Restoring the Rock

Sep 6, 2005 7:07 AM

Expanding gambling to New Hampshire seemed like a natural for a company like MGM Grand.

What the late Fred Benninger, Kirk Kerkorian’s closest adviser at the time, saw was a former racetrack that had seen its clubhouse and part of its grandstand destroyed by fire. Yet, Rockingham Park stood on 256 acres of developable land, right on the Massachusetts border with a turnoff from Interstate 93 that brought Boston customers to its doors in slightly more than 30 minutes.

Benninger, with aide Duff Taylor, promised the stockholders of the New Hampshire Jockey Club, to build a "Taj Mahal" of a racetrack if they could convince the politicians in Concord, N.H., to approve casino gambling.

Efforts were made without success and the idea died.

The track eventually was sold to Rockingham Venture Inc., a partnership involving the Carney brothers, Tom and Joe; Eddie Keelan, whose background was greyhound racing, and the politically connected Max Hugel.

A few years later, Benninger, reminiscing about the MGM plans for The Rock, remarked, "You know, we were visionaries. If New Hampshire had passed a casino bill, there never would have been a Foxwoods”¦ Rockingham Park would have been the success that the Indian casino in Connecticut became. And the people of New Hampshire would have benefited greatly."

Now, 22 years later, Millennium Gaming Inc., the partnership of Bill Paulos and Bill Wortman, owners and operators of the Cannery in North Las Vegas, has taken an option to buy the Salem, N.H., racetrack that no longer has thoroughbred racing but stages a summer harness meeting.

The Rock owners have been trying without success for the past decade to influence the state’s politicians to approve video lottery machines that would convert the struggling track into a so-called racino. Such racino developments have been highly successful in Delaware, West Virginia and Iowa.

Although bills allowing video lottery terminals have been filed with each biennial session of the legislature, not enough supporters have emerged to pass the legislation. Also, the state’s governors have historically opposed expansion of gambling in the Granite State.

Paulos and Wortman, two veteran casino executives, have said they plan to work hard to influence the legislators and also promise to restore thoroughbred racing at the track where it was first introduced by the legendary Lou Smith in 1932. Interviewed by the Nashua Telegraph following the option announcement, Wortman was quoted as saying, "It’s a terrific location. At one point in time, Rockingham Park was the place to be and we hope that someday that can be revived."