The Rock no longer opens its front gate. Rust curls up the white iron and highlights the block letters, ROCKINGHAM PARK, that stretch across the top. The gate used to be the horse trailer entrance, but no one’s raced here in three years. Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire opened as New England’s first horseracing track in 1906 and thrived for nearly a century as one of the region’s greatest tourist attractions, attracting tens of thousands of daily guests. For a time, it was the place.

I grew up a town north, after the fact, so I saw The Rock as a ghost and nothing else.

I recently moved home and keep seeing newspaper articles about the possibility of a Las Vegas company named Millennium Gaming building a casino at Rockingham Park. Last month, on March 28, 2012, the State House defeated the bill proposing four casinos to be built in New Hampshire—the opposition believed the prices for casino licensees were too small. Millennium Gaming remains interested in adding a casino to Rockingham Park, and bringing back thoroughbred racing on a limited basis, but another bill can’t be proposed until next year—when it will again be debated over for months and await a House vote.

It was a casino that ended horseracing at The Rock in the first place. Attendance dropped dramatically in 1992, when Foxwoods Casino opened in Connecticut. Unable to offer large purses to lure thoroughbreds, the track started featuring harness racing, slower competitions whose horses pull riders in carts. Attendance continued to fall. After years of limited events, racing stopped in 2009.

For now, the possibility of a casino and its ability to restore the glory of the track is a dream. Maybe The Rock is dying; maybe The Rock is about to be reborn. Right now is the ellipsis. I’ve driven past Rockingham Park so many times but have never been inside, and now I want to see what’s left of its magic.

In my car, I circle around to the parking lot behind the track. It’s a Wednesday, mid-afternoon. About 100 vehicles fill the spaces closest to the entrance of the clubhouse. Surrounded by miles of empty spaces, it’s a foreboding white rectangle with red peaks extending off its roof. A sign advertises “priority parking” for $1 and orange cones mark a valet station, but there are no attendants in sight. Across the street, shoppers hunt for parking spaces at the mall, titled The Mall at Rockingham Park though not financially connected to The Rock.

Even though the track isn’t in use, the clubhouse remains open seven days a week. The Rock takes bets on horseraces happening live around the U.S., which they play for guests on TVs, simulcasting, it’s called. To keep the doors open they also host a charity poker room. State law allows this gambling since 15% of players’ winnings are automatically deducted and given to a weekly charity. Regulations are placed on the amount and types of games, which keeps the stakes small, relative to casinos.

Past the clubhouse, the empty spaces continue. I roll down my window and squint to look through the layers of chain-link fence, barbed wire, and trees that separate me from the track. It’s no longer dirt but gravel. The infield is the yellow-streaked grass of spring. Just inside the fence are white shacks with green trim. One of the doors reads, “Jock’s Club.” Another, “Racing Secretary’s Office.” No lights on.

At the end of the parking lot: industrial dumpsters and storage containers, and pickups parked next to man-sized spools of electrical wire. I don’t see anyone working. I park my car and get out.

A blue tarp covers a mound of asphalt. A work glove dangles from the pile. I touch the asphalt and black bits gum my fingertips, staining them dark. Just behind the dumpsters, the gate to the track and stables is wide open. I peer inside the ticket house, cobwebbed and full of orange cones. Then I look over my shoulder and realize one of the trucks is idling, but I can’t tell if the shadowed shape in the front seat is real or imagined. I pass through the gate and walk the dirt road without looking back.

Rows of stables stretch out of sight. They are painted to match, white and green. Letters mark each row of numbered doors, but there are no horses. There are no people. Dust is in the air. It feels like I am in the middle of a deserted Old West town. Everything is rusted or peeling. I could peel strips of paint off the buildings by hand.

Some of the rows include windowed rooms, where trainers stored gear between races. I press my face against the window of H2. The size of a dorm room, the walls are white and so is the wooden table in the middle of the cement floor. A Budweiser can rests in the corner.

