By Perry Lefko
Among the many people who are in attendance for this year’s Little Brown Jug is a busload of Canadians fans, some of whom have been making the journey to Delaware an annual ritual for more than 30 years.
Mark Brown of Napanee, a city in southeastern Ontario and about an 11-hour drive to Delaware Racetrack, leads a contingent of about 30 racing fans from across Canada. Since Mark started advertising the trip last year, it has generated new interest among fans wanting to be part of this unique experience.
Mark, who is 62, is attending his 35th Jug this year, carrying on the family tradition from his late father, Robert, back in the late 60s. Robert trained and drove harness horses as a hobby at the B level tracks in southeastern Ontario, occasionally having one good enough to race at the top tracks in Toronto.
“You’ve got a lot of these old horsemen on the bus telling stories about things that happened when they had a horse,” Mark says. “Most of the people on the trip are older, retired individuals. It’s people that love watching the horses. I’d say 90 percent of us really aren’t bettors. It’s not gamblers that are going. It’s just people that enjoy the excitement of the track and the races.”
Debbie Szumlanski made her 34th trek to the Jug with her husband, Phil. They were admittedly a little apprehensive when Robert first asked them to take the journey to the Jug, but found it enjoyable just being part of something with fellow horse racing enthusiasts.
“We all have that common factor. We love horses,” she says. “I just go down to watch the horses. There’s a lot of us on the bus that are not bettors but are fans. Fans are so important. They really are. I’m probably the most enthusiastic person there is when it comes to horses. And the whole busload of us is like that. We follow all these horses all year long, we know who’s going to the Little Brown Jug. We all have favorite drivers. We have wonderful friends that we have met down in Ohio, so it’s like a family reunion.”
“I was going for about 10 years and my sister, Barb, always used to say ‘Debbie, why do you use your holidays and go on a bus trip?’ I said, ‘I think you should really go. Just one year, just try it.’ She tried it the next year and she’s been going for 15 years now, too.”
“When we get on the bus, we’re really excited. We really haven’t seen each other for a whole year. It’s a whole year full of stories. It’s a whole 11 hours of catching up. It’s really fun. I can hardly wait to get there.”
Debbie adds there is nothing that compares to the racing at the Little Brown Jug.
“The whole atmosphere is wonderful,” she says. “I don’t think you can go to another racetrack and experience that feeling that you experience at Delaware. There’s nothing like it. There really isn’t. It’s just like a big, hometown fair. I’ve been to a lot of racetracks and a lot of really big races, and nothing compares to the Little Brown Jug. Nothing.”
Mark says that come September when the weather starts to change, there is a great sense of anticipation among the group taking the bus to Ohio, thinking of the fried onions sold at the concessions, the rib-eye steak sandwiches and everything else that is associated with the five-day fair that culminates with Jug day.
“There’s times you think it wouldn’t really matter (not going to the Jug), but I would really miss it,” he says. “It would be kind of a big part of the year that we would miss. We usually investigate the fair and exhibits as well as heading to the backstretch to see the horses close up and sometimes get our pictures taken with our favorite driver. By mid afternoon the day of the Jug, you see BBQs & coolers at some of the campers.”
Debbie says many of their American friends whom they have met over the years can’t believe Canadians continue to make the annual trek.
“They do laugh at us – it’s a long trip – but it’s well worth it,” she says. “We have met many people over the years and they all look forward to us coming. The bus is kind of the home base and they all come to the bus.”
It’s a group of Canadians investing their time and money for a chance to re-visit friends, watch horses and enjoy a race unlike any other in the sport.
“It’s kind of a nostalgia thing really,” Mark says. “It’s like going back in time when you see some of the old clips of the races.”