Many in the industry say 2015 marked a turning point for the long-suffering sport of harness racing. The bad news came first: Several well-known trainers in Maine faced charges of drugging horses with excess amounts of cobalt, a performance-enhancing substance banned by national horse racing officials three years prior.

The 2015 cobalt cases — as well as several dozen others related to less potent but still prohibited substances — cast a pall over the industry, forcing re-examination, said Henry Jennings, the commission’s executive director. In a 2016 assessment of the agency’s work, Jennings wrote that the spike in drug cases had severely damaged the public’s perception of the industry.

“Concerns about drug use on race horses discourage prospective race horse owners because they question whether they can compete fairly,” he added.

But then came the good news: The bad rap had united those who remained in a shared commitment to improve harness racing’s image and integrity, Jennings said.

“In every crisis lies an opportunity,” Jennings said. “The writing is on the wall. You either change now, or you’re not going to exist.”

Meeting minutes of the Harness Racing Commission, reviewed by Pine Tree Watch, together with interviews of past and current commissioners and staff and an analysis of prosecution data, suggest the Commission has successfully reduced the use of illegal drugs, winning back the confidence of some participants.


The number of drug prosecutions dropped from 88 in 2015 to 23 in 2016, according to commission records. New regulations regarding drug use, including stiffer penalties, are under review.

Harness Racing Commission member Alex Willette, a former lawmaker and attorney with no ties to harness racing, said the new rules were long overdue.

“These horses, and their owners and trainers, are racing for much bigger sums than they used to, in large part because of the revenue from casinos,” said Willette. “When you’re racing for that kind of money, and it’s a state-sanctioned race, the rules need to be followed to the tee.”

For Jennings, the spike in drug prosecutions and the decline in participation may have been just the “wake-up call” the industry needed.

“When I first came to this, it was like the wild west,” said Jennings, who joined the Commission after several years as director of the state’s pesticide control board. “There were a lot of questions about how we did things and how we spent our money, and we didn’t have a lot of answers. This is that moment in time where change has got to happen.”

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