A Team Effort

Circuit secretaries keep county fair racing trotting smoothly along

by Kimberly A. Rinker

Lisa Schwartz is a worker bee in a sport she adores.

The 56-year-old former construction worker hung up her hard hat in 2018 to take over the job of circuit secretary for the Ohio Colt Racing Association (OCRA), returning to her first love: harness racing.

“I grew up in Clarksburg, Ohio, just a few miles from Dan Ater’s farm,” said Schwartz, who now resides in Washington Court House, Ohio. “My parents and grandparents on both sides of our families have been in harness racing forever.”

Of the 95 agricultural fairs in Ohio, 62 offered harness racing in 2022—the most of any state in the nation. As well, Ohio has four associations that offer stakes races at the fairs: the OCRA, the Ohio Fair Racing Conference (OFRC), the Southern Valley Colt Circuit and the Home Talent Stakes.

“The associations are set up somewhat geographically,” Schwartz explained. “There used to be eight associations, but like everything else, there has been attrition. OCRA has 19 fairs that we race, and each of the associations have their own idiosyncrasies.”

As the OCRA circuit secretary, Schwartz’s duties are endless and require her full attention year-round. Much of her attention is focused on working with individual county fair boards, ensuring that they know the significance of having harness racing at their respective venues. Schwartz follows in the footsteps of several influential Buckeye State fair matriarchs, including Judy Foreman and Stella Hagemeyer.

“As circuit secretaries, it’s imperative to have a positive relationship with fair board members,” said Schwartz, whose husband, Midland Acres veterinarian Dr. Robert Schwartz, serves as the president of the Fayette County Fair Board. “Woody Woolman, who is the circuit secretary for the Home Talent Stakes, is also the secretary/treasurer for the Mahoning County Fair Board, and that’s a huge plus for harness racing at his fairs.”

 

Typically, fair board officers are elected from counties’ agricultural society memberships, and their positions are unpaid.

“They are like township trustees and there’s a good bit of turnover,” Schwartz said. “People get involved on fair boards because their kids are in 4-H or have some other kind of agricultural interest. Then there are various factions of the fair board, like the speed committee. Our job as circuit secretaries is to defend harness racing and stress how it brings two to three nights of entertainment to the grandstand.

“There are two meetings a year for county fair officials, and we all attend those to see how we can improve racing at the fairs and keep up with the safety initiatives and other things,” she continued. “We attend individual fair board meetings too, and the worst thing that can happen is that you go there and hear the directors say, ‘We want to get rid of harness racing because we are losing money.’”

Ohio county fairs receive funds from four sources: the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Ohio Fairs Fund, nominations, entry fees, and a $12,000 gift from the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association (OHHA) to each county fair that supports harness racing.

“Besides adding to purses, the OHHA money helps to put paint on the barns or with track maintenance—anything related to harness racing,” Schwartz noted. “This spring, I’ve been to three fair boards, speaking to them about the rules and laws of the Ohio legislature as it relates to harness racing, and also to assure them that they can look to their circuit secretary to help them.

“By far, the main challenge is to keep fair board members convinced that our product is worthwhile,” she admitted. “The fair board members’ priority is getting the gate admission, and we stress that harness racing not only provides entertainment for grandstand fans, but if you have a rainy day—which affects gate admission overall—you can count on the races to bring people in. Even if you only race your stakes, at least you’ll still bring in money for the fair through gate revenue.”

Circuit secretaries collect nomination fees, maintain eligibility lists, keep track of points on association websites, and help the various banquets with distribution of trophies and awards, Schwartz explained. Fair boards are also required to submit an annual report to the state’s Department of Agriculture with revenue and disbursement information, as well as IRS forms, another duty in which the circuit secretary’s input is vital.

“Being circuit secretary is an all-year gig,” Schwartz laughed. “My husband’s famous saying is, ‘You’re in it for the outcome, not for the income.’”

 

Paul Harris, president of the Ohio Fair Managers Association (OFMA) and secretary of the Geauga County Agricultural Society, said he believes harness racing is a necessity. His fair, the Great Geauga County Fair, is Ohio’s oldest continuous county fair and one of the oldest agricultural fairs in America.

