CUMBERLAND — Bob Nadeau, 86, of Saco, got into harness racing about half a century ago, spending time with the animals and their owners at the Farmington Fair.

He bought his first horse there – for $100. No one else seemed to care much about Billfold.

“Billfold wasn’t racing. They didn’t treat the horse well,” Nadeau said. When he asked his owners why, “They said, `He’s no good.’ ”

When Nadeau disagreed and told them so, one owner said, `Why don’t you buy him?’

“I said, `I will,’ ” said Nadeau. “I thought it was a joke.”

But two weeks later, Billfold was his.


“He worked out fine,” Nadeau said. “In fact, he was my first win, in 1973 at Skowhegan Fair.”

In the five decades since, Nadeau has owned 30 horses. To this day, he drives his own horses during competition.

Through the years, Nadeau has seen the harnessing racing world change with time. Last Saturday, at the Cumberland Fairgrounds, he and the horse he calls his all-time favorite participated in the Au Revoir Retirement Showcase, a special event for 14-year-old harness racehorses on their way into retirement.

Harness racers compete at the Cumberland Fairgrounds on Saturday. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

“He’s the best one I’ve ever owned,” Nadeau said of the whitish-gray gelding whose formal name is Putnams Storm but who is known to everyone at the races as Putty.

Harness racehorses typically retire at 14, and Putty and the other horses his age were paraded to applause at the Winter Festival Meet.

Nadeau says he and Putty aren’t disappearing from harness racing. They’re semi-retiring and will do a bit of racing next year, as long as Putty manages well.


As he spoke about Putty, the curious, sweet-natured horse stepped forward and affectionately nuzzled visitors.

“He won’t bite. He loves people,”  Nadeau said. “He’s the best mannered.”

Harness racing in Maine is a different scene than it was when Nadeau first got involved as a much younger man.

A few people watch a race at the Cumberland Fairgrounds on Saturday. The crowds used to be much bigger, says Bob Nadeau, 86. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

It used to be far more popular.

Nadeau used to own horse barns and acres of land in Auburn and in East Poland. He remembers racing at the Lewiston Raceway when both the parking lot and the stands were full. “People don’t go live anymore,” he said Saturday.

When he and Putty raced on Friday, he said, “you could count (the fans) on your hand.”


Lewiston Raceway closed in 1989. Scarborough Downs held its last live harness racing in November 2020 and the track was sold to developers.

Today simulcasts of harness racing can be seen at off-track betting facilities throughout Maine, including Lewiston, Sanford, Bangor and Waterville. Live harness racing still occurs at the Bangor Raceway, at Maine’s agricultural fairs and in Cumberland.

In 2021, after Scarborough Downs closed, Michael Cianchette, who grew up in Cumberland, announced he was starting a harness racing company at the Cumberland Fairgrounds track. His First Tracks Cumberland offers scheduled racing dates, including the Winter Festival Meet held from Nov. 5-Dec. 24.

A rider checks the schedule during harness racing at the Cumberland Fairgrounds on Saturday. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

On Saturday, the stables were filled with dozens of horses and their teams.

A concrete salesman since 1973, Nadeau still works part time. He says he never raced for the money, it was all about his love of the sport and of horses.

When he first started watching harness racing in the late ’60s, he worked for a loan company. A client who owned racehorses invited Nadeau to watch some harness racing at the Farmington Fairgrounds. Nadeau loved it. Before long, he got into a cart and drove a racehorse on the track. He found it thrilling.


“It’s something that gets into your blood,” he said.

The relationship between racehorses and humans “is what gets you hooked,” Nadeau said. “For the most part, horses are almost like human. Of course, they can’t talk.” But the bond, the love he’s felt from them “is what keeps you going,” he said.

He’s had strong bonds with other horses, he said, but Putty is exceptionally affectionate.

There may be fewer places to watch harness racing these days, but the racing is faster than it used to be, Nadeau said, because of how horses are bred. “The speed is unbelievable.”

Putty, by the way, seems to be in no rush to call it quits.

Very speedy when he was young, he comes from a fast line of horses in New Brunswick. Last Friday, he won $7,000 in the Frost Final, his 40th career win. Putty’s lifetime earnings top $200,000, Chris Tully of First Tracks Cumberland said in a statement.


“He loves to race,” Nadeau said of Putty. But he wants to protect his aging horse. So whenever he sees the first signs of struggle, “I’ll retire him,” he said. Then Putty, who Nadeau estimates has another 10 or 15 more good years in him, will become a riding horse.

“He’ll make a good saddle horse,” Nadeau said. “He loves people and loves attention. He deserves to live a good life.”

Harness racing at the Cumberland Fairgrounds on Saturday. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

Mary Paige Kowalski, of Greene, is part of Putty’s retirement plan.

The equestrian director of Camp Kippewa, a girls summer camp in Monmouth, brought three campers with her Saturday to watch Putty and Nadeau be honored in the retirement showcase.

Kowalski is hoping Putty will one day join the camp’s “Track to Treasure” program, in which racehorses become riding horses.

“We bring the kids to the racetrack every summer,” she said, and she and her campers have gotten to know horse people, including Nadeau.

When Putty wins races, Nadeau invites Kowalski and her campers to pose in the winner’s circle.

Nadeau, Kowalski says, is an amazing horseman, not only for his age and longevity. He does all the work, feeding, bathing, grooming, even shoeing. Most owners don’t do it all, she said.

Putty is Nadeau’s pride and joy, she said: “All his love for that horse is unbelievable.”

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