The harness racing season turns traditional this week and shifts its focus to Presque Isle as the Northern Maine Fair opens the 2008 fair circuit.
Friday was opening day for Northern Maine’ s six-day racing schedule and this year’ s weeklong racing program offers several big races and a couple new wrinkles.
“The first is racing Saturday instead of Sunday, primarily because of other events on the fair schedule,” said race director Norm Trask of Easton. “The second is a 1 p.m. post time.
“The start time is a big wrinkle because we were butting up against a demolition derby, which is a very popular event.”
Presque Isle’ s purses are up this year, partially due to the loss of the final day of racing last year due to thunderstorms. Last year’ s bad news is this year’ s good as the overall purse fund was bumped up by the unused $25,000 to approximately $125,000.
Post times for the rest of the week are 7 p.m. Monday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
“I’ m looking forward to a good week of racing. We’ re expecting to have the best week we’ ve had in many years,” said race secretary Frank Hall. “We’ re having a good response for horses from southern Maine and Canada and good response for the first two draws [days]. It’ s been better than it has been for several years.”
Maine State Harness Racing Commission chairman George McHale said he’ s not surprised.
“We just had our annual horse supply meeting and we’ re content that there is an adequate supply for the tracks and fairs,” McHale said. “It’ s been tight at times, but adequate, and Scarborough Downs has even requested adding two races on one particular day to accommodate more horses.”
McHale, who got his start in the industry by replacing public announcer Dick Michaelson at Bangor Raceway, always looks forward to this portion of summer.
“I do indeed. I think this is my favorite time of the year,” he said. “I worked some of the other fairs like Skowhegan and Windsor, as well as Union once or twice. The thing about the fairs is it’ s a relationship between the commercial tracks and the fairs. The fairs exist because of the commercial tracks and feed off the horse supply needed for those tracks. And horsemen love the fairs. They get to take their families to them and experience the midways while they race.”
McHale’ s been known to down a doughboy or two.
“I enjoy going to the fairs. I think it’ s really the strength of our industry and it really adds to the overall schedule,” he added. “I try to go to each of them, at least for one day. I don’ t usually get a chance to go to Presque Isle, but I may get a chance to do that this year.”
In the meantime, Trask and Hall have plenty to keep them occupied.
“We have 12 races Saturday with five of them stakes races. Most of the fields are full,” said Trask, a horse owner and former member of the MSHRC for eight years. “The most painless part of the day is when the races are all actually going.”
Hall has scheduled two $6,000 races (one trot and one pace) today and is planning two $8,000 races Wednesday and at least one $7,000 pace race for fillies and mares on Thursday.
“The $8,000 pace is looking real good, but the trot will be more of a challenge,” said Hall, a Guilford native who started off as a trainer and driver in the 1960′ s.
As long as the weather cooperates, fan attendance shouldn’ t be a challenge.
“The crowds last year were good, but I think our handle was down a bit, although that was indicative of what was going on statewide,” Trask said. “We’ re expecting crowds to be good this year.”
Action shifts to Topsham Fair Aug. 3 for the next week (six race days), Skowhegan Aug. 10-16 (seven), Union Fair Aug. 17-23 (seven), Windsor Aug. 24-Sept. 1 (nine), Oxford Sept. 7-13 (five), Farmington Sept. 14-20 (seven), Cumberland Sept. 21-28 (eight), and Fryeburg Sept. 30-Oct. 5 (six).