The Great Frederick Fair remains a Maryland mainstay
story and photos by Charlene Sharpe
In the early 19th century, as innovations in farming and manufacturing were being celebrated with exhibitions throughout the world, farmers in Frederick County, Md., didn’t want to be left out. In 1822, they organized a cattle show and exhibition.
Nearly 200 years later, the tradition lives on. What got its start as a two-day cattle show is now a nine-day celebration of every aspect of the area’s agricultural industry. While the fast pace of modern society threatens to leave behind the customs of days gone by, in Frederick folks cling to their heritage. The cattle shows, horse pulls and harness racing that highlighted the Great Frederick Fair in its early days remain the focus of the event.
“Frederick used to be a big agriculture community before it started growing houses instead of corn,” said Nancy Hendricks, a member of the fair’s board of managers and chair of its equine committee. “We have always promoted horses.”
This fall’s 157th edition of the Great Frederick Fair, which took place Sept. 13-21, culminated with four days of live harness racing. Organizers have worked to do more than highlight harness racing, however, as they’ve fully embraced the Standardbred breed. There have been additions to the racing action as the fair also offered a Standardbred-only horse show, a Racing Under Saddle exhibition and a celebrity appearance by Foiled Again.
“It’s a feel-good thing and it’s helping the horse industry,” Hendricks said.
Harness racing has deep roots at the Great Frederick Fair. The track itself is the centerpiece of the fairgrounds, as horse shows are held in the infield and carnival rides, vendor displays and exhibits border it on the outside.
Though it was a desire to showcase cattle that spurred creation of the earliest agricultural exhibition in the community, the racing oval dates back to 1868, the same year the fair was visited by President Ulysses S. Grant. It wouldn’t be the only presidential visit to the fairgrounds in Frederick, as Grant returned the following year and President Rutherford B. Hayes visited in 1876, according to The Frederick News-Post’s 2012 insert commemorating the fair’s 150th anniversary.
In an area of the country that is still a harness racing hot spot, it’s no surprise that once the fair introduced harness racing, it became a mainstay.
“The popularity of the fair, particularly the harness track racing in the region, led to the construction of a new grandstand with a roof in 1911,” the special insert read. “The grandstand has made some minor revisions over the years, including an addition in 1929, and celebrated its 100th year in existence last year. Interestingly, the tunnel under the racetrack was built in 1916, which allowed traffic to pass under the racetrack into the infield.”
The fairgrounds, rather than being government-owned, belongs to 250 life members who are essentially stockholders. Hendricks, who was the first woman elected to the fair’s board of managers in 1989, inherited her grandfather’s stock in the fair. After spending decades as an elementary school teacher and principal, she’s thrilled to be involved in the fair’s agricultural education efforts. As a Morgan horse owner, she takes particular pride in the equine exhibits at the fair.
The nine-day event kicked off with an old-fashioned horse pull and also included a daily parade of breeds, a jousting demonstration and various breed shows.
A huge activity tent provides fairgoers of all ages with the chance to sit in saddles mounted on barrels and try their hand at roping. For the youngsters, Hendricks said organizers go all out, as 1,200 schoolchildren a day visit the fair.
“We’ve got plywood horses with yarn manes for braiding and a plywood cutout of a mini horse covered in fleecy fabric that the kids love to groom,” she said. “They get a kick out of that.”
In fact, efforts to interest the local kids in agriculture begin before they even get on the bus for the trip to the fairgrounds. Colby Hubble, another member of the fair’s board, said organizers try to get children interested in their upcoming trip by sending them the “fair in a box” before they come.
“We’ll send them grains, horse hair, all kinds of things like that,” she said. “And then when they bus them here, we have activities for them at 10 or 12 stations. They’re hands-on activities. They can clean out a hoof full of Play-Doh, color their own jockey silks. One year we even had a display that used a garden hose to show them what a horse’s intestines looked like. We do all kinds of neat stuff. Kids these days, when you ask them where their food comes from, they say the fridge or the store. We try to do more so they can learn about agriculture.”
Hubble recalls coming to the fair when she was a child in the 1970s. Her grandfather, who had racehorses for decades, stabled at the fairgrounds and also acted as race secretary each September. After his death, the task fell to Hubble’s mother. Today, Hubble—who trains her own horses at the fairgrounds—is race secretary. While she’s raced all over the East Coast, she said she’s always loved the half-mile track at the Frederick fairgrounds.
