PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The familiar half-mile oval at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds will soon look quite different as harness racing fades into the past and part of the track area is used for other purposes.
Northern Maine Fair Association officials recently said this summer’s fair will be held from Thursday, Aug. 4, through Sunday, Aug. 7.
Once a staple of the local fair, harness racing in Presque Isle is officially off the roster, according to the Maine Harness Racing Commission. That leaves the Bangor Raceway as the closest track to Aroostook County.
“It’s too bad. We hate to see it go, but times change,” Northern Maine Fair Association Vice President Rick Guerrette said Friday. “We’ve got to move on and do something different.”
Racing has drawn very few people — and horses — in recent years, and trying to keep it going has not been profitable, Guerrette said. The fair wasn’t held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was no racing last year because the fair switched from a weeklong event to a four-day format focusing on agriculture.
The racetrack will see changes come spring, when crews will remove turn one and turn two — the portion of the track closest to Mechanic Street — and widen the area out. Eventually, the association would like to construct a building there that could seat 300-400 people, he said, though that is sometime in the future.
Improvements are on tap for the demolition derby and tractor pulling area at the front of the grandstand, as well as fences around the property, Guerrette said.
The association plans to move the George Allen Memorial Horse Pulling Arena, now located at the farthest end of the fairgrounds, to a site behind the grandstand, upgrading it and giving it more visibility.
Work will start early this spring on the track area.
Fair Association President Lynwood Winslow was unavailable Friday.
Presque Isle has a storied history when it comes to horse racing. The city’s most famous racehorse was John R. Braden, a harness racing horse purchased in the 1920s by a group of local men who called themselves the Mooseleuk Club.
Driven by John Willard, Braden set records for his wins and racing times and was even invited to a banquet in his honor at what is now the Northeastland Hotel. Braden Street and the local Braden Theater still carry his name. His remains are actually buried at the fairgrounds.
The horse and his competitors spurred an interest in local harness racing that drew 50,000 people a day to the races, according to the Northern Maine Fair website.