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An interview with Chandler Woodcock
Monday, November 30, 2009 - by Bill MacDonald

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Chandler Woodcock made his name in Maine state politics, but he is looking to make his future in harness racing. Less than three years after losing the Maine governor’s race by 42,000 votes, the former Pine Tree State legislator became the executive director of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association in January 2009. 

Born in Mechanic Falls, Maine, Woodcock attended the University of Maine at Farmington and taught in the Maine public school system for 27 years in the English department before joining the Legislature.

He sat down with Bill MacDonald to discuss his experiences, his entry into harness racing and the future of the sport in Maine.

HB: What was your first experience with harness racing?

Woodcock: I was 5 years old. My grandfather was a trainer at Lewiston Raceway back in the early ’50s. Daniel Edwards was my stepgrandfather actually; he was my father's stepfather, and he was a horse guy.

Photo by Meghan Mank

As a politician, Woodcock was supportive of the harness racing industry because it worked in conjunction with the agriculture industry.

I remember going to [Lewiston]…as it if it was yesterday. My mother wasn't really too thrilled about me climbing on a jogging cart with my grandfather at 5 years old.

We went about 100 yards up the track, turned around, came back, and I got off. After that I was a real fan of harness racing. I've never been an owner or a trainer. I've driven at Cornish Fair three times in their matinee races, and I've jogged around some tracks in the state. I love doing that but I've never been intimately involved because I had another profession.

HB: What enticed you to get into politics?

Woodcock: I started politics fairly early. I’ve always been somebody who enjoys engaging people on topics. To this day I believe very strongly that when you engage in the political arena, you should do so with the perspective that when you finish the discussion, you are going to have a comfortable disagreement with somebody on certain issues and not a considerable dislike or antagonistic relationship. There is too much of that in the political arena.

When people start hurling things at one another verbally and otherwise, then the arena gets tainted by it. People need to remain associates and friends, but yet disagree. That's what we have to do in life. We do that in relationships when we are married, our siblings, and our children. You have to learn to disagree in a comfortable fashion.

The debate is the thing. We have a great system in America, the best system in the world.  I can debate anybody on anything that I choose within the boundaries of the law and nobody is going to shoot me for it. People have to appreciate that many, many, many people have sacrificed their lives so that we have the chance to debate freely and openly in this country without fear of retribution, and that is a wonderful system.

HB: Share with us the offices that you have held?

Woodcock: I was a president of my class in school for many years. I was a selectman in Farmington at a very young age and was chairman of the board in Farmington in my early 30s which is pretty young for a big town. I took a little bit of time off from the political arena as I had four children.

Somebody came to me, back in the late ’90s, and wanted to know if I'd consider running for state Legislature. My kids were older now, and my wife and I had a little more flexibility in our schedule. I sensed there was an opportunity to be a state senator in 2000, so I ran and won. I served three terms in the state Senate.

Then quite a few people approached me and asked if I'd consider running for governor in 2006. That's a pretty lofty goal, frankly. It was not anything I had planned, but I'm pretty passionate about my perspectives, and I think the state could use some changes, I have always felt that. After a long discussion with my family, because as we found out, it's much more impacting on your family than you’ll ever realize, I decided to run.

I have no regrets, we ran a great campaign, considering we ran against the incumbent; it's hard to beat a Democrat incumbent in Maine. We came close. We lost by single digits, which is pretty darn good for a person from Franklin County.

HB: You were known as a supporter of harness racing when you ran for governor. Why?

Woodcock: I used to go around the fair circuit with the Cushing family from Farmington; in fact I helped jog horses for them for a long time. I got to know some people in the industry.

Photo courtesy of Main Harness Horsemen's Association

Woodcock drove Sammy's Big Guy (1) in a matinee at Cornish Trotting Park in 2006.

When I ran for governor, I was very supportive of the harness racing industry. I felt their issues were pertinent; they extend their fingers out into agriculture. Agriculture in Maine is pretty important; we’re forgetting about it in a lot of areas. The people who want the green spaces, they better keep in mind that agriculture gives you green spaces.

