BANGOR, Maine — Opening day was still 23 hours away at Bangor Raceway, but the new barn at Bangor Historic Track was humming with activity Monday afternoon.
Owners, trainers and drivers worked out their horses, cleaned and fed them, and settled them into their new, in-season residences.
Today marks the start of Bangor Raceway’s 127th harness racing season with a 12-race, 96-horse card. Post time is 3 p.m.
“I kind of like it a little bit because you get home earlier at night,” said longtime trainer and driver Heath Campbell. “It’s not as long a day, but with people working until 5, it’s going to hurt the number of people in the stands.”
The earlier post time, which Bangor debuted last season, is still a point of debate for horsemen.
“It’s very inconvenient from a family perspective and for the fans,” said Ron Dinsmore, an owner and trainer from Ellsworth. “People are at work or at school at least til 3 o’clock and that’s a very poor post time, in my opinion, to get people to come and watch.”
“I don’t know. I grew up with racing at night, when I think more people can come,” said Steve Vafiades of Corinth. “You get home earlier, but as far as crowds, I’m not sure it’ll be as good. It might help us as far as the OTB [off-track betting] goes, but I like seeing people in the grandstand.”
In fact, it will likely help the Raceway in terms of the money it generates from selling its live racing signal to other tracks and OTB parlors.
“More races and better quality races in a time when there are no other tracks racing increases your marketability,” said Corey Smith, Bangor Raceway’s director of operations. “I think our export signal was up 50 percent last year and 26 the year before.”
With a later opening date this year after weather-related problem plagued planned early starts the last two years, Bangor will race 53 days this season. That total is down eight from last year’s all-time high of 61 dates.
The schedule calls for Bangor to race primarily a Monday-Tuesday-Saturday schedule each week with post times 3 p.m. on weekdays and 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
“Last year’s the first time we’d gone with the earlier times,” Smith said. “Tuesdays were actually one of our better days during the season with the early post times.”
Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association president Tim Powers sees potential pros and cons to the revamped schedule.
“There are more racing opportunities with Scarborough and Bangor not racing the same days,” he said. “The horse supply is good, the purses are up and decent with the casino doing well the first three months.
“Plus Rockingham Park [Salem, N.H.] has closed, so every training facility or track is full in the northeast. There’s no room anywhere.”
While horsemen may disagree over the race schedule, they’re pretty much in total agreement on the new 96-stall barn and paddock at the raceway, which looks and feels like a palace compared to the old, leaking structure it replaced in the offseason.
“Oh, it’s great. It makes things easier, especially the wash stalls for the horses and the heated tack rooms,” said 41-year-old Vafiades, who has 14 horses stabled at the barn. “The stalls are much nicer and cleaner, and the hay and grain rooms are so much easier now because you can just back a truck up and load bales right in-side.”
The new feature getting the most rave reviews are the six bath stalls for horses to be watered down and cleaned, and the tacking stalls featuring radiant heat.
“It’s warmer and you never have to stand and wait with six bath stalls,” said Dave Henderson, Sr., of Corinna, who got back into horse ownership and training seven years ago after helping his mom and dad with it when he was a teen.
Powers is impressed with Bangor’s new facility.
“It’s a very nice place. For me personally, it’s a nice barn to work in,” he said. “The alleyways are wide, there’s good light, the horsemen seem very pleased with it. I haven’t heard any complaints.
“The track’s also in good shape. Horsemen are saying good things about it.”