BANGOR, Maine — Opening day at Bangor Raceway was a big day for Ron Cushing.
The Farmington native started and finished strong, winning the second, sixth, 10th and 12th races in the 12-race racing program starting Bangor Historic Track’s 127th season.
Currently the third-leading driver at Scarborough Downs, the 45-year-old Cushing is a cinch to start off the year as a top-three driver at Bangor as well after Tuesday afternoon’s performance.
“If you gave me a choice of where to race … of the city and the atmosphere, I’ve always loved Bangor,” said Cushing, whose brother Mike also won one race Tuesday. “I love Bangor because it’s a fun place to race.”
Despite his success (the wins leave him 25 short of 1,500 for his career), Cushing downplayed the driver’s credit for wins.
“Really, it’s getting the right horses to drive. That’s 90 percent of the battle,” Cushing said. “Ten percent is the driver, whose job is to put the horse in position and not screw up.”
Cushing, who has been racing 29 years and owns four of his own horses, successfully raced in New York for a number of years, but now races almost exclusively at Scarborough and Bangor.
“I played sports all through school and would give anything to be a professional athlete. This is probably as close as I ever could come,” Cushing said. “I love it. That’s why I keep doing it and never got a real job. No, it is a lot of work and it’s a work of passion for most of what we do.”
Opening day drew young and old alike to the grounds, on and off the track. This was the 17th opening day for Bangor Raceway race director Fred Nichols.
“It’s the start of the summer season even though it’s October weather today,” Nichols said. “It’s another rite of spring. The dandelions are out and it’s just a happy time of year.”
It certainly was for Bangor teen Chris Nye, who had two fifth-place finishes in three drives Tuesday.
The 18-year-old son of longtime trainer Shawn Nye is excited to start his third season of racing.
“I think I averaged one or two drives per day last year and this year I started off with three,” said Nye, who had about 50 starts last season. “I’m a lot more comfortable out there than I was.
“The racing is a rush for me. I love seeing my name in the program and getting out there and driving.”
Sunny, clear skies greeted the competitors and the 400 or so fans and patrons who stood and sat outside or milled inside the grandstand to watch the racing in person or on monitors lining the walls.
Despite racing early afternoon on a weekday, Bangor’s total betting handle for the day was $32,384. Last year’s opening day total was just $29,341, but even though it was on a stronger day for attendance (Sunday), it featured three fewer races (nine).
It was a great day for playing the ponies and soaking up the atmosphere for Stan Gutkowski of Alfred, a 66-year-old railbird who has been writing harness racing columns and stories for 50 years.
“I started writing a column about harness racing when I was 17,” said Gutkowski. “I’ve written for [now-defunct] Times and Harness for 15 years and done some thoroughbred columns.”
Gutkowski longs for the old days, when attending harness racing was a family and social event.
“My parents started taking me to races when I was 17,” he recalled. “What I really like is live harness racing. That’s why I came up today. I don’t like OTB [off-track betting] and that stuff.”
Especially if he’s winning.
“What? This, today?” he asked. “No this is hideous. I should have stayed home today.”
At least he enjoyed the atmosphere.