SCARBOROUGH — The last live races at Scarborough Downs on Saturday attracted a crowd of hundreds drawn to relive the track’s heyday and recall decades of memories made at one of the last places for harness racing in New England.

A sense of nostalgia and sorrow hung over the crowd, bundled up against a cold, damp, overcast day or huddled inside the floor-level grandstand.  The last races of the track’s 70-year history brought in one of the largest crowds it hosted recently. The parking lot was almost full and around the time of the first race a line for programs stretched nearly to the main entrance.

“I think a lot of people are coming to see the place and say, ‘I was there to say goodbye,'” said Rick Simonds, 71, as he sat on a bench near the track, reviewing the race program. “It’s sad.”

Simonds has a deep connection to Scarborough Downs. He worked there, owned racehorses and was a former chairman of the Maine Harness Racing Board.

“It’s nostalgic,” Simonds said. “I have worked here; I’ve been here hundreds and hundreds of times. I haven’t been here in a couple of years, and I don’t even know if I’m going to bet.”

“I had to come today,” he said. “But did I come because I wanted to see it or because I want to say I was there for the last hurrah? I’m not sure.”

Scarborough Downs opened in the 1950s for thoroughbred racing and switched to harness racing in the 1970s. It reached its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when the 6,500-capacity grandstand was regularly packed.

But the 1990s marked the start of the Downs’ gradual decline. It stopped charging for admission in 2002, canceled night races in 2007 and eventually closed the dilapidated grandstand to fans.

Handles – the amount bet on live races – dwindled along with the crowds and more money was wagered on simulcast races broadcast at the Downs clubhouse. In 2018, a local development group bought the racetrack and a 480-acre parcel around it for nearly $7 million to turn into housing, shopping, offices and business space. The new owners leased the track back to its former owners.

Amber McKenzie, 21, and Bert Bronn, 57, came by the track Saturday in memory of his father, her grandfather. His dad, who died this year, lived across the street from the Downs and attended regularly for 50 years.

“He didn’t own any horses, but he knew everyone who did,” Bronn said. “It used to be really beautiful. There used to be a really great steakhouse. Over the years it has kind of deteriorated.”

McKenzie said she recalled coming down with her grandfather and spending time with the horses and drivers. He had a special pass to get into the paddock, McKenzie recalled.

“I spent a lot of time down here with him,” she said.

Luck was with McKenzie and Bronn on Saturday – their favored horse won the first and second races of the day.

“He’s looking down on us today,” Bronn said of his late father.

Family ties brought Lindsay and Eric McAfee up from Boston to see the last races. Eric said that when his father was a college student in Maine, he’d come to the track to try to win some money to take his future wife out on dates. Eric remembers coming with his father to watch races at Scarborough Downs in later years.

“This feels like the last go-around,” said Eric, 30. “There’s no place like this anymore. It’s pretty old-school.”

With the Downs’ closure, there are only two remaining harness racing tracks in New England – in Bangor and at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts. The couple have been to the Plainridge racetrack, but it is combined with a casino and isn’t quite the same, said Lindsay McAfee, 31.

“It has a lot of old charm that you don’t see anymore. We’re all going to miss it,” she said of the Downs.

Paul Cowley sat inside watching the races. The first time he came to the racetrack, the same year it opened, he was thinking of getting engaged and bet the daily double – his mother had to place the bet for him because he was too young.

Cowley won $79 on that bet and went out to buy an engagement ring, he said.

“It used to be crowded in here,” he said.

Some people there Saturday expect the end of live races at Scarborough Downs won’t be the death knell for Maine harness racing. There are rumors of a group looking at locations for a new, modern racetrack elsewhere in southern Maine or restarting racing at the Cumberland Fairgrounds next year. The Downs will continue simulcasting U.S. races at its clubhouse.

Barbara McDonald, 57, wearing a black wide-brimmed had with a large red flower arrangement and a black face mask with sequins, is optimistic for the future of racing.

Her husband, a former racer, attracted her to the track and she made a point of arranging for hat-themed celebrations every year for the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s heartbreaking, the end of an era,” McDonald said of Saturday’s final day of races at the Downs. “We’ve supported this as long as we can.”

Even with the closure of her hometown track, McDonald hopes the sport will see a revival as new, young folks pick up an interest.

“Maybe there’ll be a resurgence,” she said. “We’ve just lost touch over the generations, but it will come back around.”

As the last race was announced, the loudspeakers played “Auld Lang Syne” and bettors lined up to place final wagers. Following the race a crowd of spectators gathered around racers for the biggest winners circle photo in the racetrack’s history, said longtime race announcer Mike Sweeney, over the sound system.

This was the “day we never thought would come,” Sweeney said.

“We go out with our heads held high, proud of our accomplishment,” he said.

“Hopefully we left some sort of legacy and a framework to carry the industry forward into the next 70 years.”

Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup contributed reporting.


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