HOLLIS — It’s good to see dialogue on the allocation of casino funds from the pending closure of Scarborough Downs (“Casino funds could offer hope for retired harness racing horses,” Dec. 18). We’d like to address counterpoints made by opposing views to the need for aftercare of the racehorses who drive the industry, and put the discussion in the context of the business opportunity this need ironically presents.

First, there seems to be a perception that the only care needed for retiring racehorses is for the five or six retirees each year who end up in such extreme crises as to require law enforcement intervention. These animals are not representative of the need for aftercare as a whole. Where do the other estimated 195 racehorses retired in Maine each year all go?

While racing agents say that data are unavailable despite these animals having been branded and tracked, this same data are claimed to notify owners when one of their horses ends up in the kill pen. The data are either available or they’re not.

Moreover, claiming that notifying an owner solves the problem doesn’t delve into the issue deeply enough: How many owners actually go to the kill pens to rescue their former horse from imminent slaughter? Not many. Rescuers are called upon to go save them, and asked to fund the horses’ remaining lives not with their winnings, nor any proceeds from the industry that used them in their racing days, but with money the rescuers have to raise themselves, one tin cup at a time.

Yet because Rep. Don Marean told the Maine Sunday Telegram that the need for aftercare is “fabricated on emotion,” and he and others frame the question as strictly a business issue, let’s focus, then, on the business side of the equation.

An aftercare facility – a spinoff of the Standardbred racing industry in the state – could be far from the “pipe dream” that Rep. Marean currently describes such a venture to be for an industry that he says is “struggling to stay afloat.” It could be, instead, a key to its turnaround.

Rather than invest millions more dollars into the same business model of an industry that’s “long been in decline” after “tens of millions of casino subsidies diverted to support the industry over the past decade haven’t fostered a turnaround,” it would instead make good economic sense to proceed with a model that could sustain many of the same types of jobs – and generate a new branch of tourism and public good will to boot. In this next-generation vision for the Standardbred industry, racehorses who leave the track could be retrained for new careers, including pleasure driving, saddle-horse riding and trail riding.

In this model, we might be serving fewer gamblers in the Scarborough area, but we would be supporting more pleasure riders, drivers, trainers, school groups, 4-H clubs, pony clubs, feed suppliers, farm suppliers, facilities managers, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and equine therapists, as well as the tourism industry. These groups can generate important revenue for the state – revenue streams that are fresh, sustainable and simultaneously compatible with both the other gambling and racing concerns in the state as well as the community at large. The horses could go to good homes when ready, making room for the next retirees from the Bangor Raceway to come in.

Rep. Marean could be uniquely qualified to lead such a transition. He has already proven himself to be a capable fighter for the industry: He’s successfully lobbied for the continuation of racing in the face of a faltering industry, helped get those tens of millions of dollars to date invested in an attempt to recover the prior racing model and, in anticipation of Scarborough Downs closing in 2017, already set legislation so that “any unallocated funds will be diverted to pay the operating costs of the Maine Harness Racing Commission.”

It would now be a question of identifying what the commission would do with those funds. Perhaps more transparency into how the public commission entity spends its funds would be beneficial, so the public can understand whether they share the current interests of the commission, or would like to explore new ideas. An endowment for an aftercare facility, funded by existing casino subsidies and closing Scarborough Downs, could ensure sustainability of the new economic model we propose. What a great legacy such an outcome could be for a leader like Rep. Marean.

Thank you for exploring this challenging issue. We believe the interested parties can come together to form a mutually beneficial, next-generation model for owners, riders, communities and, yes – even for the horses.


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