BANGOR, Maine — Laurie MacKenzie of Plymouth has been involved in the harness racing industry her whole life.

Her husband, Gerald “Butch” MacKenzie Jr., was a longtime trainer and driver. Her father, Elmer Ballard, is still involved with racing at Scarborough Downs at age 80. MacKenzie’s daughter, Liz, works as a groom in Bangor and is married to successful driver Kevin Switzer Jr.

Despite her deep connections to harness racing, she is concerned about the future of the sport in Maine.

“My worry for the people in the state of Maine is that it may not be here some day,” Laurie MacKenzie, who along with her husband gave up the sport in 2010 to work other jobs as they approach retirement, said.

“It’s tradition. It has to be here. It can’t go away,” she added.

Even as the harness racing community tries to improve its visibility and appeal, horsemen are dealing with a significant shortage of horses.

The slow attrition of people choosing to live the often grueling harness racing lifestyle and incur its increasing costs mean fewer horse owners — and fewer horses being trained to race.

“We’re supposed to race three days a week. We’re going to be lucky to race two because of the horse count,” Shawn Thayer of Hermon, a 25-year harness racing veteran, said. “There’s just not enough horses.”

Horsemen believe the long-term solution to solidifying Maine harness racing for the long term is to develop and cultivate a new generation of horse owners and trainers. To that end MacKenzie, Lori Graffam and Denise Terry have started a nonprofit group, the All Heart Campaign.

Its mission is to promote harness racing in the state and educate people about its traditional role in Maine. All Heart hopes to encourage people to attend harness racing events and get a firsthand look at the dynamics of the sport.

“I’m trying to generate some motivation in people to try to get it back like it used to be and have some fans coming to the grandstand,” MacKenzie said.

Those efforts begin in earnest Saturday afternoon, when Bangor Raceway opens its 132nd season. All Heart has teamed up with Hollywood Casino and Raceway, which operates the track, to provide a special program that will build on the theme of the Kentucky Derby, which is being run Saturday at Churchill Downs.

The Bass Park track and the barns were bustling with activity Thursday, when trainers, drivers and grooms geared up for the first of its 54 scheduled race dates this year.

“It’s busy. It’s a good feeling. We’ve been down for five months,” trainer Mike Hitchcock of Hermon, owner of Hitchcock’s Stables, said.

The anticipation of the season is tempered by the fact harness racing has been sparsely attended in Bangor in recent years, in part because bettors can make wagers from the off-track betting parlor at Hollywood Casino and elsewhere.

“You can sit home and watch it on your computer. You can watch any track in the world right at your house,” Hitchcock said.

Horsemen, who have witnessed the decline of spectators in the stands, are pleased to see the efforts of the All Heart Campaign, which has a Facebook page with 800 members to share its message.

“I remember looking at pictures from when my dad was a kid and seeing the stands mobbed with people,” driver Chris Nye, a Hermon native who lives in Auburn, said. “Now, you can throw a handful of rocks and you ain’t going to hit anybody.”

A drive past the historic racetrack on Buck Street on an average race day afternoon might reveal 50 or 100 people in the grandstand and watching from along the fence.

Mike Hopkins, the director of racing operations for Hollywood Casino and Raceway, has planned an initiative that he believes will help generate interest in harness racing.

“We’re doing employee appreciation days for local businesses. It’s really good,” he said. “It’s a package deal for the box seats, winners’ circle photos, embroidered stable blankets with the company logo.”

All involved believe that if they can get people to attend racing, they will understand its potential as a recreational activity — in addition to a parimutuel wagering opportunity.

“It’s good, free, family entertainment,” Hopkins said.

MacKenzie emphasized the harness racing community must be willing to take an active role in promoting itself.

“The horsemen people are responsible for their livelihood, and they need to get off their butts and make a change,” MacKenzie said. “You can’t wait for handouts; you’ve got to get out and do it yourself.”

Joining with the efforts of All Heart, the horsemen have a simple philosophy about how to rekindle interest in harness racing at Bangor Raceway.

“We just need to let people know we’re here,” Hitchcock said.

Horse shortage looms

Although an occasional shortage of horses is not unusual in Bangor, horsemen are more concerned than ever. Hopkins said Bangor Raceway’s barns are full, housing 176 horses this spring.

He conceded there are worries about having enough to fill out the races, but he remains optimistic.

“We’ve got a good supply of drivers. Right now it’s a little shaky on the horse supply, but with the warmer weather we’ll get more races in up here,” Hopkins said.

Horsemen point out Scarborough Downs, Maine’s other commercial harness racing track, recently has raced only two of three scheduled days per week because of the horse shortage.

“I figure, at the end of the year, I have to make $10,000 a year per horse to break even,” Mike Huff, owner of Huff Stables in Carmel, said in pointing to the high cost associated with race horse ownership.

“If you can make $2,000, $5,000 at the end of the year, you’ve done a hell of a job for a small stable like this,” he added.

The costs include boarding and feeding the animals, along with any veterinary services or medication they might require. Instead of incur those expenses during the winter, when there is no racing in Bangor, owners increasingly have taken a different approach.

“It costs so much to keep a horse. A lot of people sell them to get rid of them,” Hitchcock said.

Thayer estimated it costs $3,000 to board a horse for the winter, then have it trained and ready to race for the next season.

“What a lot of people are doing now is getting rid of them at the end of the season and then trying to buy them (other horses) in the spring, all ready to race,” he said.

But harness horses increasingly are hard to find. Thayer explained it took him and Huff three months to locate three new horses to buy this spring and that prices have increased significantly.

The horsemen are skeptical about the prospects for racing a full schedule in Bangor this year. Hopkins believes harness racing’s tradition and the dedication of those who work with horses will enable the sport to survive in the long term.

“We’re looking for a bright future,” he said. “Bangor Raceway’s always going to be here with the support of Penn National (Gaming),” parent company of Hollywood Casino and Raceway.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...