Money energizing Maines harness racing industry

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There’s already more race dates, more prize money and more horses – and the 2006 harness racing season is barely out of the gate.

Money gambled at Hollywood Slots’ has meant $2 million already for Maine horsemen, half of that marked for bigger purses.

“People who had five horses last year have 10 this year,” said Heath Campbell, a top driver at Bangor Raceway last summer. “People who got out of the business when Lewiston closed are getting back into it.”

The industry that hustled to support the state’s first trackside racino is getting paid back, though there’s lingering bitterness Hollywood Slots isn’t, and won’t be, trackside.

That has left open to question whether more purse money and foot traffic from the slots down the road will mean more fans come race time.

“The idea of a separate building – that’s an unusual approach I haven’t seen copied anywhere. Even a block or two away … they’re not going to hear the call to post, they’re not going to feel the excitement in the grandstand,” said David Carr, U.S. Trotting Association’s manager of information and research. Drivers “want people in the stands. They want people to fall in love with their horses.”

Extra purse money is expected to work its way through the harness industry: from owners to drivers to breeders to feed dealers.

Valerie Grondin, a leading trainer, said the number of registered stallions in the state has doubled in the last year.

“There’s so many people coming that want to buy horses now, we’re turning people away,” she said.

Scarborough Downs added 21 race days this year and hopes to draw drivers from as far away as Florida, according to a spokeswoman.

Bangor added 18 days and sank $400,000 into grandstand improvements.

“We’re expecting more horses here – in fact that’s happened already. Our barns are totally committed,” said track manager Fred Nichols. He has not seen a rush from out of state: “I’d rather have the people that have struggled with me here through the years finally have the benefits. It should be profitable now.”

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