The Great Darke County Fair is the 2018 Blue Ribbon Fair Award winner
by Keith Gisser
When the third Friday in August rolls around, do not expect residents of Greenville, Ohio, to be punching a time clock for the next nine days. This town, named for Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene, has produced the likes of sharpshooter Annie Oakley and broadcaster Lowell Thomas. It is also the headquarters for the world-famous Kitchen Aid appliances.
Despite citizens possessing pride in those distinctions, what they truly delight in is the annual opening day of the Great Darke County Fair. The 2018 version will be the 162nd edition, and marks the second occasion this event was selected by the USTA as its Blue Ribbon fair in the last 21 years.
We do nearly all the promotion for the fair and it all involves harness racing, said racing manager Tim Harless. In addition to placemats at all the local restaurants, we have done coffee mugs, a logo julep-type glass like they do for the Kentucky Derby, and even a Gene Riegle bobblehead.
Instituted in 1853, the fair has opened its gates every season with the exception of three rare instances. In 1862 and 1863, the nation was engaged in the Civil War, and with the Ohio Volunteer Infantry making significant contributions to the battles of Shiloh, Bull Run, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, there simply was not a workforce or audience to conduct or attend the fair.
The third instance the Great Darke County Fair was discontinued was in 1949. While the Korean War dominated international newspaper headlines, the county was waging war against another deadly foe: polio.
According to the fair’s website, The city and county health departments issued dire and truthful warnings, and Today’s younger people cannot be expected to feel the sheer terror and uneasiness felt in those late 1940s when polio so disagreeably ruled.
Since those dark days, the Great Darke County Fair has continued uninterrupted for 69 years. While the event offers an expansive array of food, fun, and entertainment for all, a major component of the fair has always been harness racing. In fact, no fair other than Delaware, Ohio, cards as many harness contests as this event or generates as much handle.
Also, due to its close proximity to Hoosier Park Racing & Casino, Eldorado Scioto Downs, Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway, and Miami Valley Gaming, the Great Darke County Fair operates its very own full-time training center.
Despite Gene Riegle’s passing in 2011, his spirit remains present. All that is required to affirm Riegle’s otherworldly presence is an encounter with any denizen of the backside, each of whom has their own tale to tell about the 1992 inductee into the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y.
Although Riegle’s contributions to the sport were vast, his efforts at the Great Darke County Fair symbolized his adoration for the facility and the event, which is interwoven in the fabric of his hometown. For instance, Riegle never took flight to Florida like many of the snowbirds, and conditioned his stable stars such as Arnie Almahurst, Artsplace, Leah Almahurst, Life Sign, and Western Hanover right at the fairgrounds during the winter months. He was the driving force behind transitioning the track surface from clay to its all-weather limestone base.
Shortly after Riegle’s death, the racing office established the Gene Riegle Memorial Open Pace, which was worth $10,000, in 2012. The first edition of the event was won by Lucky Lime in 1:56. By 2017, the purse had grown to $42,000, and was captured by Sports Sinner in 1:53.4.
“Over the years, we have had so many horses that wanted to race in the Riegle Memorial that we had to put an Ohio-owned or -sired condition on it,” Harless said. “We also have a $500 bonus for breaking the track record.”
That race was one of 69 carded at the Great Darke County Fair in 2017, making it the second busiest track in the state that week, racing more heats than Northfield Park, but fewer than Scioto Downs.
In 2016, the Arnie Almahurst Trot was added to the racing calendar. Named for the Riegle-trained 1973 Kentucky Futurity champion, the race had a $15,000 purse. The inaugural edition was won by Allgrooveallthtime in a track-record 1:55.2, while last year’s contest, which was worth $22,000, was captured by dual Indiana Sire Stakes champion Churita.
Fair manager Brian Rismiller stated the entire premise behind the Great Darke County Fair is why harness racing is such an essential component of it.
County fairs are about agronomy, about the agricultural society we came from, and horses are a big part of that, he said. “Farmers would meet on their way to agricultural society meetings to talk about their crops or whatever, and they would see who had the fastest horse.
We drew 186,000 people to the fair in 2017, but we have had over 200,000 in the past. A lot of them are coming for racing, but we are a family-oriented fair. We try to offer something for everyone. We are bringing back motorcycle racing, and we will have a brand-new amusement company providing rides this year.
