OXFORD — The Oxford County Fair has eliminated its long tradition of harness racing from this year’s schedule, but a state official said it will have no impact on the licensing of the Oxford Casino.

The vote by the Oxford County Agricultural Society board of trustees to remove harness racing was made for financial reasons, society officer and director Henry Jackson said. He said the event was losing $10,000 to $18,000 per year. Part of those costs included operational matters and hiring track officials, he said.

The fair runs from Wednesday to Saturday, Sept. 12-15.

The move was addressed by the Gambling Control Board in September of 2017 when attorneys for the society and Oxford Casino questioned the board through a letter whether active harness racing at the Oxford track was a necessary contingency for the licensing of the Oxford Casino.

“The short answer is no,” Milton Champion, executive director of the Gambling Control Unit of the Department of Public Safety said.

Oxford Casino officials had “no comment” on the issue last week.


According to the Citizens Initiative in 2009 that was voter approved and allowed the establishment of the Oxford Casino, to be eligible for a casino license the Casino operator had to own a facility where harness racing was conducted in the 2009 racing year, under a license from the State Harness Racing Commission, and the track had to be within 10 miles of the proposed casino.

The only facility to meet the requirement was the Oxford County Fairgrounds, which has conducted harness racing under a state license since 2003.

Black Bear, the investment group that originally owned casino, purchased the track but leased it back to the fair. The investor group sold the casino to the parent company of Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby, for $160 million cash in 2013.

According to the minutes of the Sept. 28, 2017, Gambling Control Board meeting, the casino and the society were concerned that if they didn’t apply for an active license to the Maine Harness Racing Commission it might jeopardize their license.

Assistant Attorney General Ron Guay told the board that licensing of the fairgrounds track by the Maine State Harness Racing Commission would not be a necessary pre-condition for licensing of the casino.

Ten live racing license renewals for the 2018 season were approved by the Maine Harness Racing Commission at its Nov. 8, 2017, meeting, including the Farmington Fair, Fryeburg Fair, six other county fairs and Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs. Oxford County Fair did not apply for a license renewal.


Racing Tradition

The tradition of harness racing goes back to the beginning of the Oxford County Fair more than 150 years ago when it was held on what is now the grounds of the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris. When the society lost that land and moved its operations to the current site off Pottle Road in Oxford in 1969, harness racing did not return until 2003, said Jackson, former director of the state’s Harness Racing Commission.

With the help  of donors and borrowing, the society bought additional land and built a half-mile oval track with 12 percent banked turns in 2003. It was the first track to be built in Maine since 1942.

The track and its facilities, including five paddock barns to house 80 horses, two pari-mutuel betting facilities with  30 betting windows, judges’ facility and bathrooms, cost nearly $300,000, including in-kind labor.

Jackson said despite the long history of harness racing at fairs, there was a delay in reinstating harness racing at the Oxford County Fair of some 14 years, because there “really wasn’t all that much interest initially.”

Jackson’s brother, Phil, then director of racing at the Oxford Fair track, told local newspapers at that time that the new facility and the return of racing after 39 years would benefit the fair, agriculture and the community in general.


He said the average race purse would be $1,500 and there would be stakes race events with a purse of $5,000. At that time 19.5 percent of the handle from the races went to the OCAS and the state got the rest.

By 2008, the inaugural Big “O” Open Pace harness racing event at the Oxford County Fair had a $25,000 winning  purse.

By 2015, veteran harness racer Fred Ward Jr. told a local reporter that despite its history, the popularity of harness racing was waning in favor of numerous other betting options, including casinos. Attendance is down, in part, because betters have moved to the casinos, but purses, directly inflated by a portion of casino revenues, steadily hover.

“I think they’d just like us to quietly disappear, but we hope that the people of Maine see this tradition has been going on for 150 years,” Ward said in a 2015  interview.

Although harness racing at the Oxford County Fair has been an important financial fixture of the harness racing team’s calendar, racing was profitable for the Oxford County Agricultural Society for only five or six years, Henry Jackson said.

He said there are still some boarders in the barn that are using the track for training but it is not certain that harness racing will ever return to the Oxford Fairgrounds.


HC Bangor LLC, doing business as the Bangor Raceway, is picking up several of the days so the drivers will lose only a day or two from their normal racing schedule this summer.

The Maine Harness Racing Association did not respond to requests for comment.

A decision on whether the track will be torn up has not been made yet, Jackson said.


In this file photo, horses race at the Oxford County Fair in Oxford in 2010. The sport has been dropped from this year’s fair because of costs, an official said. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat file photo)

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