Question 2 could decide future of Maine harness racing, industry says

Cams Knight Dream, driven by Ron Cushing, takes first place in race two on the opening day of harness racing at Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway on May 11, 2010.
Cams Knight Dream, driven by Ron Cushing, takes first place in race two on the opening day of harness racing at Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway on May 11, 2010.
Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 7:48 p.m.

NEWBURGH, Maine — Without Question 2’s approval, the future of harness racing and agricultural fairs in Maine could be in jeopardy, backers of the proposal said Wednesday.

More than 30 leaders, breeders, racers and others in the harness racing industry met at North Star Standardbred farm to throw their support behind a proposed racino in Biddeford, which faces a statewide vote as Question 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“More than 1,500 people’s livelihoods are at risk,” said Jim Kelley, vice president of the Maine Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association. “There’s only one way to vote on Question 2.”

If the initiative doesn’t pass, the risk to the harness racing industry is “more substantial than I’d like to think about,” Kelley said.

The past few decades have been tough on the harness racing industry in Maine, said Wendy Ireland, executive director of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association. More diverse options for gambling, such as online poker and state lotteries, have cut harness racing’s share of the industry, she said.

Scarborough Downs has been struggling to keep gamers on the track and is losing a lot of business to other forms of gambling, Kelley said. Merging two forms of gambling — slots and a racetrack — is the key to the survival of the track, he said.

“If we lose Scarborough [Downs], we could lose all of harness racing in Maine,” Kelley said.

But the breeders and racers aren’t the only ones at risk, according to the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association.

Kelley said he buys oats and grain from farmers in Aroostook County who supplement their income by planting those crops outside of potato season. Veterinarians and hay providers also would take a hit if the racing industry’s struggles continue, Ireland argued. But the construction of a new racino facility would provide construction and gaming jobs and secure or boost the jobs at Scarborough Downs, they said.

“It’s not just about the people going to the tracks and the people going around the oval,” Ireland said.

But in Penobscot County, more Maine casinos could hurt far more than they could help, according to Dan Cashman, spokesman for Penobscot County for Table Games and Jobs. His group opposes Question 2, which asks if slot machine facilities should be allowed at harness racing tracks in Biddeford and Washington County, and Question 3, which would permit a Lewiston casino, but it supports the Penobscot County ballot initiative to allow table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

Oxford County already has approved a casino, which is in the early stages of construction.

Cashman said that Hollywood Slots would see a 30 percent cut in revenue and significant job loss if Maine suddenly went from having one casino to having as many as five. It’s unlikely that any of them would see success, he said.

“It’s a dramatic leap to go from one to five overnight,” Cashman said, arguing that so much competition so quick wouldn’t benefit any of the casinos. “We think that voters here need to understand that there will be an impact here in Penobscot County.”

While Questions 2 and 3 would take jobs away from Penobscot County, Cashman said that allowing table games would create 89 additional jobs at Hollywood Slots.

Cashman said that harness racing in Bangor might suffer from more competition in the state because a loss in revenue for Hollywood Slots means losses for the local racetrack.

“It would create such a strain,” he said.

Ireland said the harness racing industry is not opposed to Question 3 or the table games proposal in Penobscot County, but “a yes vote on Question 2 will create jobs statewide in Maine at a time when we need jobs.”

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