Commission urging tracks to ban dogs

Posted June 10, 2009, at 9:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — For a good while, it seemed as though a recently raised issue of safety in the wake of a Sunday incident involving a horse fatality — which resulted from a dog spooking the horse in a Bangor Raceway stable — was going to be one no one wanted to address.

Racetrack camera footage, additional race dates and dashes, and the ongoing effort to maintain and increase safety at Maine’s harness racing tracks and facilities, were the main topics during the first two hours of Wednesday afternoon’s Maine State Harness Racing Commission monthly meeting.

But the incident and the commission’s concerns about it and horse safety, was finally addressed in the final 15 minutes of the meeting at the Department of Public Safety’s Gambling Control Board conference room.

Although it wasn’t even on the meeting agenda, the death of 8-year-old Standardbred gelding Rich Camelot, a successful horse owned by Verona Island’s Gardner Patterson, and the events that led up to it was brought up by commission chairman George McHale.

“I’m not totally familiar with this case, but the problem we’re faced with is we’re not sure it’s a commission problem to begin with, given all the state, federal and city laws that come into play,” said McHale. “What I did basically today was tell all of the licensees is we had a problem in Bangor, they should be aware of it, and they should be taking a look at the situation because it could happen to them, also.”

The “case” involves a horseman’s dog, which was new to the track, scaring Rich Camelot, which was still attached to a sulky. The horse bolted from the stable and struck a dumpster, injuring itself and later of dying of what are believed to be internal injuries.

Shortly afterward, state steward Ralph Canney banned dogs from Bangor’s barns and stables.

“Jack Richards [Maine’s assistant attorney general] is looking into state law, city law, and other things to see what we can do,” McHale said. “Mr. Canney said until we find out more information or make any rules, we’re not going to allow any animals on the grounds when we’re racing.”

In the meantime, there are no official rules governing the presence of dogs or other pets on racing property, other than an already existing law prohibiting them from raceway and track paddocks. Canney and the commission are urging all the state’s commercial tracks and fair circuit facilities to prohibit dogs from the grounds in the interest of safety.

“I would say all the licensees should protect themselves,” McHale said. “We’ve just never seen this before. Most of the time in the past, when we’ve had trouble with dogs, it was neighborhood dogs who got loose and got out onto a track during a race.”

Canney says Bangor has already instituted a ban for its stables, but Scarborough Downs and fair circuit locations such as Skowhegan, Farmington and Topsham will have to decide their own policies.

“We’d like to see the tracks take care of their own problems,” Canney said. “It’s a dangerous situation that can lead to something like that.”

Some of the issues at play involve state laws governing the use of service dogs for the blind or visually impaired, local safety ordinances, as well as state and national safety laws.

“We don’t have a general rule, but we get there because the commission has a duty to protect the public,” said Richards. “We don’t have a rule for everything that’s coming down the pike and we can’t anticipate everything,”

Richards will be reporting back to the commission on possible actions that can be taken.

In earlier business, both Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs requested additional races — Bangor requested three dates in July (1, 8 and 15) and three in October (14, 21, 28) to make up for the dates lost to a postponed season opening due to frost and wet grounds. Scarborough’s request is to add two dashes (races) to its Saturday and Sunday programs.

The desire to go from 10 races to 12 on the weekend days is due to an unexpected increase or excess in the number of racing horses available. The commission will rule on each request at its next meeting June 24. It could not rule Wednesday due to state law requiring all parties concerned to be notified in a timely fashion.

Also, Canney reported on ongoing efforts to increase safety and reliability regarding the starting gates used at Bangor and Scarborough.

Scarborough, which was having trouble with the release on its gate, has been leasing a replacement gate with an option to buy while technicians are repairing the regular gate. Track officials don’t anticipate any further problems. Bangor is addressing concerns that its starting gate — mounted on a vehicle — literally be brought up to speed and checked regularly after there was a slight problem with the “wings” that extend and fold back in on the vehicle.

“The guy who was driving, and because he’s inexperienced, he panicked and pushed the handle too far one way and then tried to put it back where it went and that’s where he got in trouble,” said Dan Ward of Bangor Raceway. “They started closing and then they started opening again, but I checked them and they’re fine.”

Canney said both tracks are instituting regular checks of the equipment just to safeguard against any malfunctions.

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