Fairs remain an important component in harness racing and history
story by Jay Wolf
The first agricultural fair in the U.S. was conducted in 1807 at Pittsfield, Mass. Initially, these events were venues to show livestock, but swiftly expanded to include activities for all ages and genders. They also served as an arena for merchants to sell their products. The utility and appeal of the fairs spread rapidly throughout the Northeast and Midwest, with the first state fair being conducted at Syracuse, N.Y., in 1841.
Despite the transformations the world has experienced since then, the popularity of county, state and national fairs has not waned. Currently, there are more than 2,000 county and state fairs in the U.S. Harness racing has long been a popular, competitive event at agricultural fairs and it remains a significant component of many fair programs.
The history of the sport is intertwined with fairs and represents harness racing as a deep-seated tradition in national culture. Jay Wolf, publicity director for the Little Brown Jug, interviewed four individuals who have an enduring bond with the fairs. They are Tim Harless, race manager at The Great Darke County Fair in Greenville, Ohio; Royal Roland, a USTA director, treasurer for the Keokuk County Fair in Iowa and a member of that fair’s board of directors; Gabe Wand, a USTA director and past president and member of the Wisconsin Harness Horse Association’s board of directors; and Brenda Wilmot, who has been a race secretary on the New York fair circuit for more than three decades.
HB: Tell us about you and your relationship with your fair.
Harless: Growing up in Greenville and as a kid being able to ride your bike to the fairgrounds was like shagging fly balls at Yankee Stadium. You would see Gene (Riegle) with Three Diamonds and Leah Almahurst. It was amazing to see what these sleepy little fairgrounds produced.
I have had racehorses for 44 years. My first purchase was a young horse, and a couple of guys who worked with Gene helped me break it. I was hooked; it gets in your blood. I was the public works director for the City of Greenville and my administrative assistant was on the fair board and was assigned the speed department. He asked me if I would work for him at the fair.
Roland: I am 57 and have been on the Keokuk County Fair board for about 25 years. My father is on the fair board as well. It is kind of a family tradition in helping with the horse races and the other activities of the Keokuk County Fair.
Wand: I was born and raised at the county fairs. That is where I got my start. That is where I continue to race. When I was 20—so 18 years ago—I was named to the Wisconsin Harness Horse Association’s board of directors. I served as their president for 14 years. Basically, the association ran all of the county fairs.
I have done anything and everything at the county fairs, from racing, judging, starting and being the race secretary. You name it, I have done it. I negotiated everything with the fair boards.
Wisconsin had a couple of Blue Ribbon Fairs. When the state association was a Blue Ribbon Fair, we did a “Harness the Stars” program, where we did these great promotions around the state. Not all the fairs go through our association and we do what we can to support all those fairs as well.
Wilmot: I am 79 and I am not going too far. I volunteer a lot. There are 13 fairs in New York that I have been race secretary for. I even worked for one in Barton, Vt. [Orleans County Fair]. I have three children and they all come to the fair. My husband died in 1984 and I started as a race secretary in 1983. I was secretary when they used the long blue and yellow sheets. What a difference. I am not computer literate. I can type, but someone’s got to do the sending, changing and all that.
HB: Talk to us about your fair and its harness racing traditions.
Harless: When Gene Riegle passed, Carl Wade (a former Riegle caretaker) got with Art (Zubrod) and George (Segal) and they said they wanted to do something for Gene and they gave us a little money. State Representative Jim Buchy, Cindy Austen and I go to work each year putting the Riegle together. If you have a dream they will come. The first race was in 2012 with $5,000. The 2019 went for $50,000 for older Ohio pacers. We also have the Arnie Almahurst for older trotters that went for $25,000. We beg and borrow anywhere we can to raise the money.
I am like a lot of fans: I like to watch any type of racing, the runners or the Standardbreds, on my TV and computer. However, we need fans in the grandstand. The fairs in western Ohio have a hard time competing with the $9.95 buffets and amenities of Dayton Raceway, Miami Valley or Hoosier Park.
