BANGOR, Maine — The 129th season of harness racing at Bangor Raceway saw a quick start and a strong finish to the spring-summer season.
“All our numbers are up,” said Mike Hopkins, Bangor Raceway’s director of racing operations. “Our average handle [amount of money bet] per race is up 45 percent and our average daily handle is up 62 percent from last year.”
Track officials are crediting a revamped schedule and outstanding weather for the noticeable turnaround.
For the last several years, track officials have tweaked or changed the starting times, number of weekly race dates, the week and weekend days for racing, and the number of races.
This year’s switch to 5 p.m. post times on Mondays and Tuesdays and 6 p.m. on Fridays has paid off noticeably.
“We seem to have finally nailed down great times for our venue, in terms of on-track customers and simulcast or off-track bettors,” Hopkins said.
“Our off-track [the amount bet by bettors at other off-track betting parlors and race facilities all over the country] handle is up over 101 percent overall from last year.”
Fred Nichols, now in his fifth year as Bangor Raceway racing secretary, said feedback has been almost universally positive from bettors, customers, owners and drivers alike.
“We had basically full fields all year,” said Nichols, who has worked as the track’s general manager, racing director or racing secretary for the last 19 years. “That was helped by going three days a week over a longer period rather than four over a shorter season.”
The average number of races per race day increased from 10.0 last year to 10.8 this year, and the average race field — the number of horses — increased from 7.29 to 7.41.
So far, the season high for a race date’s total handle is $23,000 on Saturday, July 21. The raceway’s 2012 season resumes in September with four more race dates: Sept. 5, 10, 11 and 29.
“We had the same number of races in three days that we used to have with four per week. And the quality of horses was clearly better in terms of the speeds and times.”
Nichols and Hopkins both said that crowds were noticeably larger this year.
“They weren’t tremendously great, but they were up over last year,” Nichols said.
Nichols and Hopkins said the feedback they received directly from race patrons was that they liked being able to catch a few races right after work and still be home relatively early at night. And Hopkins said many customers told him they appreciated being able to see night races.
“Oh, they love it. It’s more convenient for them and there’s something about having races under the lights with the ambience,” Hopkins said.
The higher betting levels helped the purses for the drivers. This year’s purse for the Paul Bunyan Classic, one of the track’s biggest annual races, was a record $25,000. The average daily purse per race this year was $4,455, compared to $3,578 in 2011.
“Our scheduling has allowed us to attract higher-quality horses and drivers,” said Nichols. “Our Breeder’s stakes saw a big increase in the number of horses entered.”
The weather couldn’t have been much more accommodating as there were no rainouts or snowouts, and no postponements due to excessive heat, as happened for the first time last year. Another recurring problem in the past that didn’t recur this year was soft or even wet spots on the track due to poor drainage, which was corrected by construction and renovations the last two years.
“The horsemen didn’t really have any complaints,” Nichols said. “I didn’t hear any negatives, and I even heard a few compliments about the condition of the track.”
So after years of tinkering, have track officials finally found the right racing formula?
“Yeah, I don’t see any reason to change it,” said Nichols. “As long as [parent company] Penn National’s happy with the results, everyone else seems to be.”