December 18, 2011

Scarborough Downs struggles, and it affects multiple industries

Without a racino to boost purses and draw fans of table games and slots, Scarborough Downs fears for its future – as do the hundreds whose jobs depend on the track.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH — Denise McNitt said packing up 10 harness racehorses and moving them from Maine to Delaware each year is no picnic.

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Ernie Lowell talks to Best Edition on Friday in a stable at Scarborough Downs, where he has been shoeing horses for 43 years. Lowell has been worried about the future of the track and the harness racing industry in general since a proposed racino in Biddeford was defeated last month.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Horses cross the starting line during a race at the Downs on Friday. The last race of the year is scheduled for this afternoon.

Additional Photos Below

HORSE RACING AT A GLANCE

Harness racing differs significantly from thoroughbred racing, which is what most people picture when they think about horse racing.

In harness racing, the horse is controlled by a driver, who sits in a two-wheeled cart called a "sulky," behind the horse. In thoroughbred racing, the horse is controlled by a jockey in a saddle on top of the horse.

A harness racehorse is required to run in a specific gait, or pace, and must be reined in and fall back in the the pack if it breaks into a gallop during the race.

Most races are a mile, or twice around the oval track at Scarborough Downs.

FALLING FORTUNES

The annual wager total, or handle, on Scarborough Downs' races:

2002: $2,616,493

2003: $2,331,432

2004: $2,527,783

2005: $2,126,013

2006: $2,357,396

2007: $1,820,467

2008: $1,864,189

2009: $1,871,171

2010: $1,680,802

2011: $1,590,700*

* Projected through the season's last race today

But it's a financial necessity for McNitt and her husband, Kevin Switzer, who trains the couple's horses.

"They race for a lot more money here," McNitt said from Harrington, Del., where she and her husband race their horses four to five months a year, with the rest of the year spent at Scarborough Downs. The Delaware track's full name -- Harrington Raceway & Casino -- goes a long way toward explaining why McNitt and Switzer find racing in Delaware much more lucrative than in Maine.

"Maine is our home," McNitt said. "It would be wonderful to race them in Maine all year long. But it's just not possible with the purse structure."

The exodus of horses from Maine to states with racinos — racetracks with casinos or slot machine parlors — reflects the declining fortunes of the harness racing industry in Maine. And the situation is particularly dire at Scarborough Downs, which many fear may have to close without a racino to support the races and draw in customers who may have lost interest in harness racing, but might be attracted by slot machines and table casino games.

In the past 10 years, the Downs' handle — the total amount of money gambled on races has dropped 40 percent, from more than $2.6 million in 2002 to an estimate of less than $1.6 million this year by the time the last race of the year is run this afternoon. Scarborough Downs hasn't kept attendance figures since it stopped charging for admission in 2002, track officials said.

For horse owners, the declining handle means a sharp drop in the amount of money they can make by running their horses in Maine and explains why many choose to spend part or all of the year at tracks in states with racinos, including New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and, soon, Massachusetts. The best horses, owners say, are sure to race out of state rather than in Maine.

The impact goes beyond the horse owners and is felt far from the half-mile oval at Scarborough Downs, affecting hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars in economic impact and even the future of some farms that have been around for decades.

"Our future looks pretty dim," said Ernie Lowell, a Saco farrier who has been shoeing horses at the Downs for 43 years.

Scarborough Downs is outgunned by tracks where purses, supplemented by casino revenue, are several times higher than in Maine. And the disparity is growing, despite a supplement to the Downs' purses from its share of revenue from the Hollywood Slots casino in Bangor. Most of the purse is still dependent on how much is wagered in person, and that figure has been falling for more than a decade, including another 15 percent in the past two years.

POPULARITY PEAKED IN 1959

Scarborough Downs has been around since 1950, first as a thoroughbred track and, since 1973, as a harness racetrack.

The track considers 1959 its high-water mark, with nearly 260,000 spectators and the equivalent of $65 million, adjusted for inflation, bet on races. Even with the ability to bet on races around the country at Scarborough Downs through off-track betting -- gamblers wager $10 on off-track races there for every $1 bet on live racing -- the amount wagered at the Downs today is less than a third of the adjusted 1959 figure.

In 1959, the only places where Mainers could legally gamble were Scarborough Downs and races at county fairs and a handful of other tracks around the state.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Sharon Terry, owner of Scarborough Downs, has cut staff and put most of the land around the track up for sale, though there were no takers for the land during the year it was on the market. But the track has run up an accumulated debt from operations of about $10 million, said Edward MacColl, the Downs’ attorney.

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Lynn-Marie Plouffe sells hay and breeds horses at the 320-acre Dupuis Farm in Saco. The decline of harness racing is hurting both her hay sales and her breeding orders, she said. The industry isn’t ready to give up on a proposal to allow Scarborough Downs to open a racino. The head of the Maine Harness Racing Commission said he agrees in general but worries that when slots and table games are added to harness racing, racing becomes an afterthought.

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Ernie Lowell shoes a horse at Scarborough Downs last week. The farrier has served Scarborough Downs for 43 years.

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David Allen of Buxton, left, and Justin Anderson of Hollis watch horses warm up before a race at Scarborough Downs on Friday.

  


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