Live harness racing at Scarborough Downs will come to an end one week from Saturday, on Nov. 28. And it will also mark the end of an era. The track first opened in 1950.
Mike Sweeney has worked at Scarborough Downs for decades, and currently serves as the race announcer and publicist. He says COVID-19 has made things difficult over the last several months, but the track has struggled for years, especially since the Oxford Casino opened in 2012.
Sweeny told All Things Considered Host Nora Flaherty that as options for entertainment and gambling have broadened, attendance has declined.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sweeney: I started working here in 1981. I was putting myself through college selling tickets. Back then if you wanted to gamble, you either went to a racetrack or you went to Las Vegas, those were the two options. And then lotteries came in, so people could buy lottery tickets at their corner stores. I can remember when I first came here, neighbors and people that worked at other jobs would send to $2 Daily Double wages out to the track with me. And that’s how people would would do their casual gaming. And that all changed. Now there’s online gaming, there are casinos in easy access to people in the state of Maine, and there are other entertainment options too.
When I first started working here, there were no organized sports in the state. Now you have the Sea Dogs, you have the Mariners. Back in the early ’80s, you might get to see one Red Sox game on TV during the course of a week. And now every single game is televised. So there are so many different options for people to get their entertainment right now. And harness racing stayed the same. But those options that people had just got bigger and more varied. I think that was the major impact as to why harness racing has lost some of its popularity.
Flaherty: Is there still sort of a core group of people who love harness racing as much as ever?
Oh, absolutely. There are there are people here in the state of Maine who I’ve seen at the track since I was a kid. We’ve all grown up together, we all look at each other and say, ‘Geez, how did we get this old?’ On the big days, like when the Kentucky Derby is being held, we get huge crowds out here. We throw a great big party, people get dressed up, we have buffets and mint juleps and it’s a big celebration. So yeah, there still is interest in horse racing, but the days of people coming out to the track two or three times a week, those are just long gone.
So what is in the future now for Scarborough Downs?
Well, here at Scarborough Downs, we’re going to be ceasing the live operation on the Nov. 28. That’s a week from Saturday, 12:15 p.m. post time, so if anybody wants to come to the races one final time, that would be the day to do it. We were just granted an off-track betting license by the Maine Harness Racing Commission today. And that license will carry us forward into 2021, when people can come to the facility to watch and wager on harness and thoroughbred racing from around the country, right here at the Downs. So going forward, that will be the main avenue of business for Scarborough Downs.
Is there anything else you want to say to people?
It’s gonna be a very melancholy day for us here at the track, we’re struggling as we head toward the end. The people who work at this racetrack have been here for a long time, and we’re like family. And we love what we do. If we didn’t love what we do, we definitely wouldn’t be here, because we’re not here for the money. It’s going to be a sad day when we turn the lights out for the last time. I never wanted to be that person. But unfortunately, I’m going to be one of the people bringing the curtain down for the last time on Nov. 28. And I’m sure there’ll be a few tears shed.