Aaron Hall brings his horse in the paddock before the races at 2019 Windsor Fair. Submitted photo

Harness racing and taking care of horses is all Mike Cushing has ever wanted to do.

“It’s all I’ve done since I graduated high school (in 1987),” said Cushing, the president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association. “I went to the University of Maine and my parents hoped I would get a quote unquote real job, but they knew my passion was horses.”

This has been the most trying racing season for Cushing and others in the harness racing industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed a racing season that typically begins in March and runs through December. Scarborough Downs suspended operations on July 10 when funds from the Payroll Protection Plan and a grant from the Maine Harness Racing Commission ran out.

While the state fair circuit of racing has been canceled, the season is set to begin again this week. Scarborough Downs planned to reopen Tuesday, with attendance capped at 150. Racing was scheduled Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays until the week of Aug. 18, when racing is scheduled for Tuesday and Saturday through October. Racing is set to begin at Bass Park in Bangor on Aug. 19, said Jason Vafiades, president of Maine Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association.

Racing did not begin in Bangor in June, along with Scarborough, due to a COVID-19 testing center set up at Bass Park.

“We basically have race dates through October,” Vafiades said. “Everyone’s happy we can make some money now.”

For horse owners, drivers and breeders, the return of the season marks the return of income.

“It’s already a four-month break, and four more months without income is brutal. People budget to get through those four months… It’s not the fault to anybody. It’s just unfortunate events,” said Aaron Hall, who is treasurer of the Harness Horsemen’s Association.

Hall estimated it costs approximately $12,000 per month to care for a race horse, and expenses don’t end because the racing did. Grain is needed to feed them. Veterinary services are still required. Horses must be shooed and run. The Western New England Horsemen’s Association and Poulin Grain provided grain vouchers to standardbred owners in Maine, Hall said. It worked out to $80 of grain per horse for each horse in Maine. People were able to cover their grain bill for three or four weeks, Hall said, which helped.

Aaron Hall races Tricia Star during a 2019 race at Scarborough Downs. Submitted photo

“We’re right at the end of our rope when the season starts,” Cushing said. “As hard as it is on me not to race and not earn, but the responsibilities of my position (as MHHA president) has taken a toll on me mentally. You try to keep the troops somewhat positive, and you’re constantly being asked questions you have absolutely no answers to.”

With the state’s six off-track betting locations and two casinos — Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Oxford Casino — reopening in recent weeks, more revenue streams the harness racing industry count on are beginning to flow.

“The casinos just opened back up, and early numbers look like they’ll salvage the season,” Hall said.

Slot machine tax revenue is distributed across an abundance of industries, including harness racing. According to state casino distribution figures, which  Vafiades provided, harness racing collected just over $2.5 million through July 2019. By comparison, the harness purse this year through July was just over $1 million, thanks to the pandemic.

The slot money allotted toward the Sire Stakes — the series of races for Maine-born horses — is also significantly lower this year, at just under $425,000. The slot money for the Sire Stakes was just over $1 million last year at this time, according to state figures.

“Our industry is almost solely funded by casinos,” Vafiades said.” If we’re lucky, we’ll be racing for 50 percent of what we usually do. I’m guardedly optimistic we’ll have some purse money, but they only way we can access it is to race.”

The loss of the state fair season is a big one, because t it attracts casual fans of harness racing.

‘Not My First Rodeo’ waits to race at the 2019 Windsor Fair. Submitted photo

“People that don’t even know horse racing know Labor Day at the Windsor Fair, they know the Hight Pace (at Skowhegan State Fair),” Hall said.

While it’s been a tough spring and summer, Hall said a season can still be had now that races dot the calendar.

“The challenge has been monumental, for sure. Maine horsemen are resilient We’re not going to give up on it. We’re just one industry hit by this,” Hall saids. “A setback? That would be catastrophic. I don’t even want to go there.”

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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