Harness Racing History

Superintendent:  Ken Ronco    Assistant Superintendent: Kim Pike 

Because the horse was the principal means of transportation, the pride and competitive spirit of horse owners naturally developed into speed contests and shows which led to scheduled events. So when the original organizers of the Society held its first meeting at a fixed location, they had a trotting course which they voted to enlarge to one half-mile on November 20, 1858. In 1864 W. W. Abbott of Fryeburg wanted to solicit funds for enlarging and improving the track and actually raised $75.00, but in 1865 the committee decided to leave the track as it was due to the indebtedness of the Society.

In 1871 another committee was chosen to consider improvements to the course, and it was voted that a one-third mile track be made and fenced by June of 1872. It is doubtful that they did enlarge it, however, because it appears that in 1881 the Society had a one-quarter mile track where the H. C. Baxter Corn Company packing plant was later located.

Information is scarce in the minutes of the meetings about racing until in 1885 it was voted to move to a new larger area for the permanent location. At that time it was stated that there was a track at the first fairgrounds, but the length of it is somewhat unclear. We do know that giant oxen pulled stone rollers to smooth the first racetracks. The new track at what is now the present location is one-half mile long.

In 1860 the listed prize for the best "trotting stallion" was $6.00. In 1872 the best "trotting horse" was to be awarded $50.00. It is not stated whether that was for show or for competition, but it seems that it must have been for competition. The best mile listed was 3.08 minutes.     

Today's class of horse has improved greatly, thanks to selective breeding, improved equipment, better feed, conditions, care and training.

" I remember that in starting them, the 'old boys' would get them all lined up, and somebody would get too far ahead or too far behind, and they'd have to all turn around and come back and start all over again. That was kind of a slow process, but it worked. It was called scoring." - (Phil Andrews)

"Then along in the afternoon after the races got started, between races they had high wire acts and little small acts upon the stage out there, and that would go on until the next race was ready. They didn't have microphones or anything back then, and when the horses started up through, the guy with the megaphone would holler 'Go!' If the outside horses got much ahead of the pole horse, the starter would clang a bell, and they would have to turn around and bring them back. And then at the end of the race every day a Model T Ford and a little baby Austin would have the last race, and the Model T would usually beat him. When he'd come around that last turn the whole rear end would slide and the dirt would flyand you could have a good time!" - (Fred Knox)

"We always have had, and do have, a good track here. My father always said it was too bad it was only used a few weeks out of the year. I always think of Arthur Magee who had the starting gate here for years and years and years and also was very knowledgeable on tracks and how to maintain them. And of course I always think of my father because he was involved in so many aspects of the Fair but always enjoyed the racing and promoted it a lot. The grandstand is dedicated to him. He would be so pleased to see how the Fair has grown. We always had a great bunch of people to work with from all walks of life, which I think makes it even better because we get such a wide perspective, wide overview, of the Fair." - (George Weston)

Since moving to the permanent location there have been many changes and improvements. In 1958 it was voted to build an underpass 60' long with steel reinforced cement walls 8' wide and ceilings 7' high. This was to eliminate foot traffic across the racetrack between races. In 1970 it was voted to negotiate with Henry McIntyre for construction of the underpass to eliminate autos crossing the track at the Lovell entrance.

The racing grandstand was built in 1894. In 1968 it was set back from the track its depth, and the track was rebuilt where necessary. It doubled in size in 1982 when the pari-mutuel windows were recessed into the structure at that time. Five years later a 6-window complex was built in the infield. A special feature is its concrete roof which can be turned into an observation deck at some point. The judges stand, the oldest building still standing on the grounds, sits across from it.

While the dates are uncertain, it is said that the first paddock was near where the tunnel entrance is now located at the Lovell Gate. It was next moved to the area below the grandstand in the vicinity where the park and picnic tables are now. Phil Andrews said the paddock in that location was destroyed by fire, and rebuilt at the present location and gradually enlarged to hold ten races in the two barns.

"I always used to comment when I raced here. The paddocks were all just dirt floors, and the horses stand there and get all keyed up before the race, and they paw. And you know they'd paw a hole way down in that soft dirt, and then it'd be filled in with loose dirt or sawdust. It was ridiculous." - (Bill Haynes, Sr.)

In the late 1980s this paddock was upgraded by cementing the entire floor and stall area while sloping the stalls to the rear. Near the wall an area was left open to dirt so that the horses could be washed in their own race stalls without being taken outside. New tie chains and snaps were installed and the barns labeled odd and even. "We tried putting chains and snaps up there, and they stole them all," said Roy Andrews (according to Bill Haynes, Sr.) "I said, 'You put them like I tell you, and they won't steal them!' And I don't think they ever have stolen a one of them." (Bill Haynes, Sr.)

