Trotters warm up before time trials at Scarborough Downs in May 1988. The racetrack, which opened in 1950, will end live racing by the end of this month.  Press Herald File Photo/John Patriquin

Scarborough Downs will hold its last live harness racing event on Nov. 28, ending 70 years of horse racing at a struggling racetrack that had its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s.

Mike Sweeney, the track’s publicist and race announcer, confirmed on Thursday the end of live racing at the track. Scarborough Downs, which has been suffering financial losses for nearly 15 years, had faced an uncertain future since the facility was sold in 2018 to a group of developers who have built around the track for the last two years.

“The overriding sense within the industry is that harness racing needs something different, something that Scarborough Downs can’t offer,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said Scarborough Downs will continue to offer simulcast betting through the rest of the year and will apply for a 2021 off-track betting license before the Maine Harness Racing Commission on Friday. The simulcast operation will take place in the Clubhouse Building, which will be leased from the developers, Crossroads Holdings LLC. In 2018, simulcast wagering accounted for 91 percent of all money wagered at the track.

“We’ll be closing the season in a week,” Sweeney said. “Actually, we’ll be closing out the 70-year history of Scarborough Downs. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish this year (in light of the COVID-19 safety protocols). Everyone wishes it could have been an easier year. But we did what we needed to do and will march out with our heads up high.”

Denise Terry, the vice president of finance at Scarborough Downs, declined to be interviewed for this story, Sweeney said.

Scarborough Downs opened in 1950 with thoroughbred racing. Harness racing was introduced in the 1970s, and the track reached its heights in the 1970s and ’80s, when the 6,500-seat grandstand was packed on a nightly basis. On June 29, 1980, a crowd of 9,133 showed up to see actor Lou Ferrigno, who was on hand to sign autographs.

But attendance dwindled and the track stopped charging admission in the 1990s. After Scarborough Downs stopped night racing in 2007 because the light posts had to be removed after the hub rail was removed for safety reasons, the crowds thinned even more. The grandstand fell into disrepair and was eventually closed to fans and the entire facility had a rundown look.

The field rounds the final turn in a race on April 13, 2019, at Scarborough Downs, which will hold its last races this month. Scarborough Downs will continue to offer simulcast betting through the rest of the year, and will apply for a 2021 off-track betting license. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The live racing handle suffered and the prize money got smaller, forcing some Maine drivers to go out of state for bigger purses.

After Scarborough Downs and the 500 acres surrounding it were sold to Crossroads Holdings for nearly $7 million in 2018, no one was sure what would happen to the track. But the developers leased the track back to Terry and harness racing continued. And in 2018, Scarborough Downs reversed a trend that saw declining revenue each year from 2006 to 2017, improving its 2018 revenues 8.5 percent to just under $2.3 million, with the increase fueled by simulcast betting.

According to reports from the Maine Harness Racing Commission, the amount of money wagered on live racing from 2017 to 2019 at Scarborough Downs was relatively stable. The total handle for live racing was $816,782 in 2017 over 82 days of racing and $810,254 in 2019 over 72 days of racing.

A much larger sum of money was wagered on simulcast races at the track, via 363 days of off-track betting per year, averaging nearly $7.8 million dollars per year, with a high of $8.46 million in 2018.

Still, the development continuing around the racetrack made it clear that the venue was on borrowed time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Scarborough Downs routinely had bustling crowds. Patrons are shown in the lower grandstand area in June 1971. Press Herald file photo

“We just appreciated the fact that the new owners let us have us of facility as long as possible to ensure the industry could get on secure footing, where we can go on from here,” said Mike Cushing, director of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association. “For that we’re grateful.”

Members of the harness racing community said the closing of Scarborough Downs could lead to a brighter future for the harness racing industry, mentioning that an unspecified group has begun plans to build a harness racing facility elsewhere in southern Maine, an important part of the state for harness racing because of its population base.

“I think this means a new beginning for harness racing in Maine,” Cushing said.

Henry Jennings, director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission, added that a new facility could bring new blood to an industry that has an aging fan base.

“This means we need to adapt and come up with a new path going forward,” Jennings said. “You need a modern facility. (Scarborough Downs) was a bit outdated. And I think a modern facility that has upscale food and beverage service and upscale accommodations would be huge. We’re pretty excited about that prospect, but we’ve got to make sure it happens.

“We need to be able to appeal to a younger demographic and I think we can with a more modern facility.”

The dilapidated grandstand at Scarborough Downs, seen on Sept. 20, 2018. In the 1970s and ’80s, the 6,500-seat grandstand was packed on a nightly basis. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Where or when a new facility would be built is unclear. That’s why the Maine Harness Racing Commission is delaying awarding dates for the 2021 season, Jennings said. If a new track can be available, its owners could apply for dates. Otherwise, Jennings said, the commission has already spoken to officials at Bangor Raceway – the state’s only other harness racing track – about taking on more dates in 2021.

Sweeney said Scarborough Downs did remarkably well this year considering the restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Once the track was able to allow fans back in for live racing, people were often waiting to get in because of gathering restrictions set by the state, Sweeney said.

“There was a great demand for our product,” he said. “A lot of it had to do with people looking for something to do outside. ”

The closing of Scarborough Downs will leave only two harness racing tracks in New England: Bangor and Plainridge Park in southeastern Massachusetts.

Rick Simonds says interest in horse racing in general and harness racing in particular has been declining across the country.

Better known as the former men’s basketball coach at St. Joseph’s College and a member of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame, Simonds has had a lifelong love affair with harness racing, from his time going to the track with his father to working at Scarborough Downs in many roles, including mucking out stalls and owning nine race horses over several years. No longer a horse owner, Simonds has an extensive stash of harness racing memorabilia and wrote columns and feature stories for harness racing magazines.

Owen Woods of Portland watches a bank of televisions at Scarborough Downs simulcasting horse races from around the country in April 2019. In 2018, simulcast wagering accounted for 91 percent of all money wagered at the track.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“On two different occasions the state of Maine was one of the premier harness racing locations in the world, in the early 1900s and then back in the 1940s when the best horses in the world raced at the kite (shaped) track at Old Orchard Beach,” Simonds said. “Is it declining? The numbers say that. No question in terms of wagering and race dates and people involved, but to those people involved, boy, it’s significant.”

Simonds said he had heard that this would be Scarborough Downs’ final session.

“I hate to see it,” he said. “No question about it, it’s a sad day. It’s tough because it brought so much happiness and so many memories to so many people.”

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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