It's a perfect August afternoon - clear blue sky and just a touch of breeze - and the Union Fair, due west of Camden and the home of the Maine Blueberry Festival, is in full swing. It's almost time for the first race to start, so I find my way over to the enclosed wooden grandstands hard against the oval track. Generations of harness-racing fans have worn these benches smooth over the ages. Attendance is light on this afternoon. The demographics of racing may be changing, but not here. Not today.Around me I see mostly white hair and balding pates. These seniors balance slices of blueberry pie and Styrofoam cups of coffee as they select seats and visit with their neighbors. There are a few slick-looking guys sitting here and there, sporting dark shades and nylon jackets. (I suppose if you are a gambler living in Union, Maine, this is the year's big event.) A grandmother and her grown granddaughter study a program together, and you have to wonder - have they been doing this since she was a girl? Did granny teach her how to pick her horses? Are they still sharing tips? Do they have any for me?
Actually, I have been given a tip by a friend of a friend I met over in the paddock and am anxious to place my bet. ("Pretty much a sure thing," I've been told. "There won't be much money, but you'll get to experience a win.") I make my way to the window of a caged booth and actually feel a small thrill when my ticket is handed back to me.Com
e on, Fun Factor. Baby needs a new pair of shoes.
The race is two laps around the half-mile oval. Things start off fairly low-key as the pace car - an ancient, rehabbed white Caddy - folds in its arms and the horses are off. At first, the tinny voice of the announcer over the loudspeaker is conversational, almost bored-sounding.
But as the horses begin to pick up the pace, that voice comes to life. He reports as horses gain and lose ground.
As they get deeper into the second lap, you can almost feel a change in the air - a charge. Attention in the stands sharpens.
Now the horses are coming around the bend and into the stretch. I clutch my ticket. Fun Factor has a healthy lead. Something in my brain clicks. "I might win. I might win this race!" My heart is beating faster. Now I'm on my feet. We're all on our feet. And it's Fun Factor still in the lead. Fun Factor takes the race!
Sure enough, what with my princely two-dollar bet and almost even odds, I collect little more than chump change at the window. But as I do, I notice my hands are trembling.
The Union Fair is about as old-timey a Maine agricultural fair as you're likely to find. The Blueberry Queen is crowned, the pigs scramble, and various pulls (tractor, horse, oxen) are pulled. The air is redolent with the smell of fried food, animal dung, and New England boiled dinner (the day's special at the fairground's restaurant). Children squeal as they pile onto rides, and families file through the various exhibition halls, examining the handiwork of local cooks, crafters, and aspiring artists.
And, as is the case with any ag fair, the real stars of the show are the animals. Visitors are encouraged to wander through the stalls and fraternize with the assorted livestock - cows, chickens, sheep, rabbits, goats, llamas, and draft horses - but there is one place that is off-limits to all but a select few: the racing paddocks.
I am here to meet Don and Linda Marean, owners of Lindon Horse Farm in Hollis, for a behind-the-scenes look at harness racing. But first, I get a bit of a shakedown from one of the officials who notes my aimless wandering. Visitors are not allowed in the paddocks, he says. After I explain myself, he rights my course to the Mareans' stall. Their horse, Ariel, is slated for the third race, and I assume there is much ado that leads up to that moment, that owners and riders would be edgy, or a least in game mode, and I make it clear I want to stay out of their way. Instead, there is a surprising air of calm. In fact, Linda seems more intent on her chance to roam freely about the fairgrounds without the worries of impending horse care.
Don Marean, a short, wiry man with close-cropped gray hair and cornflower-blue eyes, squires me around the paddock grounds, which resemble a sort of al fresco locker room with stalls and horses. Jockeys push their sulkies like backwards rickshaws, owners quietly discuss racing politics in small groups, and trainers silently groom their charges. Bits and other tack hang in the stalls. Racing colors are displayed like lobster pots on fishing boats.
Don begins introducing me to various players in his harness-racing world, starting with Irv Mauran, who owns, trains, grooms, and drives his own horse, Landmark Precious, and has been coming here from New York to race for nearly twenty-three years. He says he is something of a dying breed, that we are coming into an age of specialization with catch riders who work like a "designated hitter or hired gun." He says that not all trainers want to be drivers. He looks out across the track. "I get nervous when I'm not racing."
I next meet Marean's trainer and rider, Freeman Parker, age sixty-seven. A Cornish native, Parker looks straight out of central casting for the movie Seabiscuit. Craggy faced, slicked-back hair, sporting a plaid shirt with sawdust on his shoulder, Parker is not long on conversation, but he tells me he has been driving for forty-five years. He mentions as an afterthought that he has won four thousand races, as though this were not noteworthy.
