Harness racing noose getting tighter



In the 14 years since Maine voters approved the Hollywood Racino referendum for Bangor, over $112 million dollars has been directed to the state’s harness racing industry. The original referendum dedicated 11 percent of net slot machine revenues to harness racing and agriculture fairs, with additional funds to be set aside for prescription drugs for the elderly plus college scholarship funds. Unfortunately, the terms were later altered and 22 percent of slot machine revenue became dedicated to harness racing.

Since that time, the number of licensed Maine horse racing owners has fallen 40 percent, betting on Maine horse racing has fallen 57 percent, while the number of mares bred for racing is down 44 percent, with many horses racing here owned by large out-of-state interests that reap the majority of the purses.

Scarborough Downs, the state’s largest harness racing facility, is currently for sale as owners describe “dwindling profits, shrinking attendance, increasing competition from casinos, aging facilities, plus controversies within the industry.” Critics cite “functional obsolescence and deferred maintenance” as other issues as Scarborough Downs has received over $13 million in slot revenue, while claiming to lose $13,200 every day the track operates.

Bangor Raceway, which features sulky races five months of the year — its largest event in the past 12 months was a snowmobile race — is no longer necessary justification for Hollywood Slots. Now, as the “racino” regularly simulcasts horse races from all over the country.

The saddest part of watching this industry’s decline is that legislators subsidized harness racing with little, if any, oversight, giving on average,$9.3 million a year to tracks, breeders and the industry to do whatever they wished. The results question the wisdom of those acts, as well as the intentions of some of the industry’s key individuals.

At a recent hearing before Rep. Louie Luchini’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, Harness Racing Commission Executive Director Henry Jennings tried to explain a confusing industry report thusly: “I was hoping that you wouldn’t ask me about these two pages.”

Without controls, measurements or competition, incompetence and corruption are likely to exploit “free” money as morality becomes a short commodity. While no one alleges malfeasance here, citizens are left to wonder why so many hands in such a lucrative cookie jar have benefited so few, with little to show for such large sums of money. At the very least, it is another sign of how not to govern.

In a state with chronic social demands for taxpayer dollars, has the distribution of casino takes helped this former family industry or forestalled the inevitable? “Yes, there are benefits … whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs is the question,” Luchini stated.

Taxpayers expect government to be good stewards of all monies taken in by the state and its institutions. When the money is easy and free, suddenly more people “will need it.” Is it unreasonable to expect that we simply cannot give tax monies to every idea?