The week-long holding barns for horses which were moved onto the grounds for the length of the Fair were upgraded from shed rows to new barns. The first, a 24 stall double wide barn all enclosed, was built in 1987 at a cost of $36,000 and was located across the street from the #2 paddock barn. Across from the #1 paddock there was a one-sided shed row that was moved there from up on the grounds. In 1995 that shed row was replaced with a new 2-sided barn with stalls backed up to each other and opening to the outside, at a cost of $78,000. This barn proved more serviceable than the enclosed one as horses can get out anywhere without hindering others. In 1999 a second barn was built behind this last one and was an exact duplicate at a cost of $85,000. Each of the last two barns have 22 stalls on a side, making 88 stalls in the two barns with a total of 112 stalls. In 1998 an addition was added to paddock barn #2 to handle horses which have been given Lasix by the state veterinarian to help with their breathing.

A most appreciated improvement by horsemen in 1997 was the elimination of the plank hub rail on the inside of the racetrack. It was replaced by pylon flexible posts that will bend over if a horse is forced out over them in a race. The horse is penalized for leaving the race course, but there is no accident, and this is a big safety feature.

"They were a little hesitant to take it down because they'd put in a new hub rail not too many years before, but I told them that wasn't the idea. It was a safety feature and they did take it down and use the planks somewhere else to build a fence I think." (Bill Haynes, Sr.) In 1998 stone dust was added to the racetrack. It was a huge success and has furthered the efforts to make an all weather track. This same year there were three days of heavy rain with the most severe storm on Saturday, and the racing was held with very little difficulty, and the horsemen were pleased with the track conditions. The amount of money bet was down because of the weather and attendance, but was respectable considering the conditions.

The Fair is sensitive to a lot of positive changes. "This Fair is progressive. They are prosperous, and they do a wonderful job. There is no question about it." (Bill Haynes, Sr.)Paul Lusky is the present director of racing, and he does an outstanding job. He has been awarded Race Director of the Year, and Fryeburg Fair was the first to receive the Blue Ribbon Award from the United States Trotting Association. Fairs are only eligible to win this award once, so being first carries some extra significance.

Lusky joined the racing department nearly 20 years ago replacing Wilbur Hammond Jr. (Hammy) as assistant when Hammy stepped into the director's position vacated by Stan Fitts. When Hammond relocated to the West Coast about 10 years later, Lusky became director. Lusky says,"To me Fryeburg Fair was on the same level as my birthday and Christmas, so that indicates my feeling I've had for the Fair." (Paul Lusky)

"Bringing our own meals would be like a Thanksgiving dinner. The whole family went, and I mean you had roast chicken and stuffing and made sandwiches right out of the trunk of the old 40-something Chevrolet. We'd spend all day at the fairgrounds, my father at pulling, and me and my two brothers doing the midway. You know, it was just non-stop. We were off the farm, and days off were special!"  Lusky continued, "The racing department is one of the major departments of the Fair, and a revenue producing department as well as entertainment. When I started in with Hammy and come forward to this time, I think back. We made some huge changes in the physical plant, how we operate, and the amount of money we handle. The total department has kept pace with the rest of the Fair, and actually kept pace more than the racing within the rest of the State.

"When I first started with Hammy at Fryeburg fair, they didn't race every day. If it rained, they might not race. We didn't handle $100,000 a day, had never handled $100,000 a day. The first day we handled $100,000, we thought we were doing tremendously. We were still good as far as other fairs went, but we certainly weren't outstanding. I'm sure those other fairs were doing better than we were. Today Fryeburg Fair is head and shoulders above any other track in the State of Maine. Part of that is because we have progressed, and the industry has regressed."

Asked if this is the case all over the country, he said, "Yes. This is why we have done better at Fryeburg Fair to hold our own within this reversal, and actually increase our handles when everybody around us is falling back."

Why is this? "Several reasons. Harness racing started back in the 1800s when horses were the mode of transportation. Now there are automobiles. Automobile racing, car racing, is a huge sport. You have to visualize that harness racing in the 1880s and 1900s was drawing the people that stock car racing does now. The big population of people who lived on farms and made their living off from farms and associated with horses was vastly greater than it is now.

"Part of the enjoyment of harness racing is the gambling part, but also part of it is the enjoyment of the animal and a certain amount of formality, ritual, custom, in running the races. It's not all race. It's about 20 minutes between races, and the race lasts about 2 minutes, so you've got about 18 minutes of time that is occupied doing something else. It's a slower life. Although there is still a strong interest in horses, it is not to the same degree that it used to be.

