SCARBOROUGH — Racing season got underway at Scarborough Downs last weekend beneath a cloud of uncertainty about the future of harness racing at the track.
“New England’s fastest half-mile track,” which opened in 1950, began its 67th season Saturday, March 25, less than a week after Thomas Powers, a Cohassett, Massachusetts developer, revealed he and a group of investors have an agreement to acquire the Downs for an undisclosed amount of money.
Powers said a feasibility study will be conducted to evaluate the track’s viability. He said the property, totaling more than 480 acres off Route 1, could be developed into a “mixed-use, live, work and play” project.
Stephen Cobbett, operations director at the Downs, on Sunday confirmed there is an “agreement in principle” to sell the track. He also said Saturday was one of the better opening-day turnouts the track has seen.
But things were quieter Sunday, Cobbett said, when the track had to compete with Maine Maple Sunday events.
A handful of people stood at the edge of the track, watching and cheering the horses and drivers. Others kept warm watching inside the enclosed grandstand, on a day when temperatures were in the low to mid-30s.
Michel Bilodeau, of Wakefield, New Hampshire, started racing horses at the track last year, but isn’t new to watching the action at Scarborough Downs. On Sunday he had two horses racing – Lucksgottachange and Royal Hawaii.
“I love it here, but the place needs a little work,” Bilodeau said. “We are definitely hoping it stays a race track.”
Bilodeau seemed excited when his two horses each got a second. Royal Hawaii took second place in the fourth race and Lucksgottachange placed second in the fifth race.
Bill Bates, of West Newfield, said he has been coming to the track for about 20 years. Bates was there to see Bilodeau, a close family friend.
“I think (the Downs) needs work. I think it’s a great place. They have a lot to offer,” Bates said. “They can always put more care into it, but you can say that about any track. But most of the track is pretty good.”
Mike Cushing, vice president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, said last week that members hope racing continues.
Scarborough has about 100 race days a year from March-December, about double of the state’s only other harness racetrack in Bangor. There are also nine county fairs that have racing during the summer and fall.
“Harness racing has a long-standing history in the state of Maine,” Cobbett said.
Powers said his group signed an agreement March 1, but declined to say when the deal is expected to close or how much it will cost. According to published reports, Downs owner and President Sharon Terry has asked $7.5 million for the grandstand/clubhouse, barns, half-mile track and outlying land.
The new ownership group is still in its due diligence phase and assessing the property and its potential, Powers said.
“We are excited about it,” he said. “It is a unique and interesting opportunity.”
He said it has “a lot of deferred maintenance,” and the investors would like to re-brand, recapitalize, and refurbish the track if it is feasible.
The study will help determine how much work needs to be done at what cost, and if there would be a return on the investment, he said.
Racing in the seventh race on March 26 at Scarborough Downs are Namesmuscle, driven by Mark Athearn, left; Victory Tax, with driver Eddie Davis Jr., and Mack’s Gold Band, driven by Gary Mosher. Namesmuscle, owned by William H. Phipps of Yarmouth, won the race.