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Updated: November 30, 2020

Scarborough track closes chapter on live harness racing

Scarborough Downs after last harness race ever Photo / Jim Neuger This past Saturday, Scarborough Downs hosted its last day of live harness racing since opening 70 years ago. In this photo, Goin Manstyle, piloted by Wallace Watson, heads back to the paddock after winning the final race.
View from above at Scarborough Downs Photo/Jim Neuger The view from above of a race starting.
Inside the grandstand Photo/Jim Neuger Spectators look at mementos from seven decades of racing.
Masked spectators looking through the viewing window. Photo/Jim Neuger The view from inside the grandstand.
Barbara McDonald with her festive hat Photo/Jim Neuger Scarborough resident Barbara McDonald donned a festive hat for the occasion.
harness racers coming around the turn Photo/Jim Neuger Harness racers coming around the curve.
Three racers and trotters in a row Photo/Jim Neuger There were a total of 10 races on Saturday. This is a view of the fifth race.

Under Saturday's gray sky at Scarborough Downs, Barbara McDonald stood out from the crowd with a fancy black hat decorated with a reddish-orange flower.

"It's the end of an era," the Scarborough resident remarked as she stood by the rail on the last day of live harness racing at the 70-year old track. "We're going to miss it."

She was one of hundreds of spectators there that afternoon who came to cheer, watch races, place bets and pay homage to a place and a fading sport long past their heyday.

Scarborough Downs opened as a thoroughbred racetrack in 1950 and later switched to harness racing, in which standardbred horses pull drivers in two-wheeled carts called sulkies. Situated on 525 acres sold by the Terry family to local developers in 2018, it will remain open for off-track wagering on simulcast races. 

As Crossroads Holdings Inc. proceeds with its mixed-use development at The Downs and a new town center, the fate of the old racing grandstand remains unclear. Amid dwindling attendance and wagering income, it's long been in a state of disrepair.

That didn't seem to bother those gathered on Saturday for one final bittersweet day at the races, with 10 on the card from midday to mid-afternoon for the 1-mile dirt track.

Reflecting on some of the pageantry, McDonald said she will personally miss the annual "Belle of the Derby" hat contest every May on the day of the Kentucky Derby, a 15-year tradition she says grew from nine to 90 participants over the years and which she won twice. 

Equally passionate about the equine athletes, she says her husband, Kevin, owned standardbred horses that raced for many years until their retirement in Vermont.

"They're born to go fast," she said, with one final thought on the Downs' last chapter: "It's a heart-breaker today."

John Raleigh of Connecticut, who has a house in Biddeford Pool, also came for nostalgic reasons, remembering bringing his four children to the track when they were young going back to 1993.

"They had a blast," he recalled. "It's very emotional for me, and I'm fighting back tears. It was just such a fun venue." Though he was alone on Saturday, he was in touch with family members by text, and was glad to have won some money from a bet on the first race.

"I try to pick the better odds," he said.

For 77-year-old Bob Mulkern of Gorham, getting back to the track also brought back fond memories. He said he's been coming since age 15 to "watch the runners" and lately had been back "just to get out of the house" during COVID.

"I decided I had to come today," he said.

Mulkern also hopes the racing tradition will continue at county fairs like the ones in Cumberland and Fryeburg he's been to — though not this year during the virus, and notes that it would also help those in the racing business. 

'And away they go'

Saturday's racing card did not disappoint.

A minute before the start of the first contest for fillies and mares, long-time track announcer Mike Sweeney urged spectators to place their final bets, saying, "Post time is less than one, you'd better run." 

Then at a quarter past noon from his outlook post on the upper floor: "And away they go ... They're off in the opener here at Scarborough Downs."

The first race wrapped up with a close 1-and-2, with Some Fancy Beach and driver Nicholas Graffam edging out Stay Beautiful and Kevin Switzer Jr. for the $4,000 purse in the Cheviot/Jetlite Pace race.

"That is a tight photo finish," said Sweeney, who was also the handicapper and publicity manager for many years at a track he's known since childhood. A licensed harness driver himself, Sweeney once ducked out of the announcer's box to participate in a race, called by one of the regular drivers, he told Mainebiz in 2018.

Later after the tenth and final race of the day, Sweeney told the crowd, "It's tough to sign off, but sign off we must." Looking to the future, he said, "Whatever direction harness racing takes in 2021 and beyond, always remember to get back to the track."

Denise Terry, who dedicated her life to Scarborough Downs with her family and oversaw finance for many years, was just as resolute, telling Mainebiz through tears that it was nice to see such a big crowd on the last day.

"It's time to hand the torch to someone else," she said.

As the crowd started to disperse, the song "Auld Lang Syne" played over the speaker system.

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November 30, 2020

Nice article, and thanks for covering this. Glad I wasn't the only one in tears there on Saturday. It's a huge loss to those of us who have grown to love the quirky old grandstand, the track, the history, the family atmosphere, Mike Sweeney's pre-race picks and occasionally comical race calls, the locally-based drivers and horses, and, personally, as a mildly obsessed wannabe racing photographer, the opportunity to go there weekend after weekend, and happily putter away at my favorite hobby. You just can't replace this sort of thing, and it's so sad to see it go. Best wishes to the track staff, owners, trainers, drivers and horses wherever you go in the future.

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