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

People like Lowell said the reverberations of the vote will continue to be felt and will spread beyond the confines of Scarborough Downs.

He said agriculture in Maine has already lost most of its traditional livestock, from sheep to poultry and beef. If Scarborough Downs closed down, Lowell said, many of the horse breeders would likely move out of state.

That could lead some farms to be sold, he said, and many could end up as housing subdivisions,

As for Lowell personally, Scarborough Downs' closing would mean the end of the line for his business.

"I would be finished," Lowell said, although at 65 he could start collecting Social Security.

Lowell said he makes about $90 for shoeing a horse, and it's more lucrative at the Downs because the horses wear lighter shoes for racing that wear down quickly. He said a harness racehorse needs shoes about every three weeks, compared with up to eight weeks for a saddle horse.

He said business is already down to about a quarter of the number of horses at the Downs that he shoed in the summer because so many have already switched to out-of-state tracks ahead of the Downs' three-month shutdown. Other owners are trying to keep expenses down, particularly at the end of the season, and shoeing less often.

"Some of them will be running on nails" at today's races, he said.

Lynn-Marie Plouffe said she worries about the future of her 320-acre farm in Saco where she has a horse-breeding operation and cuts about 1,500 bales of hay, half of which she sells to owners of racehorses at $55 a bale.

She said her farm's fate is tied to Scarborough Downs'.

"If they survive, we'll survive," she said. "We can't just roll up the carpet and move to another state."

Plouffe said there's no other market for her hay than the racehorses.

"We used to sell to dairy farmers, but there's not too many of those around anymore," she said. "Shame on the state of Maine." Plouffe said the uncertainty is unsettling.

"It's never knowing if you're going to have a racetrack or not have a racetrack," she said. "Biddeford Downs would have been perfect."

DOWNS' FINANCIAL PICTURE

Terry has tried several tacks to address the track's finances. She's cut staff and put most of the land around the track up for sale, although there were no takers during the year for the more than 400 acres that 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. Terry said she's managed to keep the accumulated debt relatively stable in recent years by cutting expenses.

Neither MacColl nor Terry would offer detailed financial figures on the track, but MacColl said a turnaround is not in the cards without allowing Scarborough Downs to compete on a level playing field, not only with Bangor, but also with other tracks around the country.

"We need to get this fixed," he said. "Either harness racing is given a chance to compete ... or we aren't and it's going to get tougher."

MacColl said the statewide vote to allow Scarborough Downs to move to Biddeford and open a racino was a tough sell on a ballot with another gambling measure, to allow a casino in Lewiston. He said the state's leading newspapers endorsed the Downs' proposal, but selling the idea in short ads to voters proved to be more difficult.

"It's easy for people, when they have competing messages thrown at them, to just say, 'No,' " he said.

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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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