“Frederick’s home,” she said.
As race secretary, Hubble aims to keep up the fair’s harness racing tradition. Races were held Wednesday through Saturday, with two or three classes, each with two heats, raced each day. Races featuring local celebrities were also worked in throughout the week to generate excitement among the spectators.
While racing at the Great Frederick Fair is as exhilarating as it is anywhere else, purses are somewhat lower than those offered at pari-mutuel tracks. Hubble said that for more than half a decade, the fair offered a purse of $200 a heat. When interest among horsemen began to decline a few years ago, likely due to more lucrative racing opportunities elsewhere, sponsorships enabled the Great Frederick Fair to increase purses to $400 a heat.
“We’re hoping we can increase all the purses to encourage more people to enter,” she said.
The fair does have a core group of horsemen that enter every year, including the Offutt, Hans and Welty families from Maryland as well as Gary Botsch from Delaware. Botsch said it’s never been the purse money that drew him to the fair.
“The thing I like about Frederick is they race four days and every night they have a show,” he said, referencing the fair’s lineup of popular musicians and entertainers. “You get to race and have a little fun.”
Botsch, 61, got his very first driving win at Frederick in the 1970s.
“I had a little teeny mare,” he said. “It was a small field. I went to the front and kept riding. I was very surprised. She actually won both heats.”
Though he didn’t drive much in the ensuing years, Botsch returned to the Great Frederick Fair in 2003 to race and has been back every year since.
“The track’s nice, because they train on it all year and it gets used,” he said. “It’s just a good, down-home fair. People are nice there and the kids come through and look at the horses.”
In 2014, 2015 and 2016, Botsch used the four-day meet as an opportunity to show off his double-gaited performer, A Dandy Strike. He began racing the trotting-bred mare on the pace as a 3- year-old, but in recent years has raced her on both gaits.
There have been other notable performers and performances at the track in recent years, as well. In 2013, Richard Hans drove Googoo Gaagaa at the fair. In 2017, full brothers Another Dinger and Sergeant Dinger not only raced against each other but also crossed the wire together in a dead-heat win. Last year, trainer Alex Goldin shipped from New Jersey to hone her driving skills with pacer So Take That. She guided him to a 1:58 win, tying the track record set by Tom’s Toy in 2009.
Though the fair races during the day, Hubble said there is a regular crowd of locals that make a point to come every year.
“There’s always been Standardbred racing,” she said. “It’s part of the makeup of the fair. We have a lot of the older folks that come to the races.”
Nevertheless, fair officials are hoping to interest more people in harness racing. They believe the visit from Foiled Again, known to Breyer horse enthusiasts even if they’re not familiar with harness racing, will help that cause.
Hubble still laughs at the way the idea of a Foiled Again visit came up. She and Hendricks were on vacation in Florida over the winter when Hendricks came across one of Hubble’s harness racing magazines. She caught sight of a piece on Foiled Again and recognized him right away, as she had the Breyer model.
“I came back to a sticky note on the article that said ‘Can we get him to the fair?’” Hubble recalled.
She and Hendricks credited Jacqui Nigh, the fair’s sponsorship and marketing coordinator, with making the idea a reality.
“No’s not in her vocabulary,” Hendricks joked. “Sure enough, she was able to get him. It was a big deal.”
To further celebrate the Standardbred, in 2017 the fair held its first all-Standardbred horse show.
“Three or four years ago, I saw the Maryland State Fair had a show and that piqued my interest,” Hendricks said. “I’ve always tried to promote the repurposing of horses.”
In the months following, when Maryland Racing Commission and Maryland Horse Council member Clarissa Coughlin and local horseman Tom Smith approached her formally with the idea, she was quick to get on board. Though the show attracted just eight participants its first year, last year there were classes featuring more than a dozen Standardbreds from at least four states. The horses showcased their versatility as they competed in a variety of classes, including western pleasure, hunter over crossrails, and halter.
“I think it’s really a good thing,” Hendricks said.
Hubble believes the new show just adds to the fair’s commitment to the promotion of all things related to agriculture.
“Sure, we have nice rides, but over half the fairgrounds is different types of barns and agriculture buildings,” she said. “People can really learn and have hands-on experiences.”
Charlene Sharpe is a freelance writer living in Delaware. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.