No state is home to more fair racing than Ohio, which kicks off its 2016 season at the 156th Paulding County Fair this week, the first of 63 meetings in 88 counties.
by Bob Roberts
The historic grandstand, made of some kind of wonder lumber, is 144 years old. Its foundation has recently being reinforced and is ready for the railbirds. And, oh yeah, grab a sausage sandwich before you scale the bleachers and sit down to handicap, because Dave Phillips, the speed committee’s director and superintendent, is touting them as the best you’ll ever taste.
Welcome to the 156th Paulding County Fair, home to three evenings of harness racing from June 13 through June 15.
It’s not like Presidents Bush or Obama or William Howard Taft (he was the very first) throwing out major league baseball’s opening day pitch in Washington D.C., but when the field assembles behind the mobile starting gate around dinner time this Monday in Paulding, one of the smallest counties in Ohio will once again kick off the largest and longest parade of county fair harness racing dates in North America.
Ohio more than doubles its closest rival. The Buckeye State will play host trot and pace meetings in 63 of its 88 counties, with two independent fairs thrown in for good measure. What starts in Paulding on Ohio’s northwest border with Indiana, won’t end until Oct. 14 when the final racing card at the Fairfield County Fair in Lancaster wraps up.
According to the United States Trotting Association’s annual Trot and Pace Guide, the state with the next most fair race meetings is Illinois with 32. Iowa has 26, New York 24, and Indiana 23.
“We like being first,” said Phillips of the Paulding’s presentation, part of the 22-fair Ohio Fair Racing Conference. “We go three programs due to the number of eligible horses. It seems that every horseman wants to bring their horses out to race. Of course, it’s tough betting on two-year-olds this early because they’re not proven, but we have a great fair.”
Phillips is most proud of what he says separates Paulding from every other fair in the state.
“Our fair is the only free fair in Ohio,” he said. “There is no admission charge to the fairgrounds. The corporations of Paulding County, through sponsorship, support us.”
Some counties work extra hard at gathering dollars from eager sponsors, none more creative than the Wyandot County Fair in Upper Sandusky. Among its programmed races are the Double K Sanitation Pace and the Stombaugh Batton Funeral Homes Pace.
If the Daily Racing Form is the bible of thoroughbred horseplayers, the Huff’s Fair Guide spreads the gospel for Ohio horsemen. The 100-page booklet offers condition sheets, post times, stall information and most importantly, the phone numbers of key personnel for each and every county fair.
The guide costs $9 and quickly sells out at tack shops on the backside of the four commercial Ohio harness tracks. This year’s cover proudly proclaims “110th annual edition” and adds that “Fair Time is Fun Time.”
Perhaps nobody agrees with the Huff’s leisure time motto more than Kenny Carrossellia. He lives in suburban Cleveland, is a regular at Northfield Park, but annually attends 20 to 25 fairs.
“It’s racing getting back to the basics,” said Carrossellia. “As a bettor, I feel I have an advantage over the farmers and fairgoers. The pools aren’t big, so the objective is to grind it out. If I’m having a good day, I can make $200 to $300.”
Carrossellia says he’s probably been to more than 35 different Ohio fairs and says his favorite is the Knox County Fair in Mt. Vernon.
“I love the place. The fair sits atop a hill and the track is down in like a valley. And I love fair food, especially the lemonade.”
What makes the Ohio fair network so unique is how the different counties promote their racing and the pride they take in the presentation of the sport.
It will be hard for any fair in the state or in the country, for that matter, to say they have a better race than Auglaize County. On Aug. 3, for the 12th time, it will present the $2,000 (guaranteed) Moon Walk Pace.
The race is named for Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first man to walk on the moon. Armstrong, who died in 2012, is a native of Wapakoneta, host city for the Auglaize races.
“Yes, Neil did attend the races here and saw the race that was named in his honor,” said Wayne Lybarger, the superintendent of the speed committee for Wapakoneta races. “But he was a low key person. He didn’t want to present the trophy, didn’t want anybody to fuss about him being there. So that’s how we handled it.”
Putnam County (Ottawa) celebrates the Kentucky Derby when it races June 21-22 with decorated hat contests for both men and women. Ottawa County (Oak Harbor) tantalizes by saying “Enjoy racing on the picturesque shores of the Portage River.”
Fayette County (Washington Court House) offers a race for fillies and mares called the “Classic.” It’s for freshman filly and colt pacers sired by stallions standing in Fayette County in 2013. If you have one, consider yourself lucky. The only foals eligible have to be by Art Official, Big Bad John or Feelin Friskie.
Break a track record at Knox County (Mt. Vernon) and get a brand new stop watch. Muskingum County (Zanesville) believes in cash. Break the track record there and the owner gets $500. The Huff’s page calls the prize money a “bounty.”
Most fairs warn of stall shortages. Clinton (Wilmington) and Columbiana (Lisbon) Counties go the extra step. Their page in the Huff’s guide read, “Be prepared to race out of trailer.”
There may be plenty of space at Jackson County (Wellston) but it may not be the biggest fan of communicating other than face to face. It warns, “Telephone entries are made at the caller’s risk.”
Officials of the Richland County Fair (Mansfield) may suffer from “Home Alone” syndrome. It’s Huff’s page cautions, “No horses left overnight.”
The largest and smallest counties with fairs with racing are Cuyahoga (Berea) with a population of 1.2 million and Monroe (Woodsfield) in southeast part of the state with a population of 14,589.
The most well-known county fair meeting in Ohio is Delaware County, home to five days of racing, including the Little Brown Jug, a jewel in the Triple Crown of pacing.
But the proudest of all the Ohio fairs is Darke County (Greensville), which like Delaware has five racing cards. A few years back, when asked why many people consider Darke the best, a woman there told a reporter, “Honey, compared to our fair, the rest of those fairs are just carnivals.”
See you in Paulding. At the races… and at the sausage sandwich stand.