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The reopening of the Hollywood Casino and Raceway last week has paved the way to re-institute harness racing at Bass Park.
The wheels are in motion to make that reopening happen as soon as possible according to Mike Cushing, the president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association. Logistics, such as making sure that COVID-19 protocols are in place, are still being figured out.
Bangor Raceway’s reopening has taken on a greater sense of urgency because Scarborough Downs in Scarborough, Maine’s other full-time harness track, shut down last Friday due to financial difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Scarborough had held racing since June 3 without spectators and will not resume racing until Sept. 6, according to Cushing.
In addition, all of the state fairs that offered harness racing canceled them due to the coronavirus.
“We are desperate to get Bangor up online and keep the horses fed,” Cushing said. “To have down time from July 10 through Sept. 6 would be a major hardship. We have a few obstacles to overcome but I’m optimistic there will be racing at Bangor Raceway relatively soon.”
One of those obstacles is that the COVID-19 testing area in Bangor is located in the Bass Park complex, and a large portion of the parking lot is closed off. But Cushing said testing officials have said that they can coexist if racing returns.
There is a Maine Harness Racing Commission meeting on Thursday, and Cushing expects that to be informative when it comes to the future of harness racing in Maine this summer and fall. If the COVID-19 protocols are in place by Thursday, the commission could potentially grant Bangor Raceway racing dates at the meeting.
Bangor Raceway was supposed to open for racing in May but the state’s two casinos were not opened until last week due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Cushing pointed out that the Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, Massachusetts, opened July 8 and its harness track began racing this week.
The Plainville casino and raceway are owned by Gaming and Leisure Properties and run by Penn National, the same organizations that handle Hollywood Casino and Raceway.
Long-time horse trainer and driver Heath Campbell said it was “great news” that the Bangor casino is open but that “nobody has said anything to us” about the start of racing as yet.
“Not knowing is the part that hurts us. The owners are paying us to take care of the horses. Just because they aren’t racing, the horses still need to be fed and exercised. If there isn’t any income coming in, the owners will eventually have to sell the horses,” said Campbell, who is heading down to Plainville, Massachusetts, from Bangor on Tuesday to train and race horses.
That is a 269-mile trip one way that takes approximately 4 1/2 hours.
Campbell said the Plainville track attracts a higher-caliber horse than Bangor Raceway so an owner could spend money sending the horse, trainer, driver and other members of the team and not receive anything in return if the horse doesn’t run well.
He said it is a lot better to have to just go through the paddock to race at Bangor Raceway rather than driving all that way.
And it would be a better situation for owners and teams based in Scarborough to race in Bangor rather than Plainville although the travel distance is similar.
“A lot of owners can’t afford to send their horses to Plainville,” Campbell said.
Campbell hopes the state of Maine will give Bangor Raceway some purse money when they get restarted.
He said the state gives the state fairs some purse money and, since there wasn’t any racing at the fairs this season, they are supposed to return that money to the state.
Cushing is convinced that harness racing could return to Bass Park in a safe environment with the adherence to the COVID-19 restrictions.
In fact, he could see them considering allowing fans to attend in Bangor’s sizable grandstand as long as they stick to social distancing regulations.
Campbell said the Bangor Raceway track is in good shape and it would take the work crew about a week to mow, fix the fence and get the track ready for racing.