"And the other thing is, in our computer age, we have conditioned the younger generation to what I call "instant gratification. As I said, there are about 18 minutes between a race, and they want action a good deal faster than that. I don't think the action is fast enough for them." Then also there is a greater competition for the gamblers' dollars with all the State lotteries, the casinos, the slot machines at race tracks, poker games, high stakes bingo, etc.

Horse racing with pari-mutuel betting has been one of the principal features of agricultural fairs in the State of Maine since 1935. Fryeburg Fair, being held annually in the first week in October, is fortunate in getting many of the better horses in New England because of lack of competition from other tracks at this time of year. It is noteworthy to acknowledge that the money handle at Fryeburg Fair surpasses the per-race handle anywhere in the state. The total bet was over a million dollars for the week in 1992 through 1994. Some years Fryeburg Fair handles close to 10% of the entire live handle for the year in the state in just 6 days with a total of 60 races.

Regarding betting, Lusky said, "The basic bet, which is a two-dollar bet, hasn't changed in my time, and it probably goes back even further than that. It is not reflective of inflation. I mean a two-dollar bet today compared to say 40 years ago ¬ you are not even beginning to talk the same thing. Naturally you are not limited to betting two dollars, but the basic bet and return on it for the amount of time (if you wish to bet $2.00 on an odds-on favorite horse), you might get back $2.40 or $2.60. So, you'd better be getting enjoyment other than what you are receiving for your money. You've got to be getting your entertainment enjoyment, which, as I alluded to earlier, is a love of the animal, a love of the sport, everything that goes along with its ¬ pageantry if you would, the ambiance, friendship. It is a lot more than just making money. If you want to make money, you can put your quarter in a slot machine and have instant gratification."

"A commercial racetrack has basically one source of revenue, and that is the revenue from the pari-mutuel wagering, and their cut from that wagering. The Fair gets its revenue from many different sources. Racing is getting to be just a minor part of it. It used to be about the third: there was always the midway, then ticket sales, and there was racing. Well, guess what: campers have pulled in, and now racing is fourth, I guess, as far as amount of income it brings in."

Over the entire week, how many horses do you need? "If we were to have an ideal situation," said Lusky, "running 60 races in a week, 8 horses for each race, 10 races a day for six days, we would need 480 horses. Now, because the Fair runs for six days, some horses that race on the first day may come back and race again.

"It used to be the rule of thumb that your horse only raced one day a week, because there were enough animals out there that they couldn't get back in. Once they've raced, they go on what they call "preference days". If one horse hasn't raced for five days and another one hasn't raced for four days, the one that hasn't.

Where do the horses come from? "They come from the Maritime Provinces in Canada, New Brunswick in particular, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. They come from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York State, and there will be a certain amount of ownership that goes further away. Of course with our stabling facility, we are able to move some in. The ones that come down from Montreal are coming in just for us. It would be impossible to operate without our stabling system, and each year it becomes more and more imperative that we are able to get facilities for these people who want to come."

Lusky has become a racing leader in the State of Maine, representing the Fair, particularly as far as dealing with the Maine Harness Racing Commission. He said that if you do anything long enough that you'll become better qualified. We asked if he could give advice to other fairs. He said, "I try to be careful. Fryeburg Fair is not similar to other fairs. Other fairs have problems that we can only guess about. There are many ways we can help the other fairs without giving them advice. I can point to historical fact within legislation (how-did-we-get-here-from-there type of thing), and have had the privilege of learning from people who were experts and very knowledgeable in their day. Over a 20-year period, a lot rubs off on you. I try to use very strong business practices. The racing industry historically has been the most loosely managed industry that you can imagine. I think Fryeburg Fair has been on the forefront with commonly accepted business practices."

Another thing that has helped is his position at Saunders Brothers where safety is a prime concern. "You get used to looking at everything you do from a safety aspect. Infield fencing, fencing on the track, control of the crowd ¬ a lot of this has been done just from a safety aspect, and I think we've come a long way. But I don't feel that I am any different than other department heads here. I am rubbing shoulders with lawyers, doctors, veterinarians, certified public accountants. People from all walks of life have very responsible jobs here."

With the facilities that have been developed here for the racing, does he see the potential of an expanded role? Will there not have to be an effort between educating the public to go to the races and also encouraging a certain amount of horses? Lusky explained, "Racing in the State of Maine is a two-tiered system. There is racing in what is called an 'extended meet'. I use Scarborough Downs and the Bangor Raceway as examples. They are not associated with an on-going fair. I look at the fairs as being the part of racing that gives it exposure to the multitudes. People come by here who have never seen racing, and when they get exposed to it and interested in it, they are going to go to see it at the fairs. The extended meets are pretty much planned for somebody who has already been exposed to it or is interested in gambling, or is a horse owner, etc., and they are going to go to extended meets.