We try to merge the new school and old school. Our goal is to use technology to make it easier for our fans to wager on our races. We have a loyal and knowledgeable fan base at Greenville. The younger fans want faster racing. They know the difference between a 2:00 and 2:05 pacer. They want competitive fields and they want to be entertained.
Roland: The Keokuk County Fair at What Cheer started racing in the late 1890s. It has pretty much had continuous racing since then. In 1972, we had a horse barn burn down, but we rebuilt.
Harness racing is the fair activity that most of the people attend. The races are highlighted by the fair. We have a tradition of having good, competitive races. We are active in making the races more attractive and entertaining for the fans.
One unique thing that we have is What Cheer hosts 12 different days of harness racing during the summer. We have a progressive Pick-10 contest. Whoever picks the most winners from all of the 12 days gets a $750 prize. That contest really motivates the people to attend all of the races. We don’t have just local people—we have folks come from quite a ways away to attend.
Wand: All of the fairs in Wisconsin have their traditional racing dates. Rice Lake has a tradition—they race at night—and after the races the horsemen would go to a place called the Big O and have pizza. On Thursday night they go to the Country Inn, a supper club that helps sponsor the races. A couple of the fairs have big cookouts after the races. After our last fair of the year, which is at Viroqua [Vernon County Fair], everybody stays over and they have a big cookout, sort of a send-off for the year. We have a lot of picnicking, hanging out, patronizing the fairs as much as you can. They also like a lot of good-humored fun. Our starting gate would get toilet papered every now and then. Race bikes would end up on the top of the barns.
Wilmot: [Racing at the fairs] all started with “my horse is better than your horse.” The same goes for cooking, baking and everything else. My home fair is the Lewis County Fair in Lowville, N.Y. The Cobleskill Agricultural Society continues to do a great job as well.
HB: What do you see as the biggest challenge in maintaining those racing traditions?
Harless: When I started with the fair, it was during tough economic times. The Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association (OHHA) told us to batten down the hatches and do what you can to streamline and save. We were proud to have so many racing sessions when others were struggling to fill cards. We did what we could to have 10 races a day.
We helped start the Ohio Ladies Pace series. There were so many dynamic women on the backstretch, but very few drivers. There was no reason why there couldn’t be. I have granddaughters that I would love to see be able to make a living in this sport. The Ohio Ladies Pace series started as a necessity to fill races.
Roland: Racing at the county fairs requires a large number of volunteers. For example, people are needed to work at the concession stand, to sell tickets, take care of the track, clean the barns and so on. Therefore, the number of volunteers needed is the biggest challenge in my mind.
The harness racing in Iowa is supported by Prairie Meadows. They are obligated under Iowa code to fund the county fairs. This year it was about $1.7 million. They turn that money over to the state’s nonprofit board and we do all of the administering of the races as far as the officials, the purses, the race dates, the drug testing and the publicity. Our horsemen’s association handles all of that. There is no wagering on harness racing in Iowa. So, all of this is done by people who love racing and who come for the enjoyment of racing. People in Iowa are racing because they really, really like to. They are just happy to be competing.
Wand: Our biggest challenge this year was horse population. We were down in horses due to a few things, including Hawthorne and Running Aces racing into September. People enter racehorses in fairs through the summer and race in Chicago in the fall to make money. Now they have a short period of time to race pari-mutuelly, so that has hurt our county fairs.
We also have the older generations retiring and people not racing the same number of horses.
The other problem we have is money. The fairs have no pari-mutuel wagering, so basically we fund ourselves with auctions, raffles and things like that. We do have some fairs that contract with us to be their entertainment act, but obviously a small county fair can’t afford to pay us $10,000 to bring harness racing in. So, a lot of times we are racing on a per-race basis for $200 to $300. In Ohio, they are putting commas behind those numbers.