“It’s like anything worth doing—it’s a challenge,” he said. “Harness racing is an element of the fairs, and it would be nice to see 100 percent of the fairs have racing. Putting everything together and covering the costs associated with the racing itself is a huge part of the entertainment element of the fair, and from a historical aspect, it’s crucial to the county. The knowledge of harness racing is being passed down to fair board members over the generations, and we’re always looking for younger people to fill these spots. I’ve been on the fair board here for more than 30 years, and most of these folks have ties to agriculture in one form or another.”

Harris said it is easy for folks immersed in one aspect of a county fair activity to overlook the other elements that make a fair successful.

“It’s a combination of all of the entities that make for a good fair,” he stressed. “Harness racing is no different than any other show on the fairgrounds. What makes racing a bit unique is that the track needs to be maintained throughout the year to have it in proper shape during the fair days—and that’s costly, with material and grating—but a lot of the fairgrounds have the advantage of having horses train year-round at their track.

“Everything costs more, and any show worth having—such as harness racing—is feeling that sting of higher prices these days,” Harris admitted. “For us, in Geauga County, we’re close to Northfield Park, and they’re kind enough to loan us a starting car, but the fair board has to hire a truck and trailer to go pick it up and return it to Northfield after the races are over. The OHHA stipend that started a few years ago has gone a long way to cover those kinds of added expenses. The frustrating part is, even with that extra money, not all the expenses are covered, and the harness races do cost the fair money, but I believe it’s worth it. It’s a tradeoff to help keep the sport alive. We’ve always had harness racing here, and it’s important to the grassroots folks and communities in this area from a historical aspect.”

Ed Teefey, a member of Illinois’ Brown County Fair Board since 1976, runs the harness racing program in Mt. Sterling, Ill. Currently, he serves as the second vice president of that fair, located on the southwestern side of the Prairie State. Now 70, Teefey has been a mainstay with the fair for 47 years.

“As a horseman and fair board member, I’m on both sides of the equation,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that, when I first became a fair board member, we had 70 horses who trained here year-round, and now we have four or five. We had local families who were involved as horsemen for generations, and two-thirds of our fair board members were connected to the sport. Now, I’m the only board member who knows the difference between a trotter and a pacer.”

Mt. Sterling has hosted harness racing continuously since 1878, with the single exception of 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teefey, a retired bank president, explained that his fair became the first and only county fair in Illinois to host pari-mutuel wagering, and at one time featured a pair of $26,000 events for older Illinois-breds of both gaits.

“We hosted those events for 15 years,” Teefey said. “Phil Langley was helpful in getting that established, and Hawthorne and the Carey family helped in later years, but with the decline in the number of horses bred in this state, our fields became so small that we just couldn’t justify the cost of setting up the wagering with a five- or six-race program.”

This year, Mt. Sterling was awarded the Downstate Classic for 2-year-old pacing colts, set to race on Aug. 6 with an estimated purse of $25,000.

“Our fair board meets monthly, and we don’t have a lot of turnover,” Teefey explained. “I think outside of Delaware, Ohio, we’re the fastest county fair track in the country, as I Can Only Imagine paced here in 1:51.1 for Tom Harmer. We take putting on a first-class show very seriously, and especially want to keep the history of harness racing at the fair intact. Most folks don’t realize it, but from 1948 through 1970, the tax on harness races in Illinois supported not just the races but the whole fair—all of the premiums for all the events. We don’t have that kind of resource now, which is why there are only 26 fairs that support racing in the state.

“One thing horsemen have to remember is that a fair board is made up of volunteers with varying interests. My seniority provides me with the support of the fair board in my harness racing activities; we do whatever promotion we need to do to bring in the fans and keep racing alive.”

