Blue Ribbon Fair

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Iowa horsemen win 2017 USTA Blue Ribbon Fair Award

Family is paramount to racing in Iowa.

Families have been racing in the Hawkeye State for generations. The families that participate feel that the family atmosphere on the circuit—which consists of some 40 dates at 12 locations throughout the state in 2017—is what makes their little corner of the harness racing world worthwhile for horsemen and fans alike.

“I bring my whole family,” said Mark Mintun. “We set up a whole tent. The kids get to play and I get to race. Then after the races we sit around and talk about the races. It turns into quite the event.”

BIG WIN AT HOME: Trainer-driver Brandon Jenson joins his family in the winner’s circle after scoring with Crow Bait at the Humboldt County Fair in Humboldt, Iowa–his hometown track. Photo by: Mark Hall

Mintun, a former Marine, said his family had quite a bit to talk about in 2016. He drove then-8-year-old trotter Mama Made Me Blue to 13 wins at Iowa fairs, including the fastest mile by a trotter in Iowa that year: 1:58.1 at the Wapello County Fair in Eldon. Mintun co-owns the gelding with his sister, Stephanie Gould, as well as his cousin, and Lindsay Sponheim. Curtis Carey trains.

“It’s a little more laid back here,” said Carey. “I’ve raced on the East Coast and it’s more of a grind out there–not much of a family atmosphere. I’m third-generation and we have a family farm. It’s me, my cousin, my grandpa is 95–he comes out every day to the barn to help with chores. Everybody in our family is around every day for the most part.”


Driver Mark Mintun said he loves racing in Iowa because he can bring his whole family. Photo: Mark Hall

The horsemen have also taken major steps in marketing their events to families to come out and enjoy their racing, primarily through the use of the USTA Matching Funds Grant program and social media. Because of this, the Iowa Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA) was named the recipient of the 2017 USTA Blue Ribbon Fair Award.

“Who else is going to do it?” said Royal Roland, IHHA president and a USTA District 4 director. “It’s our responsibility.

“It’s up to us to promote. The aspects that are most enthralling about harness racing are working with the horses and being able to be in the barns and visit with trainers. The horsemen are the best people to motivate others to do that, too.”

Royal Roland (left) and his brother, Duane, were the driver and trainer, respectively, of Roland N Rock, Iowa’s fastest pacer in 2016 (1:55.3 at Humboldt). Photo: Mark Hall

Fair racing is the backbone of the sport in Iowa—especially since the harness racing meet was eliminated at Prairie Meadows—the state’s only pari-mutuel facility—in 2011 (see sidebar titled “Funding Iowa Racing”). And like any good family, the horsemen in Iowa banded together to preserve their racing heritage at its county fairs.

The IHHA set up a marketing plan in order to attract families to the races. The plan included a race schedule poster which included all the dates and locations of the racing circuit. IHHA members then asked local businesses to hang the posters to attract people to the races.

“The use of racing photos are great eye-catchers to get people to view the posters and review the schedule for a location close to them to come see harness races,” the IHHA wrote in their Matching Funds proposal to the USTA.

The backstretch at county fairs is a great place for kids to get close to horses. Photo: Mark Hall


Kids set up their own races after the horses were done at Humboldt. Photo: Mark Hall

The IHHA also takes out print advertisements in the “Hawkeye Trader,” a free publication that is distributed every three weeks throughout Iowa, and even into Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas.

The IHHA also made great strides in their social media marketing. Earlier this year, they hired Tara Spach of Georgetown, Ky., to coordinate their social media efforts, particularly on Facebook. The Facebook page ( currently has more than 1,100 followers, who can see event reminders, photos, and even live videos of the races.

“We are seeing a much greater use of Facebook and social media as far as being able to pinpoint our fans,” said Roland. “It’s more effective and more cost-efficient to reach them via Facebook.”

But the main attraction is still the live racing at the county fairs, and the IHHA has special activities and contests for the families that come out to watch the races. Each race day features a “Pick-10” contest that awards $1,500 to anyone who can pick 10 consecutive winners. According to Judy Roland, that feat has only been pulled off twice in the 13 years of the contest. Also, each race features a “Pick-a-Winner” contest, where those who submit the winning horse can have their name drawn to win cash or can cozies.

Pick-a-Winner contests are a great way to keep fans engaged in the races. Photo: Mark Hall


Roland said that it’s a whole “family” effort by volunteers to put on the races, from running the race office, to maintaining the track, to manning the information booth.

“It’s an effort by our whole association,” he said. “From working with the fans to using social media to rewarding the people that are here–it’s a little bit of extra incentive to get people to have a good time when they are here at the races.”

Story by T.J. Burkett

To see more from the August issue of Hoof Beats, click here.


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