I hear a motor and turn to see a red pickup driving towards me. An American flag waves from its antennae—not the same truck that was idling by the dumpsters. I jam my notebook in my pocket. The truck stops in front of me. Two men stare out the open window. They wear ball caps and their faces say hard work. The driver barks, “What are you doing?”

“I’m just looking around the track, but I’ll take off.”

He says, “You can look around. Just duck if you see any vehicles, because if they see you, they’ll kick you out.”

The man laughs and before I can ask who they are, the truck rumbles away. I wonder if the two men are any more official than I am and picture them as cowboys disappearing into the sunlight.

I find an open room and step inside. Empty water bottles and a bottle of dish soap speckle the ground. Race schedules from 2009 are taped next to the doorway. People have penciled notes and results all over the walls. A chart keeps track of some kind of competition between “Lauren” and “Alan,” but the tallies stop after “Q1.” Some of the scribbling looks more like graffiti. “Shorty 374-4433.” At eye level, nails line the wall. Above each nail, the names of horses are scrawled in pencil: “Dance in the Wind, Twin Impact, Yankee Man, Lucky Kiss...”

Across the road, wind has gathered the leaves of last fall against stable doors. There’s no hay, no mark of horses in any of the stalls. I crouch and reach my hand under a door to feel the shadowed dirt, dark and clean. I hold my palm down long enough for the cool to rise up my arm. I stand and circle. Metal roofs sag with the weight of years. I can’t comprehend how many horses must have slept on this land, how many lived and died in this place, how many people placed their last hopes on horses.

This is where locals used to drag race wagons, where the US Army set up a base during WWI, where Seabiscuit lost five times, where 40,000 Labor Day spectators piled against the face and screamed. This is where I stand, counting sun-bleached beer cans and listening to highway traffic, behind the trees drivers entering and exiting that infinite stretch of restaurant and retail chains you see on the outskirts of American cities.

A flattened row of stables awaits disposal. Door hinges creak in the wind. You could easily turn this place into one of those haunted mazes New Englanders love so much. Every time I turn a corner I expect to either find a dead horse or be shanked by a squatter.

And then I stand before the mile-long racetrack. A sign snapped in half reads, “Horses…No…Vehi…Allow…” I duck under the outside rail and walk onto the track, tire tracks in the gravel. I press my toes into the ground and imagine pushing my weight forward at full speed. I picture a pack of barreling horses, hooves spitting dust, haunches pumping with the rhythm of a machine. The snapping wind sounds like a storm of applause, but I look up at the grandstand and see 12,000 empty seats. The track is a big lonely road without passengers. The wind blows against my back, through my body, in circles, horses that no longer exist.

On the message board, those who lived near Rockingham Park during its prime share stories of summer jobs and sneaking over the back fence. I talk to one of the posters, Janet Messineo on the phone. She tells me about growing up a few miles from The Rock, just over the Massachusetts border in Lawrence, still a mill town. For her family, who I also interview, The Rock was a job, an escape, and a wish. Janet says, “When I was a girl, I dreamed of owning a horse, but then I realized you can’t have a horse in the projects.” She’s now retired in Cape Cod.

As I research, I realize how many people I know that have a connection to The Rock. Family friends grew up in Salem and Lawrence, grandparents of an ex-girlfriend raced horses at the track, a former high school coach worked in the dining room during the 1990s. Ron D’Arcangelo, or Coach D as he is known, says, “It was a dream job,” offering customers betting tips and getting to know the trainers. He once nicknamed a teammate of mine “Turkoman,” after a horse he saw race in the back of the pack until the final lengths when it charged to victory.  Like Janet, Coach D came of age at the track in the 1960s, its era of local glory. Attendance numbers peaked in 1964, when New Hampshire created the country’s first state-operated lottery, its winner determined by a race at The Rock.

