It’s the biggest weekend for Maine harness racing as more than $500,000 will be awarded in purse money in 24 races over two days of racing at Scarborough Downs.
If that wasn’t enough to get a harness racing enthusiast like Bangor’s Bill Varney to attend, the fact he has what may be a record 10 horses competing in the eight Maine Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association sire stakes title races certainly is.
“I’ve been here since 2005, and even though this is only the second year of the series championships being held the same weekend, I would think something like this is unprecedented,” Scarborough Downs marketing director Susan Higgins said of Varney’s feat.
Scarborough Downs announcer Mike Sweeney has been at the track since 1981, and he agrees with Higgins.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that before with Mike Graffam training so many race participants and Bill Varney owning 10 in the races,” said Sweeney. “Bill is one of the top breeders in Maine and one of the top owners across the country. When it came to numbers alone as far as how many he owns, he was No. 1 nationally at one point.”
Graffam, a trainer from Falmouth, trains eight of the horses competing in the finals.
This is the 35th annual edition of the stakes title race series, but only the second for the current Super Sire Stakes Weekend format in which all four 2-year-old title races in pacing and trotting will be held today and the four 3-year-old contenders will all race Sunday. Before 2008, the 2-year-old title races were held in September with the 3’s going in October.
“We probably have more than double the number of people here for this weekend compared to a normal weekend racing program as far as fans and bettors,” said Sweeney. “It’s like a mini grand circuit, sort of how it used to be with harness racing in this state when people made a weekend out of the whole thing.
“Another good thing is we’ve been able to start the 2-year-old stakes races later in the year and give them more time to develop.”
The purses are also astronomically bigger.
“Our average overnight purse is $2,500 and although last year’s were slightly bigger, this year’s stakes races are $43,000 for the 2’s and $65,000 for the 3’s,” said Higgins.
The most Varney-stacked race is the 2-year-old colt pacers race today in which he has three entries: Pembroke Joe Dunn in the 2A starting position, Pembroke Nick in 2 and Pembroke Paycheck in 2B. Varney’s horses got a break when prerace favorite Katahdin Boy was scratched due to soreness.
Varney’s other entries are as follows: Pembroke Champion in the 2-year-old colt trot; Pembroke Rose (9-2 odds) in the 2-year-old filly trot final; Pembroke Playmate in the 2-year-old filly pacer; Pembroke Governor in 3-year-old colt trot; Pembroke Whittney in 3-year-old filly pacer; Pembroke Annie in the 3-year-old filly trot; and Pembroke Mike (7-to-1 odds) in 3-year-old colt pacer.
Pembroke Whittney is a favorite while Pembroke Champion looks to find a way to get by big favorite Current Chip. Pembroke Mike has its work cut out for itself against co-race favorites and fellow unbeatens Sign the Paige (3-1) and Neutral Court (4-5) — both of whom are trained by Graffam, who will also be driving Neutral Court.
Neutral Court is owned by James Salzillo and Richard Salzillo, who co-own Pineholm Farms in Arundel, while Sign the Paige is owned by Arlene Shaw and Alice Bonenfant of Augusta.
Another irony for Graffam comes from his own bloodlines as his grandfather, Loring Norton, helped found the Maine Sire Stakes races.
Each day’s 12-race card starts with a 12:45 p.m. post time.