Elwood “Woody” Woolman has had the unique experience of serving on two county fair boards in addition to his position as circuit secretary for Ohio’s Home Talent Stakes, which offers races at 15 county fairs. Like his contemporaries, the 67-year-old was born into a harness racing family. Since retiring from 36 years of teaching school in Columbiana County, he now focuses full-time on his duties for the Home Talent Stakes, which is the oldest colt circuit in Ohio, having begun in 1934.

“When I lived in Columbiana County, in the town of Salem, we had a 12-member fair board, and our fair was one of the smallest in the state,” Woolman said. “In Mahoning County, we have a 17-member fair board for one of the largest county fairs in Ohio, so I’ve served on two very diverse fair boards in addition to being a circuit secretary. This has allowed me to have a perspective from both sides of the fence.”

Woolman says establishing relationships with the fair boards, speed superintendents and others involved with the racing program is paramount to a successful partnership and smooth racing program.

“Part of our jobs as circuit secretaries is that we’ve got to be on a friendly basis and have personal relationships with the folks involved,” he stressed. “I have relationships with the fair board folks in the 15 counties where we race. Those people know if they have any questions—whether it’s nominations, postponements, cancellations or track issues—that they can come to me. The fair boards need and want a ‘go-to’ person they can rely on to take care of things for them. It can’t be a stranger; it’s got to be someone they can talk to and access. Our role as circuit secretaries is about trust and taking care of people.”

When he attended the National Fair Managers Association meeting in Indianapolis recently, Woolman said the theme among fair board members was “what am I getting for my money.”

“My job as circuit secretary is to make sure the fair boards know where the money comes from, as in the end, no matter what activity is happening at the fair, it’s all about money,” he acknowledged. “I constantly remind them that harness racing is a department of the fair, not a sideshow. You’ll never hear a fair board ask how many people were at the Holstein show, or how many premiums were paid out to the show horse people, and it’s thousands (of dollars) more than harness racing. But as soon as you bring the races up to them, if they aren’t making the fair any money, they’re not worth having.

“Every year, in April, I go over the entire funding process with each of my fair boards, reminding them that harness racing actually puts money into the fair, and once I do that, everything is copacetic,” Woolman added. “I work with the individual speed superintendents to help present this information. The OHHA money that we get is nice, but it just covers the basics, and it’s imperative to let the fair boards know there’s no other part of the fair that gives them money as we do.”

Schwartz suggests that horsepeople need to be aware of how complex a fair board can be, and how much work goes into organizing and implementing a county fair, and to thank volunteers whenever possible.

“The folks who put on the fair work hard,” she stressed. “And none of them want to hear, ‘You should have done this,’ or ‘You should have done that’—especially as volunteers, as all of the fair board members are. The horsemen need to be better ambassadors and thank the fair board members and especially the fair secretary—that’s the person that gets the brunt of all the complaint, from the horsemen to the cattlemen to the tractor-pullers. That’s not an easy spot to be in, and they could use a little ‘thank you’ now and then.”

Airing grievances on social media is also a definite no-no, Schwartz confirmed.

“The worst thing a horseman can do is to complain on any social media platform, like Facebook or Twitter,” she noted. “Those thoughts are out there for everyone to see, and they don’t go away and can do a lot more harm than good.”

“The relationship between the horsemen who are training and stabled at the fairgrounds and how they behave and how they react goes a long way with the fair board folks,” Woolman said. “There’s a feeling from some of the horsemen that they are providing a service to the fair, and that’s not the perception from the fair board side, who feel they are providing the horsemen an opportunity for us to showcase our sport, and they are.

“How the horsemen interact with the fair board members can really make a difference. It’s something as simple as sending a card to the speed superintendent, thanking them for a good race meet. We have a great product and ample opportunities to showcase it, and if we all work together, we can keep it going for many more generations to enjoy.”

Schwartz agrees.

“Most of our fair horsemen are downhome, grassroots folks,” she said. “The circuit secretaries do whatever we can to aid the fair boards and the horsemen to make the racing effective for everyone involved, so that younger generations will learn about the sport and love it as much as we do.” HB

 

Kimberly A. Rinker is a longtime Standardbred industry journalist and former Standardbred trainer. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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