The people that worry about sprawl, agriculture keeps you from getting sprawls. It is a very critical part of Maine's future. There are so many indefinable entities involved in agriculture that people don't know about, all the way down to the person that's just been hired to help bring in a bale or two of hay. Agriculture is important to our economy and to the people of the state.

We have an agricultural mindset in a lot of areas in Maine.

HB: What is the major concern for harness racing in Maine?

Woodcock: I think the monies of harness racing are a concern. What we have is difficult economic times in Maine. We are very fortunate to have racino monies to allow harness racing, and the agricultural perspective, to continue in the state. Is salvaged the right word? It could be. It could be that racino monies salvaged harness racing in Maine.

We are very fortunate, because we have a good agreement, and we have strong partners in this agreement. We have difficult economic times now; Maine is going through the same thing as the nation. I know that people tinker with monies. We feel very strongly that our funding is critically important to the agricultural communities in Maine as do our other partners. That has been a concern of all of us.

The Legislature has treated us well up to this point. I feel pretty good about the future, I really do.

I think it's a matter of educating people who probably haven't had much education on what the racino actually does with its monies. I saw a cartoon in the paper the other day that portrayed the stands as being empty. The caption was “What has the racino done for harness racing? Obviously nothing.” I disagree with that vehemently.

It isn't necessarily in today's atmosphere to have the people in the stands to make racino monies important. It's the overall impact it has on the agricultural/harness racing community. I know for a fact that has expanded many people’s agricultural concerns. It certainly has done a great deal for the fairs, and the breeders have expanded significantly.

For the whole community--and the state along with it--it's a piece of our economic pie that has really done well because of the slots revenue. If you take it away you are going to have an unusual ripple effect. When agricultural ripples and you lose agricultural entities, you lose much more than that. You certainly lose green space. If people ever want to talk environmental, that’s environmental. A farm becomes a development, not good for the state of Maine.

People will appreciate that more as you educate them on what's important about the monies. I thought the cartoon in the paper was very one-dimensional and we addressed that with the editor and he was very receptive to that, I think he's a little bit of a harness racing guy. One-dimensional thinking usually stems from lack of education on the topic so we will do our best to educate.

HB: What have been the positive aspects of the racino in Maine?

Woodcock: We have seen the Bangor track have some significant improvements. We've seen the state of harness racing in Maine stabilize itself. The money for purses has gone up reasonably well in the short term, and I think they will continue to go up as we talk about facilities in Maine that could help finance harness racing. I know that is going to be a possibility and I look forward, energetically, to that discussion.

Photo by Meghan Mank

Woodcock discusses the future of Maine harness racing with USTA director Don Marean (center), who is flanked by trainer-driver Alison Hynes (left) and State Steward Ralph Canney.

The harness racing community knows very well that they were going to race for $500 if we hadn't had slots and that probably meant the end of harness racing. Other states that are not connected to slot money have experienced that. Maine is not doing badly by comparison with other states. We are doing reasonably well for a smaller populated state. We are doing reasonably well for harness racing.

People are a little more energized, and you see more people involved than before and there are new investments in the industry being made and that's a great thing for racing. I am excited about the future racing scene. I think it has a very solid future as long as we are really cautious and handle the revenue stream well.

HB: You were recently elected to the board of directors of Harness Horsemen International. What does that mean to you?

Woodcock: It's a significant honor; I didn't realize that no one from Maine had ever been a member of the HHI board of directors. Tim Powers, president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, and I went to Las Vegas, and I gave a report of harness racing in Maine. When I gave the report apparently someone felt comfortable with my presentation, because as soon as I was done they nominated me to be on the board.

I’ve learned a great deal from being on the board of HHI. You get a perspective of national horseracing and that is an interesting process because other states are challenged from an economic standpoint and obviously gives us a voice. I can't deny it's been an opportunity for us.

HB: Thank you for your time.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.