The opening of Bangor Raceway’s harness racing season has been typified by rainouts, postponements, unsafe conditions due to moisture, and even snowouts the last couple of years.
So, in an effort to escape Mother Nature’s wrath, Raceway officials opted to start the season later this year.
Naturally, the region has been blessed with unseasonably warm weather this month, but no one was outside to enjoy it at the Bangor Historic Track because opening day was pushed back to May 11.
“Yeah, isn’t that always the way of it?” said Corey Smith, Bangor Raceway’s director of operations. “The track is in great shape. We could be racing right now if we wanted to, so we could have gone early without any trouble.”
Alas, you can’t fight Mother Nature, but that doesn’t mean Bangor, and the state’s harness racing community in general aren’t looking forward to — and already enjoying — racing action this year.
“We started the third of April just running Saturdays and Sundays, and this week we’re adding Fridays,” said Susan Higgins, Scarborough Downs’ marketing director. “We’re adding Thursdays June third.”
Of course, even Scarborough couldn’t totally avoid a weather-related schedule adjustment in its 60th season.
“We have 111 race dates, but we didn’t race that first weekend in January so we’re at 109,” said Higgins. “The weather didn’t cooperate. I think we had a bad snowstorm that weekend.”
That’s been the only hitch in Scarborough’s sulky as the track opened to big crowds and near record-breaking numbers April 3-4.
“It was fantastic on all counts. The live handle [total betting] was up both days, way past what we had last year,” said Mike Sweeney, Scarborough’s track announcer. “I think it might have been as much as a 25 percent increase over last year’s first day and 50 percent over last year’s second day. It’s the largest handle I’ve seen in the four years I’ve been back up here.”
The handle for the 12-race April 3 program was $109,510. Sunday’s handle for a 14-race card was $88,085.
“We’ve had record numbers in turns of attendance so far,” said Higgins. “And the horse population is also right up there with some new imports from the New York racing circuit.”
Sweeney says the trend, at least at his track the last few years, has been toward less race dates (sessions) with more races on race days.
“It was a strategic decision to go with quality of quantity because we felt more is not necessarily better,” said Sweeney. “We’ve raced six sessions [days] so far and the handle is up for all of those days.”
Bangor has 53 race dates this season and will start out with a Tuesday and Saturday opening week before going to Monday, Tuesday and Saturday system.
“We’re not going to be competing against Scarborough on days with us racing Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays,” Smith said. “We’ll only be going against them head to head on Saturdays.”
That should be beneficial in three different ways: Racing opportunities increase for owners and drivers, Maine’s two biggest commercial tracks won’t have to compete head to head with each other for drivers and horses, and the supply of qualified horses should be better than adequate.
One thing in short supply already is stable space, both at Scarborough and Bangor.
“We have enough space to accommodate 300 horses and we’ve turned a number of stables [harness owners/trainers] away, three from Quebec, because we just didn’t have room for them,” Sweeney said.
While Scarborough doesn’t charge rent for stable space as long as the horses using them race a full schedule at the Downs, Bangor does charge. Still, there’s no room at the inn at either facility.
Bangor is sporting a brand new barn with that can house 96 horses. Combined with another old barn with a capacity of 77, Bangor can accommodate 173 horses and even though opening day is still almost three weeks away, all 173 spots are already filled or spoken for.
“We’re almost there already,” Smith said. “The Canadians have reserved 46 spots so that will take care of the rest of the ones not currently being used.”