No more harness racing at Oxford Fair

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Harness racing has been a tradition at Maine fairs, such as this race at the Oxford County Fair in 2010, since the 1800s.

OXFORD — The Oxford County Fair has eliminated its long tradition of harness racing from this year’s fair schedule, but a state official said it will have no impact on the licensing of the Oxford Casino.

The vote by the Oxford County Agricultural Society Board of Trustees to remove harness racing from the September 12-15 fair schedule, was made for financial reasons, said Oxford County Agricultural Society officer and director Henry Jackson.

He said the event was losing the fair $10,000 to $18,000 per year. Part of those costs included operational matters, the hiring of track officials and other costs, Jackson said.

The move was addressed by the Gambling Control Board in September of 2017 when attorneys for the OCAS and the Oxford Casino questioned the Board through a letter whether active harness racing at the Oxford track was a necessary contingency for the licensing of the Oxford Casino.

“The short answer is no,” Milton Champion, executive director of the Gambling Control Unit of the Department of Public Safety told the Advertiser Democrat when asked the same question.

Oxford Casino officials had “no comment” on the issue when asked last week.

According to the Citizens Initiative in 2009 that was voter approved and allowed the establishment of the Oxford Casino, to be eligible for a casino license the Casino operator had to own a facility where harness racing was conducted in the 2009 racing year, under a license from the State Harness Racing Commission, and the track had to be located within 10 miles of the proposed casino.

In this case, the only facility to meet the requirement was the Oxford County Fairgrounds, which has conducted harness racing under a state license since 2003.

Black Bear, the investment group that originally owned the Oxford Casino, purchased the track but leased it back to the fair.  The investor group sold the Casino to the parent company of Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby, for $160 million cash in 2013.

According to the minutes of the September 28, 2017 Gambling Control Board meeting, the Casino and OCAS were concerned that if they didn’t apply for an active license to the Maine Harness Racing Commission it might jeopardize their license.

Assistant Attorney General Ron Guay stated in his opinion before the Board that the licensing of the Oxford Fairgrounds track by the Maine State Harness Racing Commission would not be a necessary pre-condition for the licensing of the Casino.

Ten live racing license renewals for the 2018 season were approved by the Maine Harness Racing Commission at its November 8, 2017 meeting including the Farmington Fair, Fryeburg Fair, six other county fairs and two commercial racetracks, Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs. Oxford County Fair did not apply for renewal of its license.

Racing Tradition

The tradition of harness racing goes back to the beginning of the Oxford County Fair more than 150 years ago when the fair was held on what is now the grounds of the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris. When the Society lost that land and moved its operations to the current site off Pottle Road in Oxford in 1969, harness racing did not see a return to the fair schedule until 2003, said Henry Jackson, an officer with the OCAS and former director of the state’s Harness Racing Commission.

With the help  of donors and borrowing, the OCAS bought additional land and built a half-mile oval track with 12 percent banked turns in 2003. It was the first new race track to be built in Maine since 1942.

The track and its facilities, including five paddock barns to house 80 horses, two pari-mutuel betting facilities with  30 betting windows, judges’ facility and bathrooms – cost nearly $300,000, including in-kind labor.

Jackson said despite the long history of harness racing at fairs, there was a delay in reinstating harness racing at the Oxford County Fair of some 14 years, because there “really wasn’t all that much interest initially,” he said.

Phil Jackson, then director of racing at the Oxford Fair track, told local newspapers at that time that the new facility and the return of racing after 39 years would will benefit the fair, agriculture and the community in general.

He said the average race purse would be $1,500 and there would be stakes race events with a purse of $5,000. At that time 19.5 percent of the handle from the races went to the OCAS and the state got the rest.

By 2008, the inaugural Big “O” Open Pace harness racing event at the Oxford County Fair had a $25,000 winning  purse.

By 2015, veteran harness racer Fred Ward Jr. told a local reporter that despite its history,  the popularity of harness racing was waning in favor of numerous other betting options including casinos.  Attendance is down in part because betters have moved to the casinos, but purses, directly inflated by a portion of casino revenues, steadily hover, the report stated.

“I think they’d just like us to quietly disappear, but we hope that the people of Maine see this tradition has been going on for 150 years,” Ward told the Sun Journal in the 2015  interview.

Although harness racing at the Oxford County Fair has been an important financial fixture of the harness racing team’s calendar, racing was profitable for OCAS for only 5 or 6 years, Henry Jackson said.

Jackson said there are still some boarders in the barn that are using the track for training but it is not certain that harness racing will ever return to the Oxford Fairgrounds.

HC Bangor LLC, doing business as the Bangor Raceway, is picking up several of the days so the drivers will lose only a day or two from their normal racing schedule this summer.

The Advertiser Democrat reached out for a comment from officials at the Maine Harness Racing Association, but did not receive a response by deadline.

A decision on whether the track will be torn up has not been made yet, he said.

He said the track and facilitates will not be torn down  “at this time.”

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net

Marshall Tucker Band to headline Fair

OXFORD — The Oxford County Fair has booked the multi-award winning Marshall Tucker Band as its main act.

The fair runs from September 12-15 this year on the fairgrounds off Pottle Road.

The Marshall Tucker Band, which is set to play the free concert at the Family Fun Field beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday, September 15, joins a long list of big name acts such Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, Charley Pride and others who have graced the fairground venue for the past five or six years thanks to an antonymous donor.

Jackie Young, president of the Oxford Agricultural Society, said the same anonymous donor who stepped up six years ago in an attempt to boost the then financially fledgling fair, has offered funding stepped up again this year .

The decision of who will showcase the fair is always left to the donor, said Young. The donor simply lets her know who is coming and she gratefully announced it.

According to their biography,  the Marshall Tucker Band, who gots its name from a piano tuner whose name was found on a key ring in their old rehearsal space, got its start in Spartanburg, S.C. In 1972, they signed with Capricorn Records, and opened shows for The Allman Brothers in 1973, and the following year, they began to headline their own shows across the country after the platinum-plus sales of their debut album.

Their hits include singles like “Heard It In a Love Song,” “Fire On The Mountain,” “Can’t You See,” and “Take The Highway.”

Opening acts will be Lyssa Coulter will be on at 2:30 p.m. on the Family Fun Field, followed by Lexi James at 3:30 p.m. Other bands will be playing on the Community Stage on Wednesday, September 12.

In addition, there will be the usual schedule of livestock shows, demolition s derby, Education Day, steer and oxen demonstrations, cattle pulling baking contests, Woodman’s Day, exhibition halls, contests the Smokey’s Greater Show Midway and a host of other activities.

New this year will be a Firemens’ Muster beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday, September 12 at the 4×4 arena. Six person teams will compete in Dry Hose, Wet Hose, Ball Squirt, and events. Hebron Fire Chief Jim Trundy is hosting the event.

Admission prices this year are: Wednesday, Sept. 12:$1 per person; Sept 13: $5 per person, 5 and under free; Sept. 14: $8 per person, 5 and under free; September 15: $10 per person, 5 and under free.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net