When I explored the grounds of Rockingham Park, along with the desolation, there was a sense of having entered a lived-in space. All that meaning that I could just, almost feel is what the stories of Janet and Coach D give me. I hear their voices crawling through the static and imagine the past.

A Friday night, 1965. Janet stands on a milk crate to see over the counter of the concession stand. She’s fifteen but has barely grown since her dad started taking her to the track as a child. From where she works inside the clubhouse, Janet can almost look out over the grandstand and the racetrack. Behind her, 35-cent hotdogs spin on metal rollers, puffing up and releasing a sweet, meaty smell that tightens her throat. She’s thinking about writing songs and moving away, one day, maybe becoming an artist. An old man carries over a program and asks Janet to pick a winner. He sucks on a cigar and wears a satin shirt and hat like all the others. Even though her dad used to be a jockey, Janet doesn’t know much about horses. Her dad still has the indent of a horseshoe on his back from when he fell off and was stepped on. Janet picks a random name, hoping to get lucky, because if the horse wins, the man will smile at her and give her $5. She’s saving up to buy an Epiphone guitar. Down the street at Canobie Lake Park, at the dance hall, she saw a little boy named Stevie Wonder rocking the piano and Sonny and Cher singing to each other.

Ron parks his car on the side of Route 28 and his uncle is already complaining through his cigarette smoke. It’s not Ron’s fault the parking lot fills up so fast. He’s seventeen and runs bets for his uncle. Plus if his uncle wins, or loses, he drinks, so Ron drives. Inside the clubhouse, Ron tries to smush down his thick black hair. His uncle peels a bill from his wad and tells him to go get some drinks from the concession stand.

Next, Ron gets in line to place a bet. Nobody ever asks his age. He tries to spot the trackies, the degenerates, but in the crowd everybody looks the same. It’s a sea of people bobbing shoulder to shoulder. After Ron places the bet, he walks outside, down to the outside rail to watch the horses being saddled. If Ron bets his own money, it’s only $2 at a time. He doesn’t have the guts, or the cash, to lose hundreds like his uncle. He likes taking his time with his bets. Even if he doesn’t win, it’s okay. It’s like paying a few dollars to see a play. Ron’s taught himself how to read a racing form to know which horses to bet on. All the numbers and charts mean something and it’s all situational, it depends if the race is short or long, grass or dirt, who the opponents are. Maybe the track is sloppy, so check the breeding, maybe the horse’s dad ran well in poor conditions. Check the weight, jockey, record, workout times. And when the numbers begin to feel like information overload, go with the gut. Is this the day the horse is ready to win?

Over the loudspeaker, Janet hears, “And they’re at the post, up and running at Rockingham Park!” The last race has started and her shift is officially over.

Her older brother Paul just got to the track. He works on the overnight cleanup crew and likes to arrive early to see the last race. From the top of the grandstand he watches the pack of horses move through the night in a circular flash. He works full-time as a machinist, but with two kids, like a lot of the locals, he needs a second job at The Rock to make his bills.

After the race, Paul uses a fan to blow all the cigarette butts and bet receipts down the stairs of the grandstand. The white slips of paper move in a cloud to the bottom. Paul remembers coming here with his dad and sister, when they were younger. His mom never liked coming to the track, too many sure things that didn’t work out. “The only way to beat a horse is with a whip,” she liked to say, so his dad would take the kids at night, while she worked. He used to ask them to grab tickets out of the trashcan at the end of the night, just in case someone had accidentally thrown out a winner.

His dad didn’t talk much about his jockey days, but through the years Paul has picked up the basic story: Gus Messineo was a local boy who followed his cousin to work at The Rock. He moved his way up to exercise boy, traveling with trainers to Florida and New York. It was his job to work out the horses in the early morning. He even raced a few as a jockey, but by twenty-four, he was too heavy and was forced to quit. Now when he sees a horse, at a fair or a farm, he stops and runs to it. He needs to rub its ears, scratch its nose, and pat its side before he can move on.

