Mainers who want to bet on next weekend’s Kentucky Derby are out of luck.
Churchill Downs Inc. is barring Mainers from betting online or by simulcast on races at all of the tracks it owns, including its flagship oval in Louisville, home to the Derby. Some competitors in the industry say it is a case of sour grapes that will also rob state government and county fairs of their piece of the action.
American racing's biggest day usually falls on the first Saturday in May, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced its delay until next Saturday, September 5. Maine residents will still be able to watch the race on television -- but they won't be able to wager a legal bet on any of the horses in the field...such as the favorite "Tiz the Law" or a longshot like "Necker Island."
"We were surprised and we were disappointed that we would not be able to offer the fans here in the state of Maine some of the premier racing that takes place in the country," says Mike Sweeney, the track announcer at Scarborough Downs harness racing track, which is host to one of several simulcast facilities in the state where Mainers can bet on tracks all over the country — except, now, for those operated by Churchill Downs.
"Derby Day is a day for us to showcase the local product,” Sweeney says. “There are big crowds, the place us full, it's our biggest handle day, both on Simulcast wagering and on the live product, so, a way for us to really put the state of Maine racing front and center, and we're missing out on that this year."
Churchill Downs, which owns the Oxford Casino, is also barring its races from an online wagering platform operated by Penn National Gaming, owner of the Bangor Casino. Last year the state moved to shut down the handful of internet wagering apps that could be accessed by Mainers, and this year it awarded the contract for sole online rights to Penn and its "Hollywood Races" app. Penn National this month wrote a letter to the state Gambling Control Board complaining that Churchill Downs, which lost its bid for the contract, is just being a "sore loser" by now limiting Mainers betting opportunities.
Christopher McErlean, Penn National's vice president for racing, says it is not just horseplayers who are affected.
"But a percentage of every dollar bet in the state of Maine on horse racing goes to the racing industry for paying the prize money for the races, to support the agricultural fairs, and the state of Maine general fund gets a percentage of the money too, for the general fund. So this hurts everybody in the state," McErlean says.
Churchill Downs itself, for that matter, will lose its slice of Mainers' wagers on its races. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment. State gaming officials and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck are asking Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to seek a solution, but so far his office says says the state cannot compel Churchill Downs to open up betting for Maine.
Scarborough Downs' Mike Sweeney says that with all the stresses induced by the pandemic, it's a shame Mainers won't be able to let a few dollars ride on what's called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
"All of society has missed out on so many things, and we long for normalcy, and one of the normal things for people who follow horse racing would be to come to watch and wager on the Kentucky Derby," says Sweeney.
Scarborough Downs was closed through the early months of the pandemic, but limited harness racing is happening now — with social distancing rules — every Tuesday and Saturday through October.
Updated 5:31 p.m. August 28, 2020.
Originally published 4:59 p.m. August 28, 2020.