State’s propping up harness racing industry makes less and less sense


By Robert Fisk, Jr.
Special to Portland Press Herald
Published January 7, 2017 

FALMOUTH — Colin Woodard’s thorough piece (“Casino funds could offer hope for retired harness racing horses,” Dec. 18) raises another issue: subsidizing a dying business. Maine’s harness racing industry continues in steady decline despite an $8.44 million taxpayer subsidy in 2015 and similar annual allocations from slot machine revenue since 2005.

The continuous financial outlay is further called into question, given the well-documented checkered history of harness racing, one that includes animal cruelty in which fines are an ongoing cost of doing business, drugging has a long and shady past and overbreeding results in many “surplus” horses being sent to slaughter plants in Quebec.

The life of a harness racing horse is not some bucolic scene. It’s often miserable for the horses as racers, and after a short career, typically three to five years, they become unwanted.

As Woodard notes: “It’s the uncomfortable secret of Maine’s harness racing industry: Each year, some 200 horses end their racing careers at ages 3 to 14, but will live to be 30.”

The industry has always needed an outlet to rid itself of animals it deems as unproductive. The article begins with a description of the awful condition of Yankee, a 10-year-old racehorse bound for the slaughterhouse by his previous owner, but saved by a rescue.

With Scarborough Downs likely to close this year (further indication of a industry in free fall), the Maine Harness Racing Commission finds itself with $3 million of the track’s annual subsidy. A proposal to use some of that money for the care of these young, retired horses is long overdue. As Robyn Cuffey, respected re-trainer of racehorses, told Woodard: “I’m still trying to figure out why the people who made all the money off these horses are not putting a dime back into taking care of them afterward.”

State Rep. Don Marean of Hollis claims that such a proposal is a “pipe dream” and that any unallocated funds will be diverted to pay the operating costs of the harness racing commission. A Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association lobbyist, spokesperson and board member, Marean also frequently mentions that the commission donates $5,000 for distressed horses – less than 1 percent of the $8.4 million subsidy.

This would have been a perfect time for a much-needed public relations boost to embrace a minimal allotment and recognition of the need, but the industry instead showed its real hand again. Marean declared: “The numbers you are getting are fabricated on emotion and the need of some rescues looking for monetary support.” It is all about money – these magnificent animals are treated as a disposable commodity.

Marean, who led the opposition to an anti-horse slaughter bill in 2013, claims in the article, “The entire industry is struggling to stay afloat with the competition from the casinos and … online gambling.” These same sentiments were expressed by Sharon Terry, owner of Scarborough Downs, when she had requested further subsidies for the track.

All of this raises the larger question: Isn’t now finally the time for our state legislators to examine the merits (or lack thereof) of the state funneling millions of taxpayer dollars into an outdated, inhumane, discredited and dying industry that has shown a precipitous decline for decades, despite the state’s significant financial attempts to revitalize it? Yes, a fund to help retired racehorses would be great, but not having retired racehorses is better.

The harness racing industry’s struggles are anything but new. In the early 1990s, the industry was in full panic: Business as measured by the live handle (the total amount waged on harness racing) was down over 30 percent, from $45.2 million in 1987 to $29.8 million in 1991.

The solution to this free fall? Off-track betting parlors: neighborhood pubs for fans to gamble on races by live TV. OTB parlors were touted at the time as the salvation of the harness racing industry, but 25 years later, both harness racing and off-track betting are withering, with revenues down now to just a scant $4 million.

Then slot machine revenue allocation was implemented to “rescue” the industry yet again. Since it opened in 2005, Hollywood Slots has distributed over $80 million in slot machine profits to the harness racing industry, directly and indirectly. The infusion of revenue as boosted purses and encouraged horse owners to invest in faster horses, but attendance and money wagered on harness racing have continued to decline.

With so many other significant state financial needs, it remains perplexing why the state continues to prop up an activity that is outdated, cruel and has drastically faded in popularity. Moreover, no animal that has served mankind so long, so well, so nobly, and in so many capacities, deserves such a fate.


Robert Fisk Jr., a former state legislator, is president and director of the Falmouth-based Maine Friends of Animals.



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