BANGOR, Maine — For what officials at both tracks say is the first time in their long histories, extreme heat has forced the cancellation of a full card of harness racing at Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs.
“I’ve never seen conditions for racing as bad as I’m seeing today,” said George Hale, now in his ninth straight year as Maine State Harness Racing Commission chairman and 18th overall. “In my years with harness racing in this state, I don’t recall any previous heat- and humidity-related cancellations. It’s certainly unusual.”
Bangor canceled its last two race dates of the summer schedule — Friday night and Saturday afternoon — despite the fact that the biggest race of the season, the 17th annual $25,000 Paul Bunyan Invitational, was scheduled for Saturday.
There were a total of 25 races due to be run — 12 on Friday night and 13 on Saturday afternoon.
“This is normally our last weekend and we don’t want to lose those classic races. The Bunyan is our signature race and the largest overnight purse in the state,” said Bangor Raceway racing secretary Fred Nichols. “We’ve even run a race in a hurricane back in the 1990s, and that was because we needed the race date to keep the license.”
Officials at both tracks started huddling with representatives of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association and veterinarians Thursday to discuss the weekend forecasts and whether it might be too hot for racing.
“They took the cautious way out and it was the right decision as far as I”m concerned,” said Tim Powers, a veterinarian and president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association. “This temperature is well above 92 or 93 and it’s going to be hot in the paddocks. It’s just very unbearable. Horses are going to have a difficult time recovering after warm-up and racing. They have less stamina the hotter it is, and you have to worry about heatstroke and dehydration, too.”
The temperature soared to 101 degrees Friday in Portland, breaking the record for the month of July and coming just shy of the all-time hottest temperature in the city.
The National Weather Service said the 101-degree reading Friday afternoon broke the record of 94 for the date, set in 1994, and the all-time high of 99 for the month of July.
The hottest temperature ever recorded in the city was 103 degrees on Aug. 2, 1975.
Scarborough Downs marketing director Susan Higgins recorded a high of 102 on her car thermometer while running her air conditioning during a power outage in Scarborough at noon Friday.
“I guess the whole town of Scarborough is out due to a transformer going out,” she said. “We have no power at the track, either.”
People hoping to cool off at Funtown/Splashtown in Saco were out of luck as the park had to close because of the power outage. Central Maine Power said about 13,000 customers lost electricity because of a power line failure in South Portland that knocked several substations offline.
“This is the first time we’ve ever canceled racing due to heat in our 61 seasons,” Higgins said. “It’s not fun to cancel, but the horses can’t speak for themselves and someone has to speak for them.”
It’s the 128th season of racing at Bangor Raceway, but Corey Smith, director of racing, said the cancellation was an easy call spurred by safety concerns and common sense.
“We’d rather err on the side of safety for the horses and the drivers,” Smith said. “We were thinking about it yesterday with the what-ifs. I think it’s basically just common sense. We did hear about Scarborough canceling, but we were already leaning that way anyway.”
Nichols, who has been with Bangor Raceway for the last 18 years, said the heat was eliminating races all over the Northeast and the Atlantic Coast.
“Delaware Park, Plain Ridge, Chester and Yonkers have also canceled,” Nichols said. “There are only two running right now: Finger Lakes and Saratoga.”
Scarborough Downs also is scheduled to race Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and Higgins said they’ll decide Saturday morning whether to cancel for a second straight day.
“The forecast doesn’t look good, but it’s Maine, and if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes,” Higgins said.
Hale said Bangor was given the option of racing on Sunday, but the short amount of time to prepare and the imminent start of the Bangor Fair made that option undesirable.
“We’re hoping to reschedule those two dates during our fall season, which starts Sept. 7,” said Smith.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.