The long-awaited start to the harness racing season at Bangor Raceway will commence at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
There will be nine races on the card that will be preceded by two non-betting Maine Standardbred Breeders Stakes races for 2-year-olds.
Bangor Raceway was supposed to begin its 142nd racing season in May but the coronavirus kept Hollywood Casino and Raceway closed. The casino reopened five weeks ago.
Racing will be held at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays through the end of October.
Mike Cushing, president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association and a horse owner himself, said owners like to race their horses once a week. With Scarborough Downs being the only track open in the state, they were running them only once every two or three weeks.
“And people in Aroostook County weren’t racing at all but now they will be coming down to Bangor,” Cushing said.
“This is a great relief,” he said. “We have 60 horses stabled in Bangor, and they were having to commute to Scarborough two or three days a week.”
Spectators will not be allowed because there is COVID-19 testing area is on the Bass Park premises.
“But they are looking to move the testing site over to the base,” said race director Mike Hopkins, referring to the former Dow Air Force Base property near the Bangor International Airport.
That would pave the way for as many as 200 spectators at the track under the guidelines put in place by Gov. Janet Mills.
Fans can watch the races live and wager using their computers and cellphones by going to hollywoodraces.com. There they also can watch races being held at other tracks across the country.
Hopkins said all of the social distancing guidelines will be in place for the horsemen and track personnel.
“Safety is our top priority. All the horsemen know it and will abide by all the precautions,” Hopkins said.
Scarborough Downs, which hosted racing from June 3 to July 10 before closing down, re-opened Aug. 4. The facility will operate with a 1:30 p.m. post time on Tuesdays and Saturdays to prevent the two tracks from competing against each other.
It also gives horsemen a chance to shuttle their horses between the two tracks.
Former longtime horse owner and harness driver Greg Bowden, who is now a track official, said the return of racing at Bangor Raceway is important to the horsemen.
“It costs $300 a week to take care of a horse during the season and $200 to $250 when they aren’t racing. So [not being able to race] is a big hardship,” said Bowden, who pointed out that harness racing is a seasonal sport.
Spectators are allowed at Scarborough Downs and at Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, Massachusetts, which has racing at 4 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Chris McErlean, the vice president of Penn National Gaming Inc., which runs the casino and track for owner Gaming and Leisure Properties, said they are glad to get racing back in Bangor.
“It’s good for the horsemen. It’s good for the state. It’s good for the agriculture business,” McErlean said.
Bowden applauded Penn National and the horsemen at Bangor Raceway for preparing the track and property so that it will be ready to go on Wednesday.
“The horsemen did a lot of the work themselves because they’re anxious to get back to work. It’s exciting,” Bowden said.
He speculated that spectators will congregate in their lawn chairs on the Buck Street side of the track and in the parking lot near the Cross Insurance Center to watch the races.
“There are no other sports going on, so there could be a resurgence for harness racing,” Bowden said.
Bowden and Hopkins acknowledged that the track will feel the loss of the Canadian owners and drivers, who have been fixtures at Bangor Raceway for many years.
The Canadian government continues to keep the border closed.
Hopkins said the 3 p.m. time slot on Wednesdays and Sundays should prove beneficial because the bigger tracks across the country usually start later in the day or in the early evening.
“It’s nice that people will be able to watch our races and bet on them,” Hopkins said.