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

(Continued from page 3)

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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 Scarborough Downs needs a different answer to survive in the long run, he said.

MacColl noted that when he went to a racino in Pennsylvania on a cold night last January, he was told that seats in the grandstand were completely reserved, but he was welcome to sit at the bar.

From there, he watched customers shuttle back and forth from the slot machines to the grandstands to watch the races, he said.

"The place stayed full all night," he said, noting that Scarborough Downs doesn't even attempt to operate in the winter -- it will shut down this weekend and reopen March 31.

"The long-term survival of harness racing depends on having fully integrated casinos," he said. "Harness racing is going to be winnowed down to those states that have fully integrated racinos."

TRY, TRY AGAIN

The industry in Maine is disappointed by the outcome of the vote last month, but it isn't ready to toss in the towel.

Don Marean, a horse breeder who calls himself the legislative "watchdog" for the harness racing industry, said a committee is being formed to draft new legislation to allow a racino in Biddeford that it hopes lawmakers will take up in 2013.

He said one tack the group is considering is limiting the vote to York County residents, who favored the racino proposal last month. Marean said the state allowed Hollywood Slots to add table games with a county vote only, so there's a precedent for that approach.

Marean said if Scarborough Downs isn't allowed to operate a racino, either in Scarborough or Biddeford, it could be forced to close, which would devastate the industry.

Because a racino in southern Maine would likely take in more money than Hollywood Slots and Bangor Raceway, allowing the Downs to add slot machines would also allow Maine to claim a better spot in harness racing's hierarchy, he said.

"Look at all the people we could pull in from the other side of the bridge in Kittery," he said. Maine "would go from being a class B racing state to a class A racing state."

Jackson, the executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission, agrees in general, but he worries that when slot machines and table games are added to harness racing, it becomes a case of the tail wagging the dog.

He said the casino tends to attract the interest, the entertainment and the gambling, and harness racing becomes an afterthought. He noted that Hollywood Slots only recently added a window to allow customers to bet on the harness races in the racino, which is in a separate building from the track.

"In Bangor, they have not advertised and pushed the racing as much as they could have," he said. "We were the king of sports, but we didn't do much to continue to attract new bettors and more interest and all of a sudden, we found ourselves in a heap of trouble."

Jackson is also worried that the exodus of horses to tracks outside the state will lead to even smaller fields at Scarborough Downs. He recently suggested that the commission cut back on the number of races Scarborough Downs and Bangor Raceway are allowed to stage each year so the fields in the races are beefed up.

He said bettors don't like "short fields" of five or six horses because it lowers the odds and payouts on bets, particularly wagers like trifectas, in which the bettor needs to pick the first three horses in order. With 11 or 12 of the "dashes" on race days, he said, the field can be spread thin.

"Some of your more experienced bettors probably would not bet a trifecta (in a small field) because the payoff is not as good," he said.

The commission eventually tied 2-2 over Jackson's proposal and ultimately gave both tracks the same number of races and race dates as they had last year.

Jackson said he worries that harness racing will lose its allure in Maine, and is concerned that its pace may be out of sync with the 21st century.

"We're in a computer world and everything is instantaneous," he said. Customers, particularly younger ones, "aren't going to sit there and wait 20 or 30 minutes before the next race because there's nothing to occupy them."

He said a drop-off in horse quality would only compound the problem.

"It is difficult for us to put together some open-class racing -- those are the better horses that have been moving south," he said.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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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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