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Hot to trot

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Hot to trot (Photo by Sheridan Kelley Adams)

Talking harness racing at Bangor Raceway

BANGOR Bangor Raceway has commenced its 133rd season of harness racing at the track.

Over the course of the next few months, the track operated since 2005 by Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway under the auspices of parent company Penn National Gaming will play host to nearly 50 racing cards. For much of the summer and into the fall, horses and drivers will be trotting toward victory.

Races have been held at the track since 1883. For decades, Bangor Raceway was one of the city's most popular entertainment centers, with thousands of people coming out to spend an afternoon or evening placing a few bets or just sitting in the grandstand and enjoying the sport.

In recent years, the sport's popularity and indeed, the popularity of horse racing in general has declined. Among younger demographics especially, the level of interest has waned. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Anyone who has been to the track knows just how exciting it can be. Whether you're there to lay the occasional wager on a horse or just to enjoy the thrill of competition, the truth is that there's a lot to like at the track for anyone.

There's also a lot that goes into making it all work. Just ask Michael Hopkins, manager of live racing for Hollywood Casino he's responsible for a lot of it, after all.

'Everything that needs doing at the track,' Hopkins said with a chuckle when asked what his duties entailed. 'I do my best to take care of what everybody needs. I serve as the liaison with the state, the liaison with [Penn National], the liaison with the horsemen. If a light bulb needs changing, that's me. If it comes to shoveling horsest, I'm there.'

It all starts with the horses and the facility.

'The on-site stables are full,' said Hopkins. 'We've got 80 horses here. But the horse supply has been getting smaller, which makes it harder to put together dates with full fields.'

When you start to look at the numbers involved every day of operation features 10 races involving eight horses each it becomes clear just how many people and animals need to be involved. While the track features mostly Maine horses, there are also racers from outside of the state, including a significant number of Canadian competitors.

'We get a lot of Canadian racers,' Hopkins said. 'We picked up 15 more [from Canada] this year. A lot of the tracks across the border are closing, so they come here. The amenities we have here far outweigh those of other area tracks.'

Those amenities are there thanks largely to extensive renovations to the raceway undertaken by Penn National. The old barn was refurbished and a new barn was built; a new paddock was built as well. In addition, upgrades were made to the grandstand and significant work was done on the track. All told, the company spent upwards of $8 million bringing new life to the facility.

This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Penn National Gaming in terms of both their history and their present operation.

'If our name's on it, it needs to be up to our standards,' said Hopkins. 'Penn National started as a track owner. They've got the highest standards in the racing industry.'

'[Penn National] is the largest promotional racing operator in the country,' added Jose Flores, Hollywood Casino's general manager. 'A lot of our properties are racinos; horse racing goes hand in hand with other casino operations.'

While the company doesn't directly track attendance numbers, they do keep an eye on program sales to get a broad idea of how many are in and out. Over the course of the season, approximately 5,000 programs are sold. A good number, but not as good as Hopkins might like.

'Harness racing attendance is declining across the board,' Hopkins said. 'We've got some dedicated souls who turn up for every race, but we're really looking to get the youth.'

It's worth noting the family-friendliness of a day at the racetrack. Sure, you have to be 18 to place a bet at the raceway, but in terms of just enjoying the sport, it really is an all-ages type of experience. Still, the absence of younger race fans remains an issue. And that absence of younger fans across the board, not just here in Bangor has played a major part in the sport's general sluggishness in terms of growth.

'It's a question of supply and demand,' said Flores. 'When demand goes, it's hard to keep up on the supply side. There's a waning interest in the sport in general; we reinvest and maintain as best we can.'

That reinvestment includes a tripling of purse sizes since Penn National came to town.

'It's a costly sport,' said Hopkins. 'Our harness racing support has been a big shot in the arm for the industry here.

Harness racing isn't a huge revenue producer for Hollywood Casino, but ways have been found to maximize it. For instance, thanks to careful scheduling, the amount of export wagering (that is, wagering taking place off-site) has increased.

'It's about the times of races,' said Hopkins. 'I try to align our races so that they can move a bit better. We have a great handle on Mondays because so few other tracks are running at that time.

