Scarborough Downs forever

Off-Track wagering rolls on at The Downs Club.

by Melissa Keith

Last November, the Maine State Harness Racing Commission approved the 2021 off-track wagering facility license for Scarborough Downs. After 70 years of operation as a racetrack, the venue would not be reopening to play host to another season of live harness racing. Instead, Crossroads Holdings was transforming the grounds into “The Downs,” a residential development complete with businesses, green space, and on-site recreation. The website for The Downs describes the “live-work-play” vision for the former track, “bringing newfound vitality and life to a well-loved landmark” to “help define the next chapter in Scarborough’s bright future, making this our own community trifecta.” An artist’s depiction of what the transformed property will look like shows Scarborough Downs’ grandstand, clearly positioned as part of the new landscape.

Denise Terry is president of Scarborough Downs. She runs The Downs Club OTB, working seven days a week at the venue that remains a family business.

“I always would call myself ‘vice-president’, because I always think of my mom as the president,” she said, reflecting on the track’s past, but also confirming the permanent continuation of its OTB.

“It is bittersweet for me. I’ve worked here for 34 years. To see it kind of go, on the last day of racing, I never wanted to see that happen. For personal, private reasons within my family, that’s something we had to do, but to be able to stay here and be the OTB and continue is nice, and to see what they’re doing to the property is rewarding as well. They’ve done some nice things here. The roads coming in, they’ve made them beautiful with nice lights and beautiful greenery and plants. The development with the condos and the apartments is going really well. So it’s developing all around, which would be nice for the OTB, because it’s bringing in people who potentially will be customers.”

The grandstand, beside the clubhouse, has been renovated and repurposed by Maine Health as a COVID-19 vaccination site. Terry said it was expected to remain open for at least six months, possibly longer.

“What they have just recently done is they put a million dollars into the grandstand. They’re getting toward the number of 1,500 people a day through the grandstand, getting their vaccines. It’s kind of exciting, because the grandstand got a little facelift. She got some new heat and some new floors, and they did a nice job inside of it.”

The Downs has not yet indicated a specific future function for the grandstand. “I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that they find some purpose and a use for it,” Terry told HRU. “I would hate to see it taken down. I think they also recognize that it was built back in the day, and the structure is a sound structure. It needed a little bit of a facelift. I know it got a new roof when Maine Health came in, and they worked on some of the windows in the front, the ceilings and such. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t tear it down. It would be a shame to see it go. But I don’t know exactly what they have in mind for it, either.”

Scarborough Downs’ president explained that there was never any doubt that the simulcast lounge would remain in business after the final season of pari-mutuel racing. “I plan on being here this year of course for the OTB. I work well with Crossroads Holdings, and they would like to see me stay here. If something were to come up, because things are ever-changing with their project here, and this building that I’m in isn’t available, there would be another place somewhere on this property that I could have an OTB.”

The Downs Club simulcasting is situated inside the clubhouse, which Terry has equipped with extra TV monitors moved from the grandstand. “There’s plenty of seating, and there’s a bar and a concessions stand,” she said, adding that the indoor smoking area was removed to allow for safe physical distancing between OTB tables. “We have some customers who like to come out and place their wagers, but the whole Covid thing is a very scary thing. Some of our customers are older, and they see that we take it seriously, so I think that it makes them a little more comfortable when they come out.” Masks are required for all patrons, and a dedicated cleaner keeps everything sanitized.

She expressed hope that a bill to legalize sports betting would soon be passed in Maine, so that her OTB could include a sportsbook. To explore what that might look like, Terry said she visited The Brook, a Draft Kings sportsbook that opened last August in New Hampshire. Located at the former Seabrook Greyhound Park, which closed when the state eliminated dog racing in 2010, the sportsbook made a positive impression on the racetrack executive, who wanted to ensure that horses stayed front and center.

“When I went in there, I definitely could see the harness racing and the thoroughbred racing. It was present. It wasn’t just over in a corner somewhere,” she told HRU. “Sometimes when you’re looking at a sport like football, they’re betting, but the game’s not for three hours or something. There’s always a track that’s going off, within a couple of minutes. So I think the two go nicely together.”

Last year, it was a struggle to handle Scarborough Downs’ final season of racing during Maine’s first wave of COVID. The OTB could only open on the track’s dark days, to keep attendance within mandated limits. “So we raced, and even though we weren’t open, we held racing for [horsepeople] to have the opportunity to make money for them to take care of their horses,” said Terry. “I would go down and I’d stand at the checkpoint, and check in and try to limit numbers into the paddock, take temperatures, and make sure that everybody was safe.”

“The last day of live racing, that was a tough one, because we could only have so many people here,” she remembered. “We really didn’t advertise. We didn’t want to advertise too heavily, because you didn’t want too many people, because it was right when the virus was ramping up and there were a lot of cases. So we had lines out the doors, because we were trying to stick with our number, so once someone left, we let somebody come in. But it was crazy. It was a crazy busy day, a sad day, but it went off.”

