Bourbontini and driver Paul Walker cross the finish line during the first race at Scarborough Downs on April 13. The new owners of the property are conducting a $25,000 feasibility study of the track’s aging 6,500-seat grandstand with an eye toward holding other types of events there. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SCARBOROUGH — Since it opened in 1950, Scarborough Downs has been the flagship of the state’s horse racing industry, once referred to as “Maine’s Showplace of Harness Racing.” But when it was sold in January 2018 to a local group of developers, it seemed to mark the final chapter for a faltering racetrack that had the look and feel of a forgotten sport.

Not so fast, it turns out. There seems to be a glimmer of hope for the track and the state’s harness racing industry, which has been teetering for at least two decades.

Last year, Scarborough Downs posted its first annual revenue increase since 2006. More new horses are being entered in races. And the new owners don’t seem in a hurry to end the racing there.

There are still challenges ahead: The buildings need repairs, attendance is low, and many horsemen still take their horses out of state. But the future appears brighter than it has in years.

“We’re still thinking that it’s going to continue for the foreseeable future,” said Rocco “Roccy” Risbara of Crossroads Holdings LLC. “We’re pleased with what they’re doing there.”

Crossroads Holdings plans to turn the 500 acres off Route 1 into a mixed-used village center known as The Downs. Residential construction is underway, and an agreement has been reached to build a recreational sports complex near the track. The developers also received approval last week for a 154-acre business park.

But their long-term plan has never specified what will happen to the racetrack, one of two remaining commercial harness racing tracks in the state, along with Bangor Raceway.

“It would be nice to know if this place is going to be around for another 30 years,” said Beth Graffam, whose family stables 50 horses at Norton Farm in Falmouth.

No one will guarantee that. There are strong indications, however, that Scarborough Downs will remain open after its lease runs out when the racing season ends in December.

Risbara said his group will negotiate a lease extension with the Terry family, the former owners who continue to operate the track. And the developers are conducting a $25,000 feasibility study of the track’s aging 6,500-seat grandstand to determine what can be done to make it more attractive for other events. “We’re trying to figure out what we have and what we can do with it,” Risbara said.

Members of Maine’s harness racing community – from owners and trainers to drivers – are watching these developments anxiously. Last year, the state saw its first increase in total handle – money wagered on live racing and simulcasts – in 16 years, boosted by Scarborough Downs.

“Scarborough Downs is extremely important to harness racing in the state of Maine,” said Drew Campbell, a driver from Saco. “It’s make or break for a lot of people, whether they stay in the business or not. A lot of people, it’s all they know.”

Denise Terry, vice president of finance at Scarborough Downs, said the track posted an increase in revenue in 2018 for the first time in more than a decade. “It was a good year. … I felt like there was a different mood here last year.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Scarborough Downs’ revenue increased from just over $2.1 million in 2017 to just under $2.3 million in 2018, according to Denise Terry, vice president of finance. That’s an increase of 8.5 percent, halting more than a decade of annual declines that had seen revenue plunge from $4.7 million in 2006.

“It was a good year. … I felt like there was a different mood here last year,” said Terry.

The track has had initial talks with the developers about extending the lease, “but nothing concrete yet,” Terry said. She expects the lease negotiations to begin before summer is over.

Just two years ago, Scarborough Downs officials weren’t sure from week to week if the track would stay open.

“It was very discouraging,” said Mike Sweeney, the track’s publicist and race announcer. “I’d come into work every day with the thought in my mind that I didn’t want to be the one to turn the lights out for the last time.”

The racetrack appeared to get even more good news when the Maine Legislature passed a bill in June to legalize sports betting, with Scarborough Downs mentioned as a site. But Gov. Janet Mills is holding the bill, delaying its implementation. Even before she did that, Scarborough Downs officials were cautious about what passage meant to the track, offering a statement that said: “We commend the legislature for creating the opportunity to legalize, regulate and tax sports betting in Maine, as it will move the activity away from the black market and increase revenue for the state. But what this means for Scarborough Downs, at this time, is still unclear to us.”

Years of revenue declines have taken a toll on the track’s appearance. Some windows in the grandstand are boarded up, fences need to be mended and walls need to be painted. The tote board, which displays the odds for each race and the winner, is hard to read because so many lights are out. The track closed, and then removed, its barns in 2016 after the Environmental Protection Agency determined that seepage from horse manure had contaminated local groundwater. The barns had provided homes to over 300 horses at one time.

Last year, new televisions were installed in the lower clubhouse for simulcast racing – an investment that’s paying off. The track’s simulcast handle increased 17 percent from 2017 to 2018, from $7.4 million to $8.6 million. Simulcast wagering accounted for 91 percent of the track’s total handle. Scarborough Downs provides simulcast races in its clubhouse every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (or until the last race is completed) except Thanksgiving and Christmas, giving patrons the opportunity to bet on horse races across the United States.

Owen Woods of Portland watches a bank of televisions at Scarborough Downs simulcasting horse races from around the country. Last year, new televisions were installed in the lower clubhouse for simulcast racing – an investment that’s paying off.  The track’s simulcast handle increased 17 percent from 2017 to 2018. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Betting on live harness races was down by $4,298 last year to $812,484, a decrease of less than 1 percent, according to the Maine State Harness Racing Commission. Still, it was Scarborough Downs’ best year in this decade. Since 2010, the live racing handle has dropped each year, most years by well over $100,000.

But those total live handle numbers don’t tell the whole story of 2018. Sweeney said Scarborough Downs has been aided by a decrease in race days. For many years, the track had well over 100 racing days per year. Scarborough Downs officials had argued that was too many. In 2017, the state agreed and cut back the number of racing days.

