AUGUSTA – The Maine State Harness Racing Commission may have set a record this week by completing the 1996 race-date allocations in a little more than 24 hours. And it was done in an atmosphere of cooperation, without filibustering, temper tantrums or intimidation and without its fifth full-time member.
Interim Commission Chairman Richard Crabtree moved the hearings along at a steady pace utilizing his gavel sparingly.
“I remember last year, and I said this year, we were not going to have a year like last year,” Crabtree said.
He was right.
MSHRC’s date-hearing process for began Tuesday morning with the questioning of representatives from each of Maine’s racing fairs. By the time Crabtree dropped his gavel for the final time mid-morning on Wednesday, the process had been completed.
The four members of the harness racing regulatory board had allocated 174 live extended meet race dates; 66 live agricultural fair race dates and 1,825 off-track simulcasting dates for five locations for 1996.
But the hearings were not without incident.
Mark Ponziani, representing Topsham Fair, told commissioners that because Scarborough Downs shut down in 1994 during Topsham’s annual fair, it helped increase Topsham’s parimutuel handle by 22 percent, the quality of horses was better and the racing was excellent.
“We can race against Northern Maine Fair in Presque Isle, but not both Northern Maine and Scarborough,” Ponziani said.
He requested that the board not allow Scarborough to race against Topsham in 1996.
Galen Flewelling, representing NMF in Presque Isle, said he had been living with racing against Topsham for years.
“What we really oppose is the commission allocating double daily racing cards to Scarborough Downs,” Flewwelling said. “About 50 percent of the horses we had last year came from Bangor and Scarborough Downs. If you let Scarborough race against us, our racing program would be in serious jeopardy. I hope we can work this problem out.”
Crabtree asked Flewelling how he felt about the possible introduction of video lottery terminals into Maine racing.
“The more we depend on gambling, the more we will lose the family oriented excitement,” Flewelling said.
Crabtree asked Flewelling if he thought harness racing was critical to the success of his agricultural fair.
“Absolutely, it costs so much money to have live entertainment, say a Joie Chitwood, you can only afford one night of that type of entertainment,” Flewelling said. “You need some other form of entertainment for the other six night at the fairs and harness racing fills the bill.”
Scarborough Downs’ attorney, Ed McColl, said Scarborough agreed to the experiment of shutting down during Topsham this past season and it cost his client’s track more than $250,000 for that week.
The impasse was breached when Scarborough and Topsham, in a spirit of cooperation, agreed to work on alternative post times with Scarborough racing only four days during Topsham Fair week. Additionally, the commission denied Scarborough double dashes (afternoon and evening programs on the same day) except for two special occassions.
Sharon Terry, president of Scarborough Downs, told commissioners that Golden Arc, the parent company of Scarborough Downs, had loaned the race track approximately $800,000 in 1994.
“It’s a common practice that has been exercised annually for many years,” Terry said. She said Scarborough Downs has 50 acres of land it is selling and approximately 70 percent of the proceeds from the sale will be utilized to reduce Scarborough’s debt.
Fred Nichols, general manager of Bangor Raceway (Bangor Historic Track), said last season was a tough one at Bangor, although they continue to make track improvements. The new racing pylons, rather than the flat, on-the-ground hubrail and widening the stretch were the two lastest safety factors completed.
“The attendance was good, the parimutuel handle wasn’t,” Nichols said. “We had lots of promotions, including a $10,000 Penobscot Indian Nation pace. I just got back from St. John, New Brunswick, on a recruiting trip. Exhibition Park Raceway in St. John has not filed for 1996 race dates and there is genuine concern as to whether they will open next season. This is the area when many of our Canadian horsemen come from.”
And the real crunch numbers on horses seem to intensify in July.
Fred Lunt, Jr., general manager of Skowhegan Fair and the extended meet, said he also had a problem with horse supply this year.
“The Bangor meet is pivotal. Bangor seems to set the tone for the rest of the fair circuit. If they have a horse shortage, the trend seems to continue through the weeks of fair racing,” Lunt said.
Lunt told the MSHRC he would like to have more dashes this year and not be restricted to 10 dashes daily.
Paul Lusky, director of racing at Fryeburg Fair, told commissioners that although his track was in excellent shape, they had to overcome a couple of rainy days.
“We were never rained out, although we came close one day. We had a lot of stonedust on the track. It was heavy, but we got through. The shortage of horses and the weather affected our handle, which dropped 15 percent,” Lusky said. “It was the first year we had a shortage that bad.”
On Wednesday, off-track wagering operators stood together before the commission perplexed by the state’s variance in restaurant classification. Ed McColl representing Scarborough Downs; Jim Day, Sparetime Recreation, Lewiston; Peter Martin, Maine Event, Waterville; John Miller, Post Time at Miller’s, Bangor; and Terry Weeks, Champ’s Grill and Tap, Presque Isle, agreed with the commission chairman to enter into a consent decree with the state of Maine which will allow the OTBs uninterrupted service.
Race dates for 1996
BANGOR RACEWAY: June 2-7-8-9-14-15-16-21-22-23-26-28-29-30; July 4-5-6-7-10-12-13-14-17-19-20-21
COUNTY RACEWAYS, PRESQUE ISLE: June 18-21-25-28-July 2-5-18-19-26
SKOWHEGAN RACEWAY (extended meet racing): July 26-27-28-31, Aug. 2-3
NORTHERN MAINE FAIR: AUG. 2-6-7-8-9-10
TOPSHAM FAIR: Aug. 4-5-7-8-9-10
SKOWHEGAN FAIR: Aug. 11-12-14-15-16-17
UNION FAIR: Aug. 18-19-20-21-22-23-24
WINDSOR FAIR: Aug. 25-26-27-28-29-30-31, Sept. 1-2
BLUE HILL FAIR: Aug. 31, Sept. 2
FARMINGTON (extended meet racing): Sept. 7-8-14
FARMINGTON FAIR: Sept. 15-16-17-18-19-20-21
CUMBERLAND FAIR: Sept. 22-23-24-25-26-27-28-29
FRYEBURG FAIR: Oct. 1-2-3-4-5-6
SCARBOROUGH DOWNS: March 2-3-9-10-16-17-23-24-29-30-31; April 3-5-6-7-10-12-13-14-17-19-20-21-24-26-27-28; May 1-3-4-5-8-10-11-12-15-17-18-19-22-24-25-26-27-29-31; June 1-2-5-7-8–9-12-14-15-16-19-21-22-23-26-28-29-30; July 3-4-5-6-7-10-12-13-14-17-19-20-21-24-26-27-28-31; Aug. 2-3-4-7-9-10-11-14-16-17-18-21-23-24-25-28-30-31; Sept. 1-2-4-6-7-8; Oct. 9-11-12-13-14-16-18-19-20-23-25-26-27-30; Nov. 1-2-3-6-8-9-10-13-15-16-17-20-22-23-24-27-29-30; Dec. 1