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January 28. 2013 10:49PM

Legislators eyeing gambling on old horse races

CONCORD - With a debate over allowing casino gambling looming on the legislative horizon, lawmakers will consider a proposal to allow a new form of betting: wagering on horse races run long ago and far away.

The proposal is for wagering on historical racing. It doesn't mean reliving the glory days of the turf; there will be no renewed betting on the 1964 New Hampshire Sweepstakes, which ushered in state lotteries in the United States, nor betting again on steeds with Granite State connections such as Kentucky Derby winner Dancer's Image.

With historical racing, bettors would pump money into a terminal that would then select a race from hundreds of thousands in its database. Gamblers would be given some, but not all, of the past performance information for the race. The names of horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, racetracks and results would be a secret.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 63, Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia, said it's a jobs bill for a community that reaped the benefits of an active dog track for many years. The former dog track in Belmont is struggling along with little more than charitable gambling at a facility where dog racing - and later simulcasting - once brought thousands to the $2 windows.

"It will preserve 55 jobs, but will also allow Lakes Region to add 25 jobs if these machines come in," Hosmer said. "In addition, Belmont might be able to go back into simulcasting, which could add another 40 jobs, making it 120 jobs in total."

At the other end of the state, the owners of Rockingham Park are concerned historical racing will get in the way of casino gambling, eyed by Gov. Maggie Hassan as a way to boost state revenues.

"We believe a casino bill would be far more lucrative than a historic racing bill," said Edward Callahan, president of Rockingham Venture, which owns the track. "We're in competition with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont."

A national operator of gambling facilities has an option to buy Rockingham if casino gambling is legalized in New Hampshire.

Historical racing is currently legal in Arkansas and Kentucky, where the state's highest court will soon hear a case brought by a group opposed to gambling. A bill to allow historical racing in Michigan was pocket vetoed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The betting machines used for historical gambling resemble slot machines and erupt in a whirl of colors and sounds when a bettor scores a big win.

Louis Cella, vice president of the Oaklawn Jockey Club, which runs historical racing in Arkansas, said the reliance on bits of handicapping information turns the betting into a game of skill rather than pure chance.

"Unlike slots, which require no skill to pick a number, we can show there is more skill in historical racing," Cella said. "If it was pure chance, the chances of picking the winner in 10 horse races is one in 10, but people are picking winners one in six times."

State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, a strong supporter of casino gambling to boost state revenues says historical gambling is not the way to go.

"I'm against it," said D'Allesandro, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "Do it right with expanded gaming."

bsmith@unionleader.com


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