Move made for racinoat The Rock

Jan 29, 2008 6:35 AM

A quarter-century ago, gaming visionary investor Kirk Kerkorian sent his No. 1 man, Fred Benninger, to New Hampshire to speak to the owners of the burned-out racetrack, Rockingham Park, about building the country’s first racetrack/casino.

Atty. Ken Graf, then chairman of the publicly-traded N.H. Jockey Club, Inc., (NHJC), saw the merits of locating New England’s first casino at the area’s first racetrack. He immediately contacted state officials to seek consideration of expanding the state’s gaming laws.

With then Gov. John Sununu vehemently opposed to transforming the tracks’ 256 acres into a casino/racetrack, the plan had no chance of progressing.

In recalling the effort, the late Benninger remarked, "It’s too bad the New Hampshire officials lacked the foresight necessary to see the benefits of a casino. Had they approved, we would have built a Las Vegas-styled casino that would have been the premier entertainment attraction in New England. Actually, the Rockingham success probably would have exceeded Foxwoods."

But, maybe it was just that Kerkorian’s timing was off.

Last week, Bill Wortman, who with his partner Bill Paulos has developed the Cannery projects in Las Vegas as well as The Meadows racino in Pennsylvania, met with New Hampshire businessmen and politicos, seeking support of a racino project at The Rock.

Millenium Gaming, formed by the Wortman/Paulos partnership, purchased an option on the southern New Hampshire racetrack three years ago with hopes the changing times would motivate the state’s lawmakers to consider licensing some 3,000 slot machines at the Salem facility.

Wortman was joined by former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, now a lobbyist, in singing the praises of a reborn facility.

"I’m committed to revitalizing that time of grandeur," Wortman told the group. He was referring to the glory days of thoroughbred racing at Rockingham Park which was referred to as the "Saratoga of New England."

He cited a study that indicated Rock slots would generate between $300 and $400 million in annual revenue with a projected 50% going to the state in taxes.

The current owners of the track, Rockingham Venture Group, have been trying for a decade to get slots approved in the state without success. However, efforts to license three casinos in Massachusetts may help generate lawmakers’ support.