California-based Chris Schick, Ben Kenney team up with Maine’s Cianchette family
story by Kathy Parker
How do you preserve harness racing in any locale?
Maybe the guys to call are Chris Schick and Ben Kenney.
Schick, a native of Kingston, N.Y., and Kenney, whose pedigree includes Charles Kenney, a farm manager at Stoner Creek Stud during some of the Kentucky nursery’s glory years, have kept harness racing alive at Cal Expo in Sacramento, Calif. Now they’ve headed back to their East Coast roots and assisted with the creation of a 56-date meet at the Cumberland fairgrounds in Maine.
Scarborough Downs gave harness racing a presence in the Portland, Maine, area for 70 years, but on Nov. 28, 2020—after years of uncertainty about its future—the track was closed. It was located about eight miles south of downtown Portland. The Cumberland fairgrounds, which has been the site of an annual fair since 1868, is a 20- to 30-minute drive north of the state’s largest city.
Schick and Kenney’s management of Cal Expo, under the banner of their Golden Bear Racing LLC company, educated them about the horse racing wagering marketplace. As managers of a California track, they always had a strategic niche because of being in the Pacific time zone. But Schick was always studying the national wagering scene, which prompted him to suggest that the USTA create what became its Strategic Wagering Program.
Schick’s role promoting and managing the Strategic Wagering initiative and his trips to Columbus, Ohio, for annual USTA meetings also put him in contact with fellow directors from all over the country, including Maine representatives Don Marean and Bud Cianchette.
“Really, we started looking at Maine three to four years ago, at buying Scarborough for our operator,” said Schick. “But it didn’t happen. Then Don Marean introduced us to Mike Cianchette.”
Mike Cianchette is a great-nephew of the late Bud Cianchette. He made a few trips to the racetrack when he was young, and his family took in a Standardbred gelding that didn’t excel as a racehorse and still enjoys him as a pleasure horse, but otherwise, his life has not involved harness racing. Until now.
Mike Cianchette’s family business includes the Portland Regency Hotel, a luxury boutique property, a Ford dealership, commercial real estate holdings, and a beef-producing farm. Cianchette, 36, became actively involved with the family business when he returned home to Maine after serving in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer, spending seven months in Afghanistan.
The Cianchette family became interested in purchasing Scarborough Downs for a commercial real estate project and in 2017 had the property under contract, but the deal fell through.
Cianchette’s due diligence for buying Scarborough Downs prompted ideas about how to make harness racing a viable business.
“We looked under the hood, so to speak, and thought there was a new opportunity for harness racing in Maine,” said Cianchette. “So for the past couple of years, we’ve been doing our research.
“The meet at Cumberland is the first act. The second act will be a new track in southern Maine, and we hope it can be operational in 2023.”
The Cumberland fairgrounds was a logical location for an extended harness racing meet because of its proximity to a horse population, but also because it has the only enclosed grandstand of any of the Maine fairs.
Scarborough Downs did not send out its races via simulcasting. Schick and Kenney wanted that to happen at Cumberland.
“Our biggest issue has been the infrastructure needs,” said Schick of setting up the Cumberland meet. “You need current standards for fiber and cable and all of that to make simulcasting happen today.
“Getting this meet started has been pretty challenging. Besides the infrastructure, another reason is there is a huge labor shortage. The ambulance services told us they had ambulances, but no staff. So that took a while to get someone on board.”
Some locals also objected to the extended race meet.
“There are some neighborhoods around the track and the residents were concerned about sound,” said Schick.
Most of the money for purses at Cumberland will come from revenues generated by the Bangor casino, where a harness meet recently opened. “We only plan to have nine races, so this will allow us to pay decent purses,” noted Schick.
Purses for the first Cumberland card on Saturday, May 8, ranged from $2,400 to $4,500. The handle on the nine races topped $60,000.
“Short term, we should be able to get the purses competitive with Plainridge,” Schick added.
First Track Investments—which includes the Cianchette family and Schick and Kenney as Black Bear Racing—has leased the Cumberland Fairgrounds from the Cumberland Farmers Club, which owns the fairgrounds. With Cianchette’s timeline, the fairgrounds likely would need to be the location of a 2022 meet as well.
Cianchette did not want to disclose exact locations that are currently being researched for a new track, as land must still be secured.
For those who think a new track is contingent upon casino gaming, Cianchette said that is not the case.
Two casinos operating in Maine were approved via referendum, and there are no available licenses. There is, however, the chance that sports betting will be approved in Maine.
“The new track is not contingent on casino gaming,” said Cianchette. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity to make racing viable with simulcasting, and also if we have a beautiful facility, we can create an entertainment destination. We think that if people have a good reason to go to a racetrack, and they have a good experience, that racing can be viable.”
Schick flew from California to Maine to be on hand for the May 8 opener at Cumberland and he believes the state has potential as a harness racing market.
“One of the best parts of being involved in Maine harness racing is it’s a state with harness racing people,” he said. “If I told someone in a restaurant in California that I worked in harness racing, they would have no idea what you are talking about. In Maine, people always have an anecdote about a connection to harness racing.” HB
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