Customers in southern Maine can still depend on Scarborough Downs OTB when it comes to watching and wagering on racing throughout the state (and beyond), although Scarborough itself is no longer a commercial racetrack. “The tax on an OTB is a lot more expensive than when we simulcast as a commercial track,” said Terry. She added that the statewide unavailability of Churchill Downs-affiliated simulcast signals was a matter that she hoped to see resolved in the near future. “That’s been kind of challenging, because our customers don’t understand. The [Kentucky] Derby just draws a whole different crowd. People who never go out to the races will go out on Derby day, so we had them showing up here,” but unable to watch the race at simulcast venues anywhere in Maine.

Some Scarborough Downs employees have continued to work at the OTB.

“I have great staff that have supported me and have been here with me for a long time and will do anything to help. I don’t have a lot of staff now,” said Terry. “When we closed, that was one of the harder things to do. I didn’t have jobs for the racing department and saying goodbye to those people, it was not easy. I think that some of them have been hired over at Cumberland [Fairgrounds], which makes me happy that they were given the opportunity to continue. A lot of the people in this industry love what they do.”

The racetrack executive said she tries to employ as many of her tellers as possible in the OTB, with two of them selling tickets alongside the self-serve machines. “We’re fortunate. Our tellers, they stayed with us, they’re dedicated, and they’re knowledgeable when they punch their tickets. […] When we were live racing, I was able to have the shifts available, so now we’re trying to rotate the shifts to get the shifts to the people who still want some hours, but with a limited schedule.” Terry has special praise for veteran teller Martina Mitchell: “She’s been here probably longer than me. She can bang out tickets like there’s no tomorrow. She’s fantastic.”

First Tracks LLC will be racing at Cumberland Fairgrounds this year and next, as the new commercial racetrack operator prepares to acquire land and build a state of the art harness racing complex in southern Maine. Terry said that she wished them the best of luck, but cautioned that the economics of live racing had ultimately proved overwhelming at Scarborough Downs. “You can cut and you can look at every cost, and it’s just the decline in harness racing itself,” she explained. Her mother, Sharon Terry, had once been able to turn the track’s finances around and see a profit. But over time, competition for gambling dollars was hurting the bottom line, while the cost of hosting races was only escalating: “There’s so much that goes into doing a live sport like that, between racing officials and ambulances and tote systems… It’s just expensive.”

Denise credited her mother with strategic cost-cutting in the best interests of the track. “She would look at ways to make it so it was viable, and at the same time, we had the perfect time when it was doing okay. Penn National had Bangor and Oxford was not yet online for the casino. Once that happened, that pretty much cut into our business here, because even though they’re not racing [at Oxford Casino], it’s another form of gaming and we couldn’t compete with slots. We’re running the part of the gaming industry that’s just harness racing and horses. Customers will come here, but you know, if you give them other opportunities, they’re going to go there as well, splitting up their dollars.”

Today, Sharon Terry is living with Alzheimer’s disease. “She doesn’t like being away from her surroundings, so she has her good days and her bad days,” said Denise. “It’s a really tough, tough disease. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. We needed to take care of her, and that was one of the reasons why we sold [Scarborough Downs] when we sold.” In 2019, Denise led a fundraising team called Terry’s Trotters in the annual Portland Walk to End Alzheimer’s. “My friend and I—she’s actually the bartender here—we sort of put that together and did that,” she said. “When we were finishing up our walk, people who haven’t seen my mom, that had worked for her for years, or [knew her from] the business here or school were able to see her. It was emotional. It was kind of a cool experience to get her out and be able to be with her like that.” COVID made the 2020 walk into a virtual event, so Terry’s Trotters were sidelined, but don’t count them out for future events: “I think I will do it again, I’m just not sure when,” said Denise.

As rules for businesses continue to shift during the pandemic, Denise anticipates more opportunities for The Downs Club. Restrictions on bar hours and capacity, plus limited travel and tourism, have taken their toll on many independent businesses over the past year, but she has stayed pragmatic and optimistic. “I get a license every year, just as everybody gets the license. It wasn’t a temporary license, and I’ve worked well with the Risbaras,” she noted.

Risbara Brothers are the locally-based general contractors developing The Downs; Crossroads Holdings, which acquired the property for the venture, consists of Rocco Risbara, William Risbara, Marc Risbara, Peter Michaud, and Richard Michaud. Denise said she appreciated how they are weaving traces of the harness racing backstory into names and other elements at The Downs. “I think they tried, even within their advertising. They want to keep that history kind of alive through their marketing.”

Denise Terry knows the work it takes to keep an OTB going today. “I am very hands-on. I will go and wait on the customers. I will bartend; I’ll work at the concession stand. I’ll do whatever it takes to make [customers] feel comfortable,” she said. “I’m a seven-day-a-week kind of person. Open it in the morning, close it down at night.” Her 13- and 15-year-old kids have been “very understanding” about their mother’s devotion to Scarborough Downs, and the OTB that carries on its legacy. “They grew up here at the track. I had a [baby] carriage in my office when they were born,” she recalled with a smile. “They know this means a lot to me, and for me to be here.”