March 29, 2020

Horsemen groups battling over Scarborough’s rights

Several changes to the laws governing harness racing which became effective on Jan. 1 have caused confusion for horsemen/women who are concerned about their future security.

One change deals with establishing a bargaining agent for horsepersons and requires the Maine State Harness Racing Commission to adopt rules to establish an exclusive bargaining agent at each racing venue in the state, i.e., racing fairs and extended meets.

Two separate entities representing horsemen have filed notice with the racing commission to become the exclusive bargaining agent for Maine horsemen. One is the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, who has requested its name appear on ballots for exclusive bargaining agent at Scarborough Downs, Bangor Raceway and Maine’s racing agricultural fairs.

The second entity seeking representation status is the Maine Horsemen’s Alliance, a new organization formed last year to represent horsemen at Scarborough Downs. The MHA has requested its name appear only on the Scarborough Downs ballot, according to the MSHRC office.

Funding for MHHA, the current horsemen’s bargaining agent, is derived from 1 1/2 percent of the total parimutuel handle.

The MHHA began as the Southern Driving Club in 1948 and gradually evolved into its present form in 1951, according to Don Richards, veteran owner, trainer and driver from Yarmouth. The first MHHA racing contracttrainer and driver from Yarmouth. The first MHHA racing contract was signed in 1971 with Lewiston Raceway.

Mike Labun of Dexter was the MHHA president.

Mike Labun of Dexter was the MHHA president.

Don Richards, veteran owner, trainer and driver from Yarmouth, said this week that the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association originated as a continuance of an organization called The Southern Maine Driving Club, formed in 1948, to allow Maine horsemen to winter race on ice at lakes and ponds in the Sebago and Gardiner areas.

Richards said the first president of the driving club was the late “Duke” Elliott, who earned four letters in sports at John Bapst in Bangor. He was also an uncle to Peter Salley. It was around 1951, according to Richards, the driving club evolved into what is now the MHHA.

Richards said the first MHHA racing contract was signed in 1971 with Lewiston Raceway. Mike Labun of Dexter was the MHHA president.

“Labun was a tough negotiator and we actually had to go out on strike for one day and withhold our horses from the declaration box before we reached an agreement,” Richards said.

Scarborough Downs and the rest of the fairs followed suit, according to Richards.

The Maine Horsemen’s Alliance was formed in 1997 because of dissatisfaction with the MHHA’s leadership and the negotitations on behalf of the horsemen and their additional problems with management, according to Carolyn Corso of Wells, its president.

Corso said the MHA incorporation papers were filed last May, but recruiting activity did not begin until October.

“We want people who are here every day and race this track all the time to be liaisons between horsemen and management. We already have accomplished quite a bit in just a short time,” Corso said.

Asked about whether MHA was a Scarborough Downs-owned-and-operated organization, Corso said, “absolutely it is not. It is MHA’s intention to represent and promote the interests of harness people and help make our racing place better, much like other horsemen’s organizations around the state are doing.”

Sheridan Smith of Farmington, president of the MHHA, which currently has a lawsuit pending against Scarborough Downs, said the MHHA has earned several benefits and concessions for its members of the past 47 years from Maine racetracks and the Legislature.

“It just didn’t happen overnight,” Smith said. “There were many good horsemen before us who dedicated a portion of their lives to bettering the Maine horsemen’s lot. But, until this election is settled, the MHHA will continue to carry the sulky, fire and disaster and third-party liability insurances on all our members.”

The racing commission met last Monday for the first of two sessions to map out voting and eligibility procedures they will use in the election process, according to Henry Jackson, executive director of the MSHRC. The second meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday in the Piscataquis Room of the Augusta Civic Center.

Jackson said the commission’s first step was to contact the racetracks and request information to determine voter eligibility on one of three voting segments – segment one, Scarborough Downs; segment two, Bangor Raceway and segment three, all other extended meet and agricultural fair meets. The commission will certify the voter eligibility list next Monday and then prepare the ballots for mailing to both Scarborough and Bangor.

One section of Maine Public Law, (chapter 474, sect. 285), defining bargaining agents, has some horsemen/women questioning its fairness and legality. Currently, if you are a member of the MHHA or the MHA, the only requirement to voting is that you hold valid licenses and are in good standing with the United States Trotting Association and the state of Maine.

But in LD 1756, the Legislature approved a clause to the statute stating that any eligible voter in any racing segment, must have participated at least 15 percent of that racing segment’s live racing in the previous year. In 1997, Scarborough Downs raced 151 live race days. Using the 15 percent formula, in order to vote in the Scarborough segment, an individual would have had to race a minimum of 23 days at Scarborough to be eligible vote.

And at Bangor’s 26-date live, extended meet you had to race at least four days at Bangor to be eligible. The condition means the one-horse owner who does it for fun and sport or the Maine Sire Stakes single-horse owner who has spent thousands of dollars to get his colt ready for the Maine Sire Stakes are ineligible to vote at either extended meet racetrack.

In 1997, The Maine Sire Stakes were raced twice at Bangor and eight times at Scarborough Downs, including the finals. That legislative restriction certainly is not condusive toward expansion of the sport and may well violate a basic tenet, the right to vote.

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