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

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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

Now, other forms of entertainment -- and gambling, including state-run lottery games and a proliferation of casinos around the country -- compete for customers' time, interest and money.

About 80 people work at the track, but there are hundreds of jobs dependent on Scarborough Downs. The industry studied its impact five years ago and found that harness racing contributes about $200 million to the state's economy and supports about 1,500 jobs. As the state's busiest track -- its 111 races next year will be more than double the number run at Bangor Raceway -- Scarborough Downs is the key venue for the harness racing industry in Maine.

There are dozens of farms in southern Maine where harness racehorses, called Standardbreds, are bred and raised. Groomers, trainers and farriers care for and prepare the horses to race. Veterinarians care for the animals. And farms grow huge amounts of hay to keep the horses fed.

But horse owners are attracted to other states with larger purses, augmented by some of the take from attached slot machine parlors and casinos.

MAINE'S RACINO PLAY

Maine has its own racino in Bangor, but the Hollywood Slots facility operates separately from Bangor Raceway. However, both tracks get some benefit from the betting on slot machines under a system that allots them a portion of the gambling revenue.

In 2010, Scarborough Downs got nearly $1.5 million from Hollywood Slots to subsidize track operations -- almost the same amount the track took in as bets on live races. Bangor Raceway -- with fewer than half the race dates that Scarborough Downs has -- received $718,000, according to the Maine Harness Racing Commission.

Smaller amounts of the slots revenue go into a fund to boost purses at the tracks, said Henry Jackson, executive director of the commission.

But in other states with more racinos, that means more slot machine money is available for increasing purses.

For instance, McNitt said the purse for a typical race of the top class of harness horses in Maine is $6,000 or so. In Delaware, it's $30,000. To reverse the dire outlook, Scarborough Downs has tried three times to add slot machines to the clubhouse. In 2003, voters statewide opened the window, briefly, to allow racetracks in Bangor and Scarborough to have racinos, as long as the host communities approved.

Bangor voters did, and the Hollywood Slots racino followed a short time later. Scarborough voters said no.

Scarborough Downs tried again in 2008, seeking town approval that would have been used to buttress an argument to state lawmakers to reopen the window. They sweetened the pot with a development plan that called for a new town center development on Scarborough Downs' land, but town voters again rejected the plan.

Last year, Biddeford voters approved a proposal that called for the Downs to move south and open a racino in that city. But a statewide vote that would have permitted it failed in November, leaving Scarborough Downs where it was eight years ago.

"It's frustrating, but what are your options? You can give up or you can continue to go forward," said Sharon Terry, who inherited the track when her husband, Joe Ricci, died in 2001. Ricci had bought the track for $990,000 in 1979.

FATE TIED TO THE TRACK

McNitt said some horse owners are very upset over the outcome of last month's vote, and she thinks Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who remained relatively noncommittal on the issue, should have come out strongly in favor of it because the state would see increased tax revenue from a racino.

"We're just flabbergasted that the bill wasn't passed," she said. "There are people who are just devastated by what happened in the election."

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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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