The operator of a commercial harness racing track at the Cumberland Fairgrounds is looking to open an off-site facility to simulcast and bet on races amid long-term plans to bring the sport back to southern Maine following the closure of Scarborough Downs last year.

Legislation signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills last week will allow First Track Investments to temporarily open a simulcast facility for betting on harness racing while the group looks to build a new track to be used permanently.

“Because our time at Cumberland is temporary, this gives us the ability to host a simulcast facility somewhere else,” said Michael Cianchette, principal of First Track Investments. “It doesn’t have to be at the fairgrounds. It can be somewhere else in Cumberland County as long as the municipality approves.”

Prior to the passage of the legislation, racetracks as well as off-track betting facilities were allowed to offer betting on simulcast races, but tracks had to conduct the betting within the enclosure of the track facilities or in the same location as their slot machines.

Now tracks may operate a separate facility for simulcasting and betting, as long as it is in the same county, is not in the same municipality as an off-track betting site and it receives municipal and state approval. The legislation expires in 2024, at which point Cianchette said his group is hoping to have a new track facility established.

Rep. Ted Kryzak, R-Acton, the sponsor of the legislation, said he submitted it on behalf of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association to help keep racers in Maine during an interim period between the closure of the Downs and the opening of First Track’s permanent site.

“This is about doing what we’ve always done with harness racing and getting it back in Maine,” Kryzak said. “It’s been here forever and people like it. They want it back. They’ve missed Scarborough Downs.”

First Track is reaching out to various municipalities and is looking to likely work with an existing restaurant or entertainment venue where it could add pari-mutuel betting on simulcast races. Pari-mutuel betting is a type of gambling where participants’ bets are placed together in a pool and the payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among the winning bets.

“We’ve kicked off some of those conversations,” Cianchette said. “If the municipality believes for whatever reason this is something that should not occur in the town, then we want to respect that.”

The fairgrounds are not conducive to a year-round food and beverage operation, which is why Cianchette said they are looking for other locations. “Really what we’re looking forward to is … hopefully bringing new fans into the sport to have an exciting time not only participating in this Maine industry but involving food and beverage and music and the other things that can go along with an entertainment facility,” Cianchette said.

During the Legislature’s consideration of the bill, some off-track betting locations – of which there are just six statewide – expressed concern the legislation undermines the process for setting up off-track locations. The law for licensing an off-track betting facility grants other commercial tracks or off-track facilities in the same area the ability to raise objections that would prohibit the state from moving forward on a new license.

Jim Day, president of Winners Circle in Lewiston, and Denise Terry, president of Scarborough Downs, both voiced opposition to earlier versions of the bill that wouldn’t have included the need for municipal approval or the sunset provision in the law that was approved. The two also voiced concerns about a track-owned off-track betting facility, or OTB, paying lower taxes than other OTBs. Neither Day nor Terry responded to messages seeking comment.

Cianchette said his intent is not to undermine other OTB sites. “A lot of those places, they have their customer bases,” he said. “They deliver a very consistent experience and what we’re trying to do is instead of just carve the same pie up a different way, we’re trying to bring something new and make the pie bigger. I really don’t think there’s going to be a lot of overlap.”

In the long term, he said, First Track is looking to construct a commercial track and entertainment venue in either Cumberland County or York County where both racing and simulcast betting would take place. “We hope to be in permitting this fall,” Cianchette said.

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