"Naturally the fairs don't have any control over what the extended meets do, and they can't make a huge impact by themselves. It has to be a joint impact between fairs and extended meets, and today this is part of the problem. There is not a good working relationship at the present."

"I wish Hammy was here because he was the guy with all the charisma, and he always had a story." - (Paul Lusky)

After the size of the grandstand was doubled and the betting facilities improved, Hammond went to considerable effort to get other fairs interested enough to make it attractive to a computerized betting company to move to the area with betting machines and a tote board. This was accomplished in 1986 with a signed contract, and since then all betting facilities after a trial period have changed to computerized betting.

"I look at racing," said Lusky, "and I think the Fair does also, as a source of income, but it's also a source of entertainment. We pay dearly for night shows as far as entertainment, and if we can entertain these people and keep our expenses to a minimum, this is why racing is going to go on at the fairs. So even though I am giving you some negative aspects on racing, it's still doing what it's supposed to be doing. It's playing to a good crowd and playing for the majority of the people there. It still serves a very, very valuable function for the Fair as entertainment."

"I can think of one story I might mention that happened at the races many years ago to a long forgotten announcer whose name I won't mention. There was this young lady, a local Fryeburg resident, and she was walking across from underneath the grandstand to go back over to the infield. She had, as I remember it, a tray in one hand with some hamburgers and hotdogs, and what looked like a milkshake in the other hand. She started to walk across the track, and the only problem was, well, probably we'd have noticed it anyway, but she had rather a tight pair of pants on. In fact, they were real tight. So, she got one leg up over the hub rail to step over it, and this well-known announcer, whose name I don't remember, made a ripping noise over the mike. Of course there was a whole grandstand full of people. Well, she fell down, dropped the hamburgers, and caught the milkshake on the way down. She got over the hub rail and didn't rip her pants, but she was very embarrassed. The grandstand really liked it. That was a true story." (George Weston)

Fryeburg Fair was selected as a "Blue Ribbon Fair" by the readers of Hoof Beats Magazine in 1996. In November, Fred Noe, executive vice president of the United States Trotting Association, wrote a column asking readers to nominate the fairs with the best harness racing programs. We received an overwhelming response, and out of 80 fairs nominated, the Fryeburg Fair was one of the three most supported fairs from readers of Hoof Beats.

Racing announcer Ernie Cobb has been around the fairgrounds since 1941. He originally was with the sound company, eventually buying it and then selling it to his nephew. He used to fill in as announcer for the Hell Drivers show, and one thing led to anotherand he started announcing the races in 1961.

Cobbie has earned a lot of respect for his abilities. Ted Raymond, Trustee, called him "one of the most amazing personalities we have," he said, "You watch him operate! He'll look at 8 horses, or 9 or 10 horses in a race, read that program down once to himself, and then he'll announce the race with all the horses and the names and never look at the program again. Most amazing person!"

Cobbie has many interesting stories to tell. When asked what is different at the Fryeburg Fair compared to 1941, he said, "You got a week?!" After mentioning all the improvements in the racing department, he added, "Used to be we could only go with eight races, and there were 22-23 minutes between each race. Nowadays we go with ten and there's only 15 minutes between races, and they handle three, four, maybe five times as much money as they ever did."

When Cobbie first announced the races, he did it from the judges stand. "It was circular, and it used to comprise six of us, three judges, the Program Director, the Charter, and myself. The Program Director and the Charter would walk behind the three judges as the horses went around. We would go around that cubicle two times. When they started, we would go right around. And I'd have to be behind them all. I was the low man on the totem pole, so I was always looking over somebody's shoulder.

"The presiding judge was boss, and if you grew up in this business, the presiding judge was God. Anything that he said, you did. Management had views in other areas. They were boss, too, and they paid the bills, but most of us that worked in this end of the business, all of us that worked in this end of the business (paid attention to the presiding judge).

"Of course in those days we didn't have the brilliant colors that you see on the horses and riders today. The guys, all they wore was a colored hat and a shirt of any description, and a slicker if it was raining. No saddle pads. And it was pretty difficult to stand, much more difficult to stand 20 feet lower in height and see the horses. When he is coming straight at you, all you can see is the head and the butt going up and down. Pretty hard to identify. But we did it. Up here you get such a nice view and such a slant on the horse that it is much easier." "Back in the early '50s, late '40s, used to be a teachers convention throughout the state part of the week. Kids everywhere were out of school. They used to flock in here by the busload. I always felt that that made this place get its real start. The children grew up loving it, and they became adults and brought their children." (Ernest O. Cobb III)