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Portland-area businessman reviving harness racing in southern Maine

Michael Cianchette now manages First Track at the Cumberland Fairgrounds along with his father, Eric.

CUMBERLAND, Maine — The drizzle was falling and the mud was getting so slippery that the starting gate has to be switched from a big car to a four-wheel-drive truck.

But the racing still went on Thursday at First Track at the Cumberland Fairgrounds.

Harness racing has been making a southern Maine comeback this summer, thanks to the Cianchette family, which decided to start up First Track after Scarborough Downs closed for good last fall.

“It’s a calculated risk but [harness racing] is far from dead,” said Michael Cianchette, who is managing First Track along with his father, Eric. 

“We want to ensure the horsemen can keep running, training horses, buying hay, keep their industry alive while we hopefully build a bridge to the next century of harness racing.”

They have operated a 28-day commercial racing schedule in May, June, and July. The summer season ended Thursday and will resume in November after the three-month racing season at Maine fairs.

Cianchette said horse owners and drivers have responded well to the new venture, and that they have typically had more than 70 horses racing each day. That includes veteran driver and owner Heath Campbell of Corinna, who won two races Thursday.

“This helped a lot after Scarborough shut down,” he said. 

Scarborough Downs closed last November after 80 years as one of Maine’s primary commercial tracks. The other is Bangor Raceway, which is still operating. 

Cianchette, whose family has a long connection to Maine harness racing, said the operation at Cumberland has gone well so far. Attendance has improved over time, he said, and a total of $1.75 million has been wagered on those races so far. Those bets have come in from around the world because the telecast of races is carried by satellite to off-track betting sites across the U.S. and in several other countries.

Harness racing may have declined in popularity in Maine, he said, but still have people who enjoy watching and wagering. 

“Not just communities inside the state but worldwide. Sweden, France, Canada, a lot of places in New York still really engage with harness racing.

The revival of racing in southern Maine has made drivers and horse owners happy because it provides more chances for them to make money. Some owners, trainers, and drivers depend on racing to earn a living.

“It's been very, very good,” said Rhoda Underhill from Stetson, who, together with her husband, owns six racehorses.

“And the fact they opened this up has been wonderful this year we’ve had a lot of success here.”

The Cianchettes and First Track are banking on that success, and efforts to grow local interest in racing, to realize the bigger part of their harness racing

They plan to build an entirely new track in southern Maine, most likely York County, to attract more people and more horses as the center of a larger entertainment complex, potentially including a concert venue, wintertime snowmobile races and, if the marketplace and regulations allow, even expand to thoroughbred racing. 

“The reality is harness racing itself is a difficult industry to make money at, but as a base to build a lot of other things from its a strong foundation and has 150 years of proof.”

Cianchette said they are looking at several good sites now and will use the next year or so to pursue all the necessary development aspects

“Really our effort for the next several years is going to be to ensure the horsemen make money so they can keep their sport alive and strong, so when our new facility (is) ready to go we have some of the best racing in the world to showcase.”

 As drivers and horse owners pack up and head for the fairs, First Track will focus the next three months on how to make those plans a reality.