Guest column: Remembering Rockingham

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The end of an era passed with barely a whimper August 31 as Rockingham Park closed its doors for the last time.

Rockingham, slated to be torn down and redeveloped into another housing project and shopping complex, was originally built as a poor man’s Saratoga. It was the summer place for horsemen to escape Suffolk Downs during the heat of summer with horses not quite good enough for Saratoga.

Rockingham was also the racetrack where my wife realized that betting on racing could be fun. We had gone there for Memorial Day weekend in 1986. My father-in-law had a horse entered in a sprint stakes Friday night and we decided to make a weekend of it.

The night of the stakes it rained torrentially – so hard that there was some consideration of cancelling. Anyway, the rain caused a very strong front-end bias. In the first seven races, the first horse out of the gate wired the field. Which was good for us as the horse we came to see, Hula Zone, was a speedball.

We looked on with great anticipation with trainer Dennis Brida as the horses were loaded into the gate. Unfortunately, she was beat out of the gate by a horse named Pink Rice and they ran 1-2 all the way around the track. Pink Rice was trained by Clyde Rice, the father of Linda Rice.

That set the stage for Saturday and Sunday. I lost on every bet. Monday morning, Memorial Day, was a beautiful day, warm and sunny.

Rockingham scheduled 12 races that day. Five in the morning starting at 10 a.m., then a 90-minute break where everybody on track was treated to a barbecue outside the track. Racing then resumed with seven more races. I continued losing and by the time of the first afternoon race, I had enough. I then proceeded to announce that I was through betting.

My wife said she needed someone to root for so she asked if I minded if she made a bet. I said, “sure go ahead and try to win something, you can’t do any worse than I am.” She then proceeded to select a trifecta box, which she won. She then won the next five trifectas in a row. The last race arrived and she announced that she was through betting. She had recouped all the money that I had lost and that was enough for her.

That was the first of many trips to Rockingham through the years and we returned for Memorial Day the next year.

During that trip we caught a simulcast from Belmont Park of the Metropolitan Handicap. Gulch, running as a 3-year-old against older horses and getting a big weight advantage, was my pick. The race also featured a gelding named King’s Swan, who was a sharp performer virtually unknown outside of New York.

So, inspired by my wife’s wins the year before, I bet a trifecta consisting of Gulch, Kings Swan and a couple of horses for third. This was before the era of comingling pari-mutuel pools so I was betting against my fellow racegoers at Rockingham who did not know King’s Swan.

The last few strides before the wire, there was bumping among the top three and a three-way photo for the win. The photo was examined and Gulch was the winner with King’s Swan second and one of my other horses, favored Broad Brush, third. I figured it was going to be a big trifecta. Then it was announced that there was a steward’s inquiry and a jockey objection.

Those five minutes turned out to be the longest of my racing life but the finish stood and I cashed a large trifecta. Having it multiple times, allowed us to recoup all our expenses for the weekend.

We are going to miss Rockingham Park.

Charles Bedard is a handicapper for The Saratoga Special and a regular horseplayer. Rockingham Park auctioned off its memorabilia and equipment Sept. 24-25, one of the final steps in the dismantling of the once thriving New England racetrack.