The entrance of the clubhouse is decorated with Budweiser swag. To the left, an unlit hallway “Welcomes New England Racing Fans!” towards the dining room no longer in service. To the right, I pay my dollar entrance fee to the attendant, a man with no legs leaning belly-down on a chair. After finishing my interviews, I’ve come to get one last look at the clubhouse.

Upstairs, in the middle of the room, cashiers take bets behind desks, as do a group of automated machines. There are TVs in every direction, set into the walls. A collage of screens covers an entire wall of a carpeted area, which looks like an airport terminal lounge with plastic tables and folding chairs. Old men sit alone or stand in packs, staring up at the screens. All the TVs are muted and it’s unsettling how quiet the room is. The only constant noise is the “pop!” sound emitted by the atm-like displays taking bets. A man says, “No whistling,” to a cheery stranger. On screen, the horses are silent in sound and spirit. I have to focus on a surging horse to realize the power of its legs, swinging an infinite rhythm.

Nobody sits in the aisles of seats overlooking the track.

In the corner, next to the bathrooms is the Sports Club, a separate room, home to the charity poker tournaments, and blackjack and roulette, too. Even with all its opportunities to gamble, the Sports Club is not a casino. The distinction in betting is slight, but trust me, at its core and in the air, the place is not a casino. Cool air doesn’t pump through the vents. Pop sirens don’t coo through the speakers. No mini-skirted waitresses offer drinks. Day and night, the place stays surprisingly calm. The crowd’s nearly all men and they do not come for food or drink or show. Many come alone and only exchange pleasantries so that the level of banter rarely rises above golf crowd calm. An MC walks through the maze of green felt tables, announcing open seats at upcoming games. His calls sound like football plays. “BG twenty-four Omaha…four seats open at forty, $40 sit and go.” He wears a white sport coat and as he moves the microphone cable follows him like a lost dog. A giant US flag hangs lengthwise on the wall.

Today’s mid-week scene is mostly male retirees, who stay in the main room, holding white slips of paper and whispering encouragements to the TV horses—on Friday and Saturday nights, when hundreds of cars flood the parking lot and the valet station is running, poker’s the game and the crowd is middle-aged with young jocks sprinkled in, and the sound of chips sliding and shuffling is like water over rocks, the desperate calls of those watching the final west coast races growing louder and laden with curses: “C’mon, fucker, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, you son of a bitch, c’mon. You suck.”

I can’t escape the oldness of today’s visitors. One guy uses binoculars to watch a screen twenty feet away from his seat. In the bathroom, I see a man standing at a urinal with his underwear below his ass and watch another slick back what’s left of his hair with a plastic comb. The two security guards on duty look like Jerry Stiller, present day.

By law, no smoking is allowed indoors, but the concession stand sells cigarettes and the warm aroma of stale smoke lingers on clothing and furniture. The smell is nostalgia for a previous era. I look at the woman behind the counter—starched bob, no makeup—and decide she is what Janet looks like now. I’m thinking about what her mother told me about Janet’s father, now deceased. “As he got older and he had Alzheimer’s, every so often he would try to talk about when he was a jockey. He used to kind of bend over and pretend that he was riding a horse.”

The past doesn’t die. It fades. It twists.

An invisible force still exists at The Rock. For almost 100 years it has been a meeting place, all classes, no irony. Pay a dollar and you are home. Places like amusements parks and shopping malls turn off a lot of people, but if you look hard enough at these people gatherings, you will see beauty. This is us, strangers, terrible and sweet, sipping cold ones and chasing our children, hand in sweaty hand. Underneath the money and the eyes of the slack jawed security guard are dreams. A hopeful ache is in the air and that is what overwhelms us. The jockey hanging from the neck of a flying horse is a mirror, a telescope into the deep black something inside us.

David Bersell's essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Soundings Review, Sundog Lit, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and The Good Men Project, among other publications. Keep up with his writing life @davidbersell.