BANGOR, Maine — Chris Nye grew up playing and working in and around the horse barns at Bangor Raceway.
That should come as no surprise, since harness racing is in his blood.
His father, Shawn, is a trainer. His grandfather, Gerald, was a successful driver, and his great grandfather, Howard, was involved in the industry.
“I didn’t do sports or anything like that. This was my sport,” Chris Nye said of his teenage years. “I’d get out of school, come to the barn, put horses away or do anything that needed to get done until the day was done at the barn. That’s what I grew up wanting to do.”
The Hermon native drove his first horse at Cornish Fair (no wagering) when he was 14, moved into the parimutuel fairs at 16, then earned his provisional license at 18.
At 23, he remains active as a driver and trainer. Nye is among a small group of younger horsemen trying to make a living.
Those who work in the industry would like to see an influx of people who want to own, train and drive the animals.
Henry Jackson, the executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission, said there are more than 1,500 individuals licensed to participate in the sport.
“There are the owner, the driver, the trainer — combinations thereof,” he said. “We have grooms, we have clerks, the employees that work at the parimutuel facilities.”
Jackson said about 100 people are licensed as drivers and/or trainers. Many of them have been involved in harness racing for three or four decades.
A small percentage of drivers run the majority of the races at Bangor and Scarborough and thus earn the bulk of the money. It is difficult for up-and-comers to crack the upper echelon.
According to statistics provided by meharness.com, 86 people drove in at least one race at Scarborough Downs during 2014. Bangor Raceway had 78 drivers, many of whom also competed at Scarborough.
“Each track has their own driving colony. That means these drivers will normally drive at a particular track,” said Jason Gravel, the executive director of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association.
In Bangor, of the 3,287 starts made by drivers last year, the top 10 money winners accounted for 2,431 of those, or 74 percent.
“A lot of owners and trainers are looking for what is referred to as the ‘hot’ driver,” Jackson said. “This is the guy that has that innate ability to drive. They get better horses, so they get more wins.”
In 2014, six of Bangor’s leading 10 drivers — W. Drew Campbell, Kevin Switzer, Kevin Switzer Jr., David Ingraham, Gary Mosher and Ron Cushing — also were among the top 10 in starts at Scarborough.
The most productive drivers have held that status for many years. A large number are at least 50, including Switzer, Ingraham, Mosher, Cushing, Greg Bowden, John Nason and John Beckwith, among others.
There is another strong group in the 40-49 demographic, including the Campbell brothers, Eddie Davis Jr., Mark Athearn, Ivan Davies, Randy Bickmore and Mike Cushing. Shawn Thayer of Hermon (33) and Shane Taggart (36) are in a smaller group in the 30s.
“The average age of an experienced driver is around 40. That’s why they’re good. They’ve had that time to hone their skill on the track,” Gravel said.
The opportunities don’t come as easily for drivers in their 20s, although the contingent has some front-line performers in Switzer Jr. (27), the leading percentage driver in North America last year, and Dan Deslandes (22), along with Nye and Nick Graffam (24).
“Sometimes it’s a little bit harder for these younger guys to break in there,” Gravel said.
‘You have to earn your stripes and prove yourself and show that you can get a horse around a track safely and profitably,” he added.
The proving ground for aspiring drivers often is Maine’s fair circuit, which includes nine race meets with wagering and runs from July 27 to Oct. 11. There is not a shortage of harness drivers in Maine, and Gravel said uncertainty about the future of the sport in the state is a factor in discouraging potential drivers, trainers and owners from getting involved or staying active.
“We need to make sure the young people that are part of this industry stay in Maine and that owners want to invest in Maine so that we can have a stabilized future,” Gravel said.
That’s where a new southern Maine racino would be a boon.
“If there’s more racing in Maine, it will give a lot more younger drivers the chance to get out there and do what they love,” Gravel said.
Nye continues to drive and train, but he scaled back his efforts for 2015.
“Last year I had my own horses and I drove for other people,” said Nye, who is concentrating on driving.
He lives in Auburn and during the winter works for his uncle as a welder. However, he relishes being on the racetrack.
“Honestly, the best feeling is being able to take care of a horse all week and see it do good,” Nye said.