AUGUSTA, Maine— If the number of race dates awarded to Maine’s fairs and commercial racetracks is a good indication, the overall health of the harness racing industry continues to improve.

The Maine State Harness Racing Commission held its annual hearing for licensing and race-date assignments for the upcoming season Wednesday and either approved or tentatively approved the assignment of 251 racing dates in 2009.

That number is another increase, up seven from last year with Bangor Raceway tentatively going from 54 race days to 61.

“We originally asked for 56 dates, but the horsemen made a pitch for more November dates so we added a few,” said Fred Nichols, Bangor Raceway’s race secretary.

The awarding of Bangor’s race dates was tabled, pending the completion of an ongoing evaluation and approval of a new member of Penn National Gaming Inc.’s governing board. The new board member comes from Fortress Investment Group LLC, which along with Centerbridge Partners LP, purchased Penn National Gaming Inc., in June of 2007.

“There’s a new director at the parent company level for us at Penn they haven’t yet vetted, so this process needs to be finalized before we can have everything finalized,” Nichols said.

The five-member commission expects to reconvene no later than Dec. 18 to review the results of the evaluation and vote on approval of the dates.

The ongoing investigation/evaluation coincides with the MSHRC’s decision to vet existing officials and owners/operators of Maine’s commercial tracks, which includes the completion of a 65-page questionnaire.

The questionnaire became the subject of debate and explanation during the meeting as Sue Terry, president of Davric Maine Corporation, and lawyer Ed McCall aired some complaints about the form and investigations of owners of tracks like Scarborough Downs, which Davric owns and operates.

“I think there are two issues there. The first is we’re still developing a process to look at applicants. Scarborough, as far as I’m concerned, has not been properly vetted under this process,” said Henry Jackson, MSHRC executive director. “That’s why the international association of gaming regulators personal disclosure form was forwarded to Scarborough Downs’ owner and board of directors.”

Scarborough’s application for 129 race dates for Scarborough was approved 4-1 by the commission with only chairman George McHale voting against approval.

“I realize it’s cumbersome and there’s a lot of info being requested that may not be pertinent, however, it becomes more pertinent if you get into a situation where you’re operating more than a racetrack,” Jackson said.

Penn National board members, who are also required to fill out the form, have already filled theirs out.

“When we first looked at it, we were taken aback… 65 [pages] with an incredible amount of detail,” said Bill Manning, Scarborough Downs’ operations analyst. “The form comes from an international regulatory body for gaming, which typically doesn’t address racetracks. They deal more with casinos/racinos and gaming, and we aren’t at that level.

“I think the intent of this is admirable and understandable. I just think all the parties concerned need to sit down and discus the goal and what a reasonable level of scrutiny is.”

Commission members, Jackson, Maine assistant attorney general Jack Richards and representatives from Bangor and Scarborough all agreed the process can be revised.

“I think the commission should be interested in increasing the scrutiny and that’s in the public interest for operators of any kind of gambling facility to be reputable, but I think the system needs to be tweaked a little bit,” said Manning.

“I think, after further discussion, I want the commission to give me direction as to what extent they want me to vet existing owners,” Jackson said. “I need some guidelines.”

All other application were approved unanimously as follows: Northern Maine Fair (six dates), Topsham Fair (six), Skowhegan State Fair (seven), Union Fair (seven), Windsor Fair (nine), Oxford County Fair (three), Farmington Fair (seven), Cumberland Fair (eight), and Fryeburg Fair (six).

Nichols said the number of dates provides plenty of reason for optimism in Maine’s harness racing industry.

“Most days, we had over 100 entries in the box for our fall dashes. When you’re only using 80 for 10 races, that’s a good supply,” he explained. “I had more than enough. For my experience, that’s a rare circumstance. You never know what’s going to happen year to year, but it’s very encouraging.”