Brian Jones not only owns the Snack Shop, a restaurant in nearby New Madison, but is also president of the Darke County Harness Horsemen’s Association. He and his family care for a small stable of horses they keep at the fairgrounds.
(The Snack Shop) is 10 miles south out the back gate of the track,” he said. “Having the (DCHHA) has been crucial to the success of racing here. We have been able to raise funds to buy a new track conditioner and a water truck. They help keep the track good year-round, but it also means we don’t have to go to the fair board asking for things. So many fairs did away with racing, and we just kept going. Having that year-round momentum helps. Heck, I think we have had 30 new horses start training here just in the past month.
Whereas fair boards and harness horsemen are sometimes adversarial, meaning tractor pulls and campers parked on the infield are not always the best thing for racing, nothing could be further from the truth in Greenville.
We have a great relationship with the fair board, Harless said. It truly is a partnership that works well for everyone. We have adjusted our racing schedule with input from the board; in 2018 we will race seven sessions. We will race Friday evening and then race doubleheaders Saturday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
Jones feels altering how much it costs to witness racing may have played a role in increasing handle figures.
The fair board allows nothing in the infield, so you can watch the races from anywhere around the track, he said. About five years ago, we convinced them to offer free grandstand admission, which has helped the handle a bit.
The Darke County Harness Horsemen’s Association also supports a Standardbred 4-H group at the fairgrounds, which was established earlier this year. A previous Standardbred 4-H group counts driver Jeff Nisonger, with more than 3,100 career wins, as a former member of the organization.
In its heyday, the fair handled $300,000 or more for its meet. These days the handle is closer to $100,000, but with funding from the USTA, the state of Ohio, and several high-profile sponsors, the fair is able to offer a solid purse structure. It also hosts the Ohio Colt Racing Association (OCRA) stakes, highlighted by The Dr. H.M. Parshall Memorial stakes.
Started in 1950, the Parshall Memorial stakes (originally a futurity) has offered divisions for 2- and 3-year-olds of both genders and on both gaits. Purses for the 2017 Parshall Memorial stakes totaled $54,200.
Jim Buchy has represented Darke County in the Ohio House of Representatives on two separate occasions. A butcher by trade, he has also served as Ohio’s assistant director of agriculture.
“Oh, yes, (the Parshall Memorial)was always a big deal,” he said. Castleton Farm would pull in here and treat the Parshall and our meet like it was the Grand Circuit; all the big outfits did. Of course, we hosted the Grand Circuit during World War II. The Indiana State Fairgrounds were taken over by the military and the Fox Stake was raced here from 1943-’45.
There have been so many great Parshall winners. Jay Time, for instance. He went on to a dead-heat win in the Adios. Scotland’s Comet and Overtrick once held track records here. We have an incredible history, and something I think people forget – a great family tradition. It is not just the Riegles, as we have so many second- and third-generation horsemen here; it’s really something.
While Buchy is a longtime race fan who cut his teeth on racing while acting as his grandfather’s chauffeur, he also sees the bright future ahead.
When you have people like Brian Jones and Tim Harless to run the show, you really have it all, he said. Tim is the engine that gets all those sponsorships and raises all that extra purse money.
Indeed, Harless has coordinated more than 20 sponsors for the Gene Riegle Memorial, headed by longtime Riegle patron Brittany Farms. There is the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association, Midland Acres, the Blooded Horse Sales Company, and Hollywood Gaming. There are several local sponsors, including the legendary Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop on North Broadway.
It was part of a chain based in Muscatine, Iowa, Buchy said. They are famous for a crumbled beef sandwich. It isn’t really a burger; they steam it with spices on a steamed bun.
The Maid-Rite did win a best burger contest held by the Mental Floss website in 2017. The shop, which opened in 1934, is famous for having a wall covered in chewing gum, although according to Ohio Magazine, nobody really knows how the tradition got started.
It is not just the stakes engagements, however, that capture the attention of sponsors. Nearly every race, even a $1,000 divided purse overnight, offers a sponsored blanket, and most of the OCRA races honor area horsemen and owners who have died.
My wife, Cindy Austin, does all the work, Harless said. She is tireless and does the stuff nobody else wants to.
With the support of the community and area horsemen, the Great Darke County Fair is perennially a Blue Ribbon affair. This year, it is just being officially recognized as such.
We are not the Delaware County Fair, but we are darn close, Harless said.