The Universal Notebook: Are you going to Scarborough Downs?

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News that Scarborough Downs has been sold prompted me to take a drive through the old race track last week. I worked there a couple of summers in the mid-1960s, so a slow drive past the grandstand and through the barn area brought back memories.

The Downs has obviously seen better days, but then so have I.

The forlorn grandstand and deserted barns were teeming with life when I worked there on the maintenance crew. A Runyonesque cast of characters from the owners to the horsemen, jockeys and gamblers populated that 500-acre complex stretching from Route 1 to Payne Road. Bud Honeywell, a crotchety old Yankee, was the maintenance supervisor in those days and he employed a motley crew of unskilled high school boys to do his dirty work.

My job involved riding around in a beat-up old dump truck emptying trash cans all over the grounds, occasionally hauling a dead horse out of a stall, daily washing losing tickets down the asphalt apron with a fire hose, once spending days on end spray painting hundreds of metal folding chairs, and daily fogging the concession stands to keep mosquitoes away just before the spectators started arriving. DDT wasn’t banned until 1972, so the popcorn at the track probably had more than melted butter on it.

Scarborough Downs was built in 1950, but it looks like a perfect setting for a 1970s crime movie – gunfights in the empty grandstand, car chases through the derelict barns. When I worked there, grooms actually lived in the tack rooms at the ends of the barn rows, creating a seasonal community of colorful, suspect men.

The owner of Scarborough Downs at the time was contractor Robert Verrier, who built Maine’s only thoroughbred track with clam chowder king Fred Snow. Verrier was a mover and a shaker. His company built Loring Air Force Base, and in the 1980s he proposed putting a glass roof over Congress Street in Portland and turning everything from the Portland Museum of Art to Monument Square into a pedestrian shopping mall. Not really a bad idea.

The last time I saw Verrier he was an old man doing real estate deals for my friend Pritam Singh’s Great Bay Co. The first time I saw Verrier he came swooping across that huge parking lot at the track, his large sedan riding like a boat on a choppy asphalt sea.

With my first couple of paychecks, I purchased my first car, a 1957 DeSoto with push-button transmission; it was painted black, white and maroon, like a saddle shoe on four wheels. I came sailing into work the next morning over that cracked and potted asphalt sea (which we cold-patched when Bud had nothing else for us to do) and pulled up beside the grandstand, where Bud was working on a tractor.

Casting a skeptical eye over my new ride, Bud said, “Laddybuck, I’d hate to have to walk back from where that car will take you.”

A week later, as if on cue, the DeSoto blew its engine, flames shooting out from under both sides of the hood, leaving me stranded in the swamp that would soon become the Maine Mall.

Cruising through the track complex, it was easy to see how all that land, which sold for a mere $600 in 1949, would make a perfect second headquarters for Amazon (as town officials suggested last year). But it now appears that the new owners will be building condo and apartment complexes like the one that sprouted up in recent years on Spring Street in Westbrook, the road I used to drive to work at the track.

Apparently, the track will continue to host harness racing, which is heavily subsidized by Maine’s casino industry. Though I worked at the track for a couple of summers, I never bet on the races. The only time a bet was ever placed on my behalf was the summer that our shady Uncle Arthur came up from Texas and took us to the races. Uncle Arthur was a big gambler and he placed bets for everyone in my family.

Uncle Arthur also left his son Barney with us for the summer while he got divorced and then promptly disappeared two steps ahead of an arrest warrant. Something about gambling debts and missing funds. Every few years, much to her chagrin, my Nana would get a call from the FBI asking if she had heard anything from Arthur. He was her niece’s ex-husband, so there was no reason she would. Still, every time I drive by Scarborough Downs I wonder whatever happened to Uncle Arthur.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.