THORNDIKE, Maine — The practice track has disappeared into the white landscape and a sulky hangs in skeletal pieces in the winter-quiet barn.
In the spring, Robert and Diane Blanchard’s small horse farm on the back roads of Thorndike will bustle with training for the harness racing season. But during a late January storm, it seemed as if the wind whipping up snowflakes was the only action — until Brian Blanchard unhooked the electric fence to enter the horse paddock.
Two Standardbred roan horses galloped through the storm and made a beeline for the 20-year-old Colby College sophomore.
“He’s a good old boy,” Blanchard said, making a fuss over a horse named Eddie. “He doesn’t do anything too stupid on the racetrack. Once in a while, he gets a little spicy.”
Blanchard should know. He has just been named the 2009 Rising Star by the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, and he spends many hours training horses and then working as a driver during races. He takes his sport — long practiced in Maine — seriously.
“It’s special. Harness racing’s really the common man’s pastime,” he said last week. “It’s carrying on. And, hopefully, it’ll keep on.”
The races are a staple of Maine’s agricultural fairs and tracks like the Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs in southern Maine. Watching horses tear around a mile-long course, urged to faster speeds by drivers perched in sulkies pulled behind them, has been a reliable source of entertainment — and gambling — since the 1800s, according to Chandler Woodcock, executive director of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association.
The tradition is changing, said Woodcock and others. Increased gambling opportunities have meant that race purses, or prizes, have increased over the last few years. Bangor’s top purse is $25,000, and the biggest purse at Scarborough Downs is $50,000.
In 1977, the Bangor raceway had 511 races, according to statistics available at meharness.com. That number had dropped to 251 races by 2003, with an average purse per race of $1,931. Thanks in part to the racino, which has increased purse sizes, by 2009 there were 458 races with an average purse per race of $3,777.
According to Woodcock, many Mainers make their living thanks to the harness racing industry. A 2009 study commissioned by the Maine Farm Bureau Horse Council and the Maine Harness Racing Promotion Board found that the total financial impact of the equine industry in Maine is $400 million, in which harness racing plays an important part, Woodcock said, and also helps to preserve open space in the state.
“Our farms maintain green space. If we lose the farms, green space becomes development of some kind,” he said.
A decrease in farm culture has meant — at least anecdotally — that fewer young people seem interested in watching the races, or even in becoming sulky drivers.
The Rising Star is given annually to a young driver who has shown sportsmanship, success on the track and an ability to learn, Woodcock said.
“They’re what will become the future of the sport,” he said.
Trainer Debora Freeman of Freeman Stables in East Orland said that encouraging the next generation is crucial.
“If you don’t bring the young people into it, it eventually fades,” she said. “A lot of people, until they get coming to the track, they don’t develop a love for the sport.”
Brian Blanchard grew up with harness racing, and with the horses. When he was in kindergarten, his father bought the family’s first racehorse.
“I remember the first day,” he said, smiling at the memory. “He was waiting for me at the school bus stop with the horse.”
After that, he learned to care for a growing stable of horses, jogging them and even helping to deliver the foals. Blanchard got his license to drive in the races at 17, before he graduated as valedictorian from Mount View High School in Thorndike.
“It is time-consuming,” Blanchard said. “And it takes a level of maturity. … To be a good driver, one of the main qualities is patience. But in the same breath, you have to be aggressive on the track. You can’t be afraid to send them right.”
He recalled his favorite day of racing, which happened in July 2008.
“I had my first wreck on the racetrack. The same day, I ended up winning with one of my father’s horses,” Blanchard said.
Clad in warm Carhartts, Blanchard was spending his midterm break working on the farm. He has yet to declare a major at Colby, but — patiently, aggressively — is making life plans. Most seem to involve horses.
“What I’m going to do is be a vet,” he said matter-of-factly.
Ideally, he will keep on being a driver, he hopes at some of the races with the large purses.
“It’s a great sport to get into. It’s really rewarding, and it’ll teach you a lot,” he said.
Other trainers and horse owners who have hired Blanchard to drive for them say he could go far — and fast.
“He’s got nice, young ambition. He goes out and tries each time,” said Bruce Soule, who trains horses at Meadowdoc Stables in Waldoboro. “He learns from the other drivers. He makes a mistake here and there … but he’s getting better every year. He’s got that natural hand, that natural ability.”
According to Freeman, Blanchard has “a lot” of potential.
“He’s young, he’s got a lot of strength, and he’s smart,” she said. “A lot of the driving part is learning, and getting comfortable with the horses.”
Blanchard said that is one of his strengths.
“I just like being around the horses,” he said. “They’re a lot easier to get along with than humans. There is definitely some special connection between a horse and a human.”