Park, the expected site for a casino, to at long last put the former horse-racing track on the market.
The news has not gone over well at the storied institution, where the regulars make up a small but committed bunch.
You’d never mistake the bugler’s call heard these days at Salem's Rockingham Park for a live race. It comes from televisions airing races from New York and Florida and beyond. The seats in the glass-enclosed grandstand are almost all empty, and they overlook an overgrown track.
There are, however, a few die-hards left.
Alexander Stamowlaros, 88, has been coming to Rockingham Park since he was 12 and even worked here until 1980. He isn’t deterred by the meager crowds and somewhat dingy surroundings. He wagers on the simulcast races with his buddies.
“The state got tons of money for the funds, from the take from the racetrack here," he says. "And these stupid people, politicians in Concord, they voted against the casino here. You figure that out now.”
Those, um, people in Concord have rejected expanded gambling bills for the better part of a decade, despite the most recent push by Gov. Maggie Hassan.
What’s led the owners of the facility — including casino operator Millennium Gaming — to put Rockingham Park on the market is what’s happening a short drive south on Interstate 93. Wynn Resorts is steadily clearing the hurdles to build a $2 billion casino in Everett, just outside Boston.
The prospect of a high-end casino just south of the New Hampshire border will only make it harder for Rockingham Park to stay afloat, says Ed Callahan, general manager at the track.
“My assumption is they will have a race book, where you can wager on the races," Callahan says. "They will definitely have more than a $4 blackjack table. And I’m sure their poker room will handle considerably greater amounts than we’re allowed to under the current statutes in New Hampshire.”
It’s been quite the reversal of fortune for the 110-year-old park in Salem, the first such facility in New England and once one of the most celebrated tracks in the country.
Callahan says back in the day the track was a kind of city unto itself.
“We had stalls for 1,600 horses, back in the ’80-90s and 2000s," he says. "With the 1,600 horses came 3,500 to 4,000 horsemen. Between the grooms, the jockeys, trainers, the owners, hot walkers… equine dentists.”
So far, there have been no concrete offers on the track's property. There is, of course, already a large retail complex next door: The Mall at Rockingham Park.
Robert Marchewka, the president of New Hampshire Commercial Investment Board of Realtors, says he thinks the proximity of the property to I-93 and Massachusetts will bode well for a sale.
“I don't think we need gambling there necessarily to make something work," Marchewka said. "And I’d love to see a mix of several uses there and particularly get some business in there.”
Whatever comes next for Rockingham, the diehards at the track seem to agree that it won’t be as exciting or entertaining.
“I like the people, I like the horsemen. I have a lot of funny stories I've gone through with customers. Lots. In fact I'm thinking of writing a book, I’ve had so many.”
That's June Ladd. She's worked as a waitress at the park for decades and is among the several dozen employees who stand to lose their jobs.
There are no immediate plans to pull the plug on Rockingham Park. It’s manager says there’s a chance the park can still be revived, although he admits that the odds are pretty long.