Parker has seen the ups and downs of the industry but feels it's on an upward swing, due, in large part, to the income generated from the new slot machines at Hollywood Slots in Bangor, some of which goes to propping up the harness racing industry. Before, when the purses were so small, he says, there wasn't anything to come out for and lots of people dropped out. "But now they're coming back. Young people, too." He sees that as a positive for the future of harness racing in Maine.
And how long will he stick it out? "Drivers like me don't retire too often," he says, as he starts to pull on his silks and don his giant aviator sunglasses. "You just keep going till you can't."
You get bitten by this bug for horses, and you're doomed," Marean explains. His "doomed" lifestyle amounts, by his account, to all horses, all the time. As if to re-inforce that idea, he even concludes his directions to Lindon Farm, which is located twenty-five miles or so due west of Portland in Hollis, with a simple directive: "You see the horses, you're here."
On the drive out, I take my time, wending along Route 25. This area is familiar to me. My mother is a Gorham girl. She grew up on a farm that now houses faculty offices for the University of Southern Maine. Bailey Hall claims the turf where my grandfather's apple orchards stood. The fields and woods where my mother once rode her ponies, Cossack and Dolly, are largely gone. Houses, traffic, businesses have sprouted up instead.
The rural Gorham I remember as a girl visiting my grandparents in the sixties and early seventies is also gone, as is the one from when I attended USM in the early eighties and started teaching there in the early nineties. This once agrarian landscape has largely and forever been altered - some would say by progress and economic development. Others call it sprawl.
So, it is refreshing after pushing just a little farther west to Hollis, to turn onto Bonney Eagle Road and feel the pace relax. I crank down the windows and let the wind rush through the car. A quick bend and turn in the road, and there are the woods-fringed rolling hills and bright-red metal roofs of Marean's Lindon Farm and, as promised, his horses.
As I get out of the car, the sweet scent of hay fills the air. Marean bounds out of his gray shake-shingle farmhouse to greet me and to spread the gospel of Maine harness racing. Don is a true booster. He and Linda got involved in 1984, when they bought their first horse, the champion Armbro Blaze (who is currently enjoying a cushy retirement at age twenty-seven at Lindon Farm), and that was all it took. They were hooked.
Marean's involvement went beyond the horses themselves, however. He was president of the Maine Breeders Association from 1994 to 1998, sat on the board of directors of the Maine Harness Horseman's Association, and served on the governor's task force to study problems confronting harness racing. Currently a state representative for Hollis and part of Buxton, he is not shy about promoting his agenda - and that is to preserve and protect harness racing in the state.
He is quick to make the link between agriculture and harness racing and to talk about how horse farms are one of the last safeguards against development, especially in southern Maine. Even back in 1988, when he and Linda were looking to buy a farm in their town of Standish, a once-rural burg just north of Hollis, he says there was but one working farm left. With the town's relative proximity to Portland, the rest had all been sold off to be developed.
Lindon Farm, too, had been approved as a subdivision when the Mareans bought it. "The pressure from development is too great," he says. The farm across the street from them has been subdivided into four or five ridiculous-looking homes plunked down in the middle of a hay field out behind the original farmhouse. Had it not been for the Mareans being bitten by the horse bug, their land, which remains preserved as fields, paddocks, and horses, might now be paved drives and landscaped lawns.
Marean starts with some of the basics of harness racing. The sport has been around in the state for 150 years, he explains, and is the only type of horse racing we currently do in Maine. Drivers are pulled in lightweight sulkies, as opposed to jockeys riding horses on cinch saddles. Only registered Standardbreds may harness race. The breed dates back over two hundred years and is descended from an English Thoroughbred, Messenger, who arrived in the United States in 1788, and his great-grandson, Hambletonian. Every harness horse's lineage can be traced back to these ancestors. The name Standardbred comes from the trials and "standards" for a mile, the distance of a harness race.
In harness racing, there are two further distinctions. The horse is either a "trotter" or a "pacer," determined by its gait. A trotter moves opposite front and rear legs forward at the same time. A pacer moves the same side legs - right front and right rear, left front and left rear - forward at the same time. The pacers are generally faster, he explains, but the trotters fetch more money.
A good number of trotters are sold to European countries, such as France and Norway, where only trotters are raced.
