Maine State Fair Waves A Fond Farewell To Harness Horse Racing

Written By J.R. Duren on May 31, 2022
Harness Racing Era Coming To A Close At Maine Fairgrounds

It was a beloved tradition, but it’s a tradition no more. Last month, the Northern Maine Fair officials decided to end harness horse racing at the yearly event.

The move comes amid other changes, including reducing the fair from a nine-day to a four-day event. As a result, the fair will flatten out turns one and two of the track at the Presque Isle fairgrounds.

The end of horse racing at the fair brings to a close a tradition steeped in Maine’s horse racing history and countless memories among the families and individuals who attend the fair each year.

Although one venue says goodbye to horse racing there’s a lot to be excited about in Maine when it comes to sports betting. With the legalization of ME sports betting there’ll be an added layer of fan engagement in the Pine Tree State.

horse racing brought together a tight-knit horse community

Mike Cushing, president of the Maine Harness Horsemen Association, spoke with Presque Isle NBC affiliate WAGM about losing one of the state’s beloved traditions.

Cushing said that the fair represented more than just family fun and harness racing; it was a link to Maine’s storied horse racing tradition.

While the fair and the surrounding area offered golfing, fishing and other activities, the horsemen (called drivers) provided the most significant memories for Cushing.

“Horsemen were able to stop and smell the roses for a minute and be friends,” Cushing said. “Not that we are not [friends], but it created a situation where it was naturally going to happen.”

The families who hosted the drivers provided space for connections among riders and fans, Cushing said. “Then you had those generations of families there that played host,” he said.

“They were horsemen and proud of their town and so happy to have us there. They made sure we went to their house at night and had a good time.”

Drivers and fans wax sentimental about fair racing

After news was released of the permanent race cancellation, the Maine harness racing community members offered up their memories of Northern Maine Fair races.

Speaking with WAGM, third-generation horseman, Kim Ireland reminisced about going to races as a kid and checking out the barn with his dad when he was five years old.

Horseman Dirk Duncan may have summed up the fair’s significance best.

“I remember back in the days when I was five or six years old my grandfather would take me to the races,” he said. “It’s been a great history over the years. I understand times change and it is going to be sad to see it go.”

A century of racing history at the Northern Maine Fair

The Northern Maine Fair and horse racing were virtually inseparable for more than a century.

Crowds of 50,000 people would attend the fair to enjoy the food and revelry and, of course, to watch the horses. Perhaps the most notable moment in the fair’s horse history came in the ’20s when a local consortium purchased famous racehorse, John R. Braden, for nearly $5,000 (around $80,000 in today’s money).

In 1949, a fire ravaged the fairgrounds, destroying its massive grandstand seating. The fair bounced back, though, not without skepticism. Organizers put tickets on presale to raise money to rebuild, but the decision as to whether or not the fair continued would depend on the success of said campaign.

In the end the campaign was successful, and the grandstand was re-installed just in time for the next fair.

Photo by Ewa Studio/Shutterstock
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