This year Scarborough was awarded 76 days, with racing on weekends from April to December and on Thursdays in the summer. Fewer days allows the track to offer larger purses (prize money) in its races – and larger purses attract more horses. The average purse per race went from $3,984 in 2017 to $4,942 in 2018, Sweeney said, making for more competitive races with full entries. In recent years, there were some races with just five horses.

“The schedule needed to be truncated,” said Sweeney. “You can get people excited about coming to the track; you just can’t get people excited about coming to the track day after day after day.”

Bettors have taken notice. Track officials said the per-race handle for live racing increased by 6 percent last year, from $1,054 per race in 2017 to $1,113 in 2018.

All of this was good news for the state’s harness racing industry, which in 2018 saw the first increase in its total handle in 16 years. It was only a 2 percent increase – from $24.5 million in 2017 to $25 million in 2018 – but it reversed a downward spiral that had seen the statewide handle plunge by 63.6 percent since 2002, according to a report prepared for the Maine Harness Racing Commission by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine.

A woman walks through the lower grandstand at Scarborough Downs to place a wager. Live harness racing accounted for just 9 percent of the track’s handle last year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“There is a lot of optimism within the industry that there is an opportunity to right the ship and see growth in the coming years,” said Henry Jennings, executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission.

That trend may be continuing this year. On May 4 – the busiest day on Scarborough Downs’ calendar because of the Kentucky Derby – the live racing handle at Scarborough Downs was up 21 percent from 2018, Sweeney said. The overall handle, including simulcast wagers, was up 2 percent with an estimated 2,000 fans on hand.

On most days with live racing, however, there are maybe a few hundred patrons at the track, many absorbed in simulcast racing on the TV screens. Few people gather on benches outside close to the track. On Derby Day, however, many of the patrons were lined along the fence at the edge of the track.

“The crowd is the main thing,” said Maguire Sowers, a 19-year-old driver from New Brunswick who lives in Windsor. “The more people you have, the better it is. As you saw (on Derby Day), it was outrageous. And it’s nice when you make the turn for home in the stretch and you’ve got a horse in the lead and you hear the crowd screaming and cheering. That’s what it’s all about.”

It’s a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s, when Scarborough Downs routinely had bustling crowds, including a record attendance of 9,133 on June 29, 1980, when actor Lou Ferrigno was on hand to sign autographs, according to Sweeney. By the 1990s, the crowds had dwindled and the track stopped charging admission and keeping attendance figures. And when Scarborough Downs stopped night racing in 2007 – the light posts had to be removed after the hub rail was removed for safety reasons – the crowds thinned out even more. That forced the track to close its 400-seat restaurant, which now is only open three times a year (for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes).

In the 1970s and 1980s, Scarborough Downs routinely had bustling crowds. Patrons are shown in the lower grandstand area in June 1971. Press Herald file photo

Funds from the Bangor Raceway casino, approved by state voters in a 2003 referendum, have helped to keep the state’s horse racing industry afloat. Ten percent of the funds go toward purses while 4 percent goes directly to the racetracks. Still, the decades-long decline in wagering at Scarborough Downs led to smaller purses, causing many owners and trainers to race their horses out of state, such as at Plainridge Park in southeastern Massachusetts.

“They do an absolute five-star, first-class job there,” said Campbell, who won his 5,000th career race earlier this year. “They have a lot of things that they don’t have (at Scarborough Downs).”

Plainridge, which includes a casino, opened 20 years ago, one of five harness racing tracks in America to open since 1999. Conversely, 16 harness racing tracks have closed during that time. Plainridge’s purses often exceed $15,000. Campbell races there three days a week and at Scarborough on weekends.

State Rep. Don Marean, an independent from Hollis, was a horse owner and breeder in Maine for 35 years but got out of the business because of its uncertainty. He said horsemen will invest in more horses if they have assurances about Scarborough Downs’ future.

“We need a plan so we can move forward,” said Marean, treasurer of the U.S. Trotting Association, the national body that oversees harness racing. “The industry will make a comeback once we have something in place that we’re going to be around for a while.”

The uncertainty surrounding Scarborough Downs isn’t anything new. “It’s been going on for a very long time, since the late 1980s,” said Todd DuBois, a second-generation horse trainer from Scarborough.

No one is expecting a return to the glory days, but there are encouraging signs for Scarborough Downs. Sweeney noted that of the 168 horses that raced in Scarborough on Kentucky Derby weekend, 57 did not race in Maine a year earlier. Those associated with the industry see other positive aspects. Mike Cushing, president of the Maine Harness Horseman’s Association, said he sees more owners and breeders getting involved. “Every facet of the industry is in an upward tick,” he said.

Paul LeBeau of Chicopee, Mass., watches the horses warm up at Scarborough Downs while waiting for his wife to return with their wager tickets. The track has pushed hard on social media to attract more patrons. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

People who work in the industry realize they need to appeal to a younger crowd to keep it alive. “If you have been to a track, you recognize the demographic is a bit on the elderly side,” said Jennings.”We have recognized that it’s vitally important to attract younger fans. … It’s a challenge, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable.”

Scarborough Downs has pushed hard on social media, with accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The Maine Harness Racing Commission spent $10,000 on advertising in 2017. This year, Jennings said, it has $170,000 to spend.

If the positives continue, Risbara said there is no rush to close the track. He said the entire development project is expected to take 30 to 40 years.

“We’ll keep developing and eventually we’ll figure out what makes sense for the racetrack portion of the site,” he said. “As we start to get occupancies and people living there, it may help (the track). It certainly won’t hurt them, getting people around.”


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