Wilmot: A lot of the challenges are because the fairs are truck-and-tractor minded. The younger generation isn’t that much into racing. The kids are all speed these days. Racing remains a family tradition. We tried a beer tent one year and it didn’t go over too well.
HB: How is the relationship between the racing side of the fair and the rest of the fair board?
Harless: We have the same issues as just about every other fair in the state. There are a lot of fair board members that just don’t understand the concept of racing. They are good, honest folks, but their agenda is hogs, cows or something else. The racing side must also know that it is about the junior fair as well. We must continue to work together.
Roland: Our fair board is really awesome regarding their willingness to volunteer for all types of activities. My dad and I need help with the horse racing side. The other fair board members are willing to help out with horse racing as well.
It is vitally important that we have members of the racing industry on their local fair boards. I understand that it is a time commitment, but we need to make sure we are available for the agricultural side as well. We recently had a fair in Iowa that dropped racing because there was not a horseman or advocate on the board.
Wand: We don’t have any fairs—knock on wood—with any animosity or conflicts. Everyone seems to know that we need each other to survive. There are people that come for the racing aspect. There are people that come for the 4-H exhibits. At one fair the horse barn is split with one half horses and the other half with chickens, turkeys and rabbits. The fair boards seem to get along for the most part.
Wilmot: The racing side is the horsemen that go from fair to fair. The fair side is divided between the rides, the carnival, the cattle shows and all of that. There is some harmony between the two sides. I have never run into any issues.
HB: What are the greatest challenges to gain new fans while maintaining the traditions you have helped to establish?
Harless: We try to do different things at Greenville and be innovative. We had a Gene Riegle bobblehead night. We had a series of beer steins and drinking glasses that we gave away. They host a youth camp here. This year we had tip sheets in every race program, and we had selections from Bob Heyden and Pacey Mindlin on Riegle night. We have a big picnic before the races and have Roger Huston come in.
I was nominated for the Post Time Show’s Innovator of the Year Award and they said we throw everything but the kitchen sink at the fans and we do.
Roland: As far as I am concerned, the greatest motivational factor to get someone to the races is to know someone who is participating, like your friend, your brother, your cousin or your neighbor. So, using Facebook to get people to post about what they are doing, when they are racing and how they are doing—it is important. The key is people participating in harness racing must be more active with social media. We need to talk about the good, the bad, the wins and how much people enjoy doing it.
Wand: As an industry, we need a marketing approach for two things: we need more owners, trainers and drivers, and we need more fans. We do all these promotions from the USTA program. If we get 50 new fans, that’s great.
From a participant standpoint, that is hard because it is so expensive to get in and extremely time consuming for someone here in Wisconsin. You have to learn the art of driving, you have to get licensed and all that. People today want the gratification, but they don’t want to put in the work. Everyone is busy, families are busy. It is very hard for someone to buy a horse, pay a training bill to race at the fairs for $200, $300 or $400. You are never going to recoup your investment; it’s just a hobby. There are not a lot of those people out there.
To gain fans, we need to do a better job with the social media route, Wisconsin included. We need to be more self-promoting. The tracks and fairs are not going to do it for us. Horsemen’s groups, the individual horsemen and trainers need to be able to get the word out and promote themselves. We need to take a step back and look at our public image. We need to promote the positive aspects of racing and not dwell on the negatives. At the county fairs, let’s promote the horses, the races and the positive things we have to offer.
Wilmot: Gaining new fans is really hard to do. We don’t get many fairs in New York to promote racing. The New York fairs are the local people. Next year is the Lewis County Fair’s 200th anniversary. We didn’t stop for World War II, but there were 25 years when there was no horse racing. It’s a little fair, but it’s getting bigger and better. Our fair is the third week in July. We go with a free gate and charge $5 a car for parking. We try to get new fans that way.
HB: Thank you all for your time.
Jay Wolf is the publicity director for the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.