Selling over state lines has long helped keep Maine horse farmers afloat. Plus, if you were a Maine horse owner following the money, you also raced and bred your more pedigreed horses out of state. This meant the pool of competitive horse stock in Maine dwindled over the years. Purses were low, races were lackluster, and attendance at tracks flagged. Harness racing, it seemed, was going the way of the buggy whip.
In the early 1970s, the state stepped in and established the Maine Sire Stakes, a program that attempted to provide incentives to keep an ample supply of Maine bred and owned Standardbreds on the state's racetracks. To qualify, a horse must be sired by a registered Maine stallion, who breeds in Maine for one full breeding season. Two-year-old colts and fillies compete in eight races per season; the three-year-olds, twelve races. The program proved popular among owners and breeders, who enjoyed the close-knit community and camaraderie of these races, but the future of racing remained iffy.
Then, in 2003, a significant change took place. Maine voters passed a referendum to allow the use of slot machines at the state's two commercial tracks - Bangor and Scarborough Downs - subject to local approval, which only Bangor has been able to gain. By law, part of the income from slot machines is dedicated to improving the purses in harness racing.
The advent of slots, according to Marean, changed everything. "Purses used to be seven hundred thousand dollars to eight hundred thousand dollars per year," he says. "That number has doubled. Before that, it was almost impossible to break even. Now you can even make some money."
He acknowledges the slots aren't without their detractors or controversy, but he is unwavering in his support. "Let's get rid of the Maine State Lottery," he argues. He talks about the people lined up at his local store every Wednesday and Saturday to - as he sees it - throw their money away on lottery tickets. He talks about the buses shuttling back and forth to Foxwoods from Maine and how it might be nice to keep that money in the state.
"Everyone wants to be a winner," he says. "But somebody has to pay." He does admit that in 2003 he voted against the proposed Penobscot and Passamaquoddy casino in southern Maine but voted for the slots. "Is that self-serving?" he asks. "Perhaps. But at least with horse racing, you have an eight-to-one chance. There's an 89-percent payback rate. People are going to gamble. Nothing's for nothing." Especially in an expensive industry like horse racing.
Marean invites me to take a tour of his farm to assess his investment. "It's a huge commitment," he explains, as we poke through the mucky paddocks. The horses languidly clop over in the summer heat to snuff and nuzzle. The planks of the fencing are seriously gnawed, like a schoolboy's pencil. (Horses like to teethe.) With 330 foals under his belt, Marean knows about the commitment. He estimates it takes an $8,500 minimum investment to raise a yearling to two-and-a-half years - the age at which it will be ready to race - and all those costs are always going up. He gestured to a huge eight-hundred-pound roll of hay. "See that?" he says. "That will be gone in two days."
Marean spends $20,000 per year in hay and $24,000 to $28,000 in grain. With that kind of money involved, he says, you need to know that a horse at least has the potential to be a winner. Yet only roughly 25 percent of registered Standardbreds will ever make it. It's clear that not all the gambling involved in horse racing takes place at the betting window.
Money aside, there's also the time commitment. Marean says his average day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. There's feeding, turning the horses out, and cleaning the stalls, and that's just for starters. He and Linda do all the grooming, shoeing, and foaling. There are
TV cameras in the foaling stalls. They count heads morning, noon, and night. And, with the Sire Stakes program, they are required to race at every track on the circuit (nine agricultural fairs, as well as Bangor and Scarborough Downs), so there's all that time on the road.
Even when a horse is done racing, the commitment can continue. "The thing about horses," Marean says, giving Blaze an affectionate scratch, "is that they don't grow up and leave like kids do" - meaning he's sort of saddled with his elderly champ. And, yet, by the look of man and horse, neither of them would have it any other way.
Marean says that he and Linda occasionally look at each other and say, "Can you believe we're doing this?" And while they are planning to start scaling back, their hearts are still with the horses. He says the life may be demanding but adds, "When I see the babies out playing in the field, that's why we do it."
And, of course, for the thrill of watching those babies grow up and race.
That's why I ventured to the Union Fair and placed my measly two-dollar bet and watched my horse come across the finish line first. This winning thing is fun. I could get used to this. Have I been bitten by the racing bug?
I needn't worry. I only stay through a few races but don't even come close again. And although she lagged in the third race, that didn't stop me from cheering on my girl - the Marean's own Ariel. I wanted to hit someone on the back and say, "I know her! I know that horse."
So, is the presence of slots in Maine a fair trade-off for the health of the harness racing industry? Some - those opposed to racinos and casinos - are still hedging their bets. But others, those engaged in the sport, will most likely tell you supporting and protecting this segment of Maine's heritage and, perhaps, along with it, part of its rural landscape, is a sure thing.