A company plans to bring harness racing back to southern Maine this year, months after Scarborough Downs, southern Maine’s premiere racetrack and the largest in Maine, shut down for good in November.

First Track Investments LLC plans to schedule 56 days of racing at the Cumberland Fairgrounds starting in May.

The Cumberland Town Council voted 7-0 Monday night to approve a mass gathering permit for the company. But councilors said company owner Michael Cianchette could have held races without the permit because attendance will not exceed the town’s 500-person limit on mass gatherings.

“Mr. Cianchette is being gracious to the town. It (applying for a permit) was certainly not a requirement,” Town Clerk Tammy O’Donnell told councilors. “I think his appearance here is very much a goodwill gesture.”

But some residents living near the fairgrounds questioned whether holding races that often might lead to noise problems.

Town officials said Cianchette anticipates attracting crowds of about 200 to 250 people during the first year. There would be seven to nine races each racing day over a span of four hours. Races would be held during the day and are tentatively scheduled to begin on May 8.

The closure of Scarborough Downs left a void for race horse owners, who need purse money to cover training, feeding and housing their animals. The only other harness tracks in New England are located in Bangor and Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, Massachusetts.

Henry Jennings, the Maine Harness Racing Commission’s executive director, said Scarborough’s closure was not a surprise – the industry knew it would be happening for “quite some time” – but that didn’t make it any easier for racers to swallow.

Cianchette told the Cumberland council that his plan for the fairgrounds is the first step toward finding a permanent, modern location for harness racing in southern Maine.

Cianchette, who grew up in Cumberland, said he will make every effort to be a good neighbor. Harness racing at the Cumberland Fair, which was canceled last year because of the pandemic, typically took place in late September, but it generated noise from loud speakers on the grandstands and around the track.

“This is not going to be like fair week, it’s not Churchill Downs and it’s not the Kentucky Derby,” Cianchette said, adding that he would keep noise levels as low as possible.

Town councilors praised the proposal as did members of the Cumberland Farmers Club, which operates the Cumberland Fairgrounds. “I think this will be a good thing. It’s nothing new for the Cumberland Fairgrounds,” Councilor Ronald Kopp Jr. said.

But, a few people who spoke during the hearing Monday night said they have concerns about the noise an expanded slate of racing could generate.

Karen Herold, who lives on Blanchard Road, said that the plan calls for far more racing than takes place during the week-long fair.

“Maybe the sky shouldn’t be the limit,” Herold said. “I’m not against harness racing, but 56 days of racing is what I am worried about.”

Lyle Merrifield, president of the Cumberland Farmers Club, said the lease agreement the club has with Cianchette will produce much needed revenue for maintaining the barns and buildings at the fairgrounds.

“We are always looking for ways to help us make ends meet. Horse racing helped us build that fairground and hopefully it will help us again,” Merrifield said.

The Cumberland County Fair has been held almost every autumn since 1868 with the usual agricultural attractions – crafts and food, rides on the midway, animal barns, competitions, tractor pulls and more. It was canceled for only the second time last year because of the pandemic. A century ago it was canceled because of the the Spanish flu pandemic.

The fair is scheduled to be held this year from Sept. 26 through Oct. 2.


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