'I'm the last one to submit my schedule every year,' he continued. 'It's definitely a chess game.'

Truth be told, there are probably more than a few people in and around town particularly in the younger demographics that don't even know that harness racing is still happening over the course of every summer.

And that's a shame, because there's something special about the experience. It's one of the few ways that we can truly and directly connect with Bangor's rich history. Bangor Raceway is a generational touchstone and generational on both sides of the rail at that. Many Bangor residents grew up attending races with their parents or grandparents - and watching the parents or grandparents of today's racers trotting around the track.

There are few experiences to be had here or anywhere that match the up-close excitement you can get from seeing the palpable passion expressed by these racers. It's a sport out of time, a memory made real. But make no mistake harness racing is no relic.

It is, however, a really good time.

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The voice of the track

Anyone who has been to Bangor Raceway in recent years has heard Wayne Harvey's voice.

This will be Harvey's 17th year calling races at the track. He got his start back in May of 2000, serving as a fill-in for the Wednesday night races before becoming the full-time announcer.

Harvey was a longtime lover of horse racing, but his exposure to harness racing had been fairly limited.

'I have been a horse racing fan since I was a kid,' Harvey said. 'I watched all of the Triple Crown prep races with my Dad, but it was always thoroughbred racing.

'I had gone to some harness racing at the fairs as a kid,' he continued. 'And [I] went to Bangor Raceway a few times in the early 90s. It wasn't until the late 90s when I started dating my current wife that I regularly started going to the track and watching harness racing. Her grandfather owned horses and was involved with Bangor Raceway. We went to the track everySunday.'

But then, Harvey wound up with the gig that would lead to him spending a whole lot more time in the world of harness racing.

'It was the spring of 2000 when the track needed a fill-in announcer,' he said. 'Fred Nichols knew me from being at the track and from being on radio and television. He asked if I would be interested in doing it and I said yes.'

Of course, that acceptance led to an obvious question.

'I asked how you announce a horse race,' said Harvey. 'It was a learning curve - and I am still picking up things every race date - but with help I figured out what was going on during the races and figured out how to call them.'

The job has led to a considerable affection and profound respect for the sport and its participants.

'I love harness racing; that's why I keep coming back,' he said. 'I love the sport. I love watching the horses race. I have called thousands of races and each one is different. I have been around a lot of sports behind a microphone and harness racing is so different from all of them - it keeps it exciting.

'Seeing the drivers and how they handle the race and the horses[it] is so different from every other sport. I have never been in a racing bike and the ability the drivers have to maneuver themselves and the horses through the racing is so much fun to watch.'

So next time you're out at the track and you hear an exciting and entertaining race call, now you know a little bit about the voice emanating from the speakers.

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Bangor Raceway Harness Racing Schedule 2016

May

Wednesday, May 11 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, May 13 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, May 16 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, May 18 post time 3 p.m.

Saturday, May 21 post time 2:30 p.m. (Preakness Stakes Day)

Monday, May 23 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, May 25 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, May 27 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, May 30 post time 3 p.m.

June

Wednesday, June 1 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, June 3 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, June 6 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday June 8 post time 3 p.m.

Saturday, June 11 post time 2:30 p.m. (Belmont Stakes Day)

Monday, June 13 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, June 15 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, June 17 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, June 20 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, June 22 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, June 24 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, June 27 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, June 29 post time 3 p.m.

July

Friday, July 1 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, July 4 post time 6 p.m.

Wednesday, July 6 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, July 8 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, July 11 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, July 13 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, July 15 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, July 18 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, July 20 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, July 22 post time 6 p.m.

September

Thursday, September 8 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, September 9 post time 6 p.m.

October

Monday, October 17 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, October 19 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, October 21 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, October 24 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, October 26 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, October 28 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, October 31 post time 3 p.m.

November

Wednesday, November 2 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, November 4 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, November 7 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, November 9 post time 3 p.m.

Friday, November 11 post time 6 p.m.

Monday, November 14 post time 3 p.m.

Wednesday, November 16 post time 3 p.m.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 May 2016 12:55

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