BANGOR, Maine — Sunshine, blue skies and warmth replaced the forecasted gray skies and scattered showers, and smiles abounded as Bangor Raceway opened its 126th season of harness racing Friday afternoon.
Even when the skies darkened and threatened rain during the last three races of the nine-race program, the only people scowling were the ones ripping up losing betting slips at the grandstand and the drivers who came up just short at the finish line on the track.
“Oh, it’s great to be back racing,” said driver Heath Campbell, a 3,000-career-win driver in his 20th season of racing.
The Lewiston native and Corinna resident has been racing for the last three weeks at Scarborough Downs, but Friday still took on a nuance all its own for him.
“Scarborough, you have to truck two hours down there. Here you get here quickly,” said Campbell. This is nice. This is home.”
The 37-year-old driver performed like he had home-field advantage as he won the first race with a dead heat photo finish, finished second in the second, and won the third en route to a day of two wins, four places, and one show finish.
Still, he didn’t have the best finish of the day. That distinction went to Kim Ireland, who drove Gracie Gracie, a 6-year-old mare owned by Sharon Proctor and Fred Ward of Brunswick, to a first-place finish in the eighth race with a time of 1 minute, 57 seconds.
“The track was good for opening day. I expected it not to be as good,” Ireland said. “Typically, it takes awhile for it to get worked in. For opening day, it was excellent.”
Some drivers expected the track to be slower and wetter than it was.
“The track was good, even with all the rain we’ve had the last two days,” Campbell said. “That 57 mark will probably be 56 in another two weeks.”
Owners, trainers and drivers seemed in agreement not only on the track’s condition, but also in being supportive of Bangor Raceway officials’ decision to delay opening the season by three weeks due to spring thaw and melting frost.
“I’d rather have the course be perfect, even if it’s a few weeks late,” said Brewer’s Danny King, who first became a harness horse owner 25 years ago and got back into it in 2004. “It doesn’t matter when opening day is. It’s still exciting whether it’s April or May.”
King didn’t have a horse in the nine-race field Friday, but still came out to watch the races and enjoy opening day.
Brewer native Wendy Ireland, who’s also Kim Ireland’s wife and a longtime trainer, did have couple of horses running Friday, but only one in a race. The other was there to run a qualifying time.
“The paddock’s a big improvement and the track’s a lot faster than I expected it to be,” said Ireland, whose horse did qualify. “It’s just nice to be able to be racing again.”
Former high school basketball coach and teacher Chandler Woodcock, now in his first term as the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association executive director, was on hand to check out the new facilities and take in some racing.
“When I was here in February, I had to climb over ice and snow to get to the paddock,” said Woodcock. “It’s clean, easily accessible, and big.”
He also liked Bangor’s other change, from a night to afternoon post time (7 p.m. to 3 p.m.)
“We’re very pleased with the attendance. I’m a fan of the 3 o’clock start because it gives people trucking horses in an opportunity to get home at a reasonable time,” said Woodcock, who used to accompany his grandfather, who was a trainer, to the old Lewiston Raceway from age 5 on. “Later starts, particularly night racing, may be good for fans because they can get to it more easily after work.”
The Bass Park parking lot was packed, but there was also a public auction taking place at the Civic Center. Officials were pleased with Friday’s $29,131 total betting handle.