The beloved Ohio fair circuit closed out its 2016 season on Friday, but left plenty of rich memories to augment a long history in the Buckeye State.
by Bob Roberts
It’s over. But before the stopwatches caught their final mile, an informal marriage derby was held not too far from the racetrack, and Robert and Margaret Hayden walked out from under a big blue and white striped activities tent as the couple wedded the longest. The Haydens, at 71 years and counting, will hold hands and the matrimonial honor through the weekend’s closing ceremonies.
Yet for those with a set of hobbles, as well as eternal and unbridled hope of victory, fair racing season in Ohio is officially over.
What started on June 13 at the Paulding County Fair in the northeast corner of Ohio when Say So Syd, a freshman pacing filly, won the first race of the day, ended here Friday afternoon (Oct. 14) in the center of the Buckeye State when Gliding Chip broke her maiden (after 13 misfires) in a dash with a $1,000 purse.
For those scoring at home, the 63 fairs saw 8,578 horses compete in 1,466 races for $7,960,299 in purses. The figures would have been a bit higher except that Henry and Montgomery Counties lost their race meets to weather and track conditions.
That Ohio’s county fair harness racing season, by far the largest and longest running in the land, ended in picturesque Lancaster with Fairfield County’s three-day meeting, is quite fitting.
“We’ve been here since 1850 and our fair is the last and best,” said retiring fair manager Dave Benson. “We’re very proud of the Fairfield County Fair.
So much so, that Benson and his staff offer a Fairfield County Fair Christmas ornament for $15 “to capture your cherished Fair memories for years to come.”
The fair scene is so woven into the life of the local population that the students of Liberty Union-Thurston Local school system are excused for classes for the entire week. The school board calls it “Fair Break.” The kids of the Lancaster City school system aren’t quite as lucky. They settle for having Thursday and Friday off.
While fair time is fun time, the folks of Fairfield County did suffer a major loss in anticipation of the annual fair when on the morning of Sept. 24 their century old wooden grandstand, located in the first turn of the half-mile track, burned to the ground.
Police suspect arson, but there have been no arrests.
The grandstand had long been featured in photos of the Fairfield Fair. A memorial to it was created with a photo of the structure placed under a tent on the spot where the grandstand stood with the words, “Thanks ‘Old Grandstand.’”
With so much money on the line on the Ohio fairs circuit, the quality of racing is quite outstanding. And, since a fair is a fair, the fastest mile this year was easily the 1:49 turned in by Betting Line in winning the Little Brown Jug at the fabled Delaware Fairgrounds.
Grand circuit racing aside, the fastest mile was clocked at the Darke County Fair at Greenville where Atta Boy Dan, a regular at Yonkers Raceway, shipped in to win the Aug. 26 Gene Riegle Memorial in a track record 1:52.
What was Atta Boy Dan doing in Greenville? Not only was he honoring the memory of Riegle, a homegrown member of the Hall of Fame, he was doing so for a purse of $35,000.
Not only are fast horses shipping from Buckeye fair to fair, so are consistently good ones. Bourbon St. Hanover, who prevailed on Friday’s final card at Lancaster, was winning for the 16th time this year. He ranks as the third winningest horse in North America in 2016.
And then there is Caramel Dumpling. The gelded pacer hung up his halter last at age 14. But before calling it a career he made 489 starts, many of them on the Ohio fairs circuit.
While records are sketchy, a United States Trotting Association official believes Caramel Dumpling is the most raced horse in harness history, including 56 starts in 2011. His last start? Of course, it came at Lancaster.
Race officials also show stamina. Gene Wiley of Richwood, a small town in Union County about a 25 minute drive southeast of the Delaware County Fairgrounds, has spent nearly 50 years on the Ohio fairs circuit.
At age 82, Wiley continues to work as a presiding judge at more than dozen fairs as well as filling in as a judge at three Ohio raceways (Dayton, Northfield Park and Dayton Raceway).
“For years, I had a few fair horses that didn’t amount to much, but I got my starter’s license in 1975 and that got me going as an official. I really enjoy the races,” he said. “Favorites? I like the fairs in Lorain (Wellington) and Champaign (Urbana) Counties.”
Gary Spiess, the presiding judge at the Lake County Fair in Painesville, faced a unique problem this summer. The mobile starting gate car was on the fritz.
“We had two options,” said Spiess. “We could go with nothing, which would have been difficult, or to go with a pickup truck. We used the truck and it worked out well, helping to gather the horses.”
Starter Dick Roth was probably the most challenged by the broken down car.
“We put him in a lawn chair in the bed of the truck with a walkie talkie,” said Spiess. “He survived.”
Chris Patterson, 64 of Cambridge, is the race caller at Lancaster. He is also the busiest of Ohio’s fair announcers.
“I’ve done 23 fairs this year,” he said. “I usually do about 30 fairs I year, but I slipped and fell on the ice and snow this winter and broke my right leg in three places. I was in a rest home for three months, recovering. The food was bad but I had a lot of 80-year-old girlfriends.”
Patterson, after serving as the track announcer at Scioto Downs for a couple of years in the 1990’s, has pretty much made a living on the fair circuit.
“I love the fairs,” he said. “I know where to get a great roast beef sandwich, the best pork tenderloin, and I get a paycheck every two days. What’s not to like?”
Patterson said his favorite fair is Wooster (Wayne County) because the horses are good and the bettors wager big money.
“But I think we’ve lost a lot of the big bettors,” he said. “I wish we could get them back.”
Another busy announcer on the fair circuit is Ayers Ratliff. He finds the time to wedge 13 fairs into his schedule that includes being the voice of Northfield Park and a city councilman in his hometown of Marion, Oh.
“I find the fairs very enjoyable,” said Ratliff. “It’s a great area of development for young horses and drivers. Also, you meet a lot of great people.”
As for Lancaster, Wiley said, “It’s definitely one of the prettiest fair settings. You have the leaves turning and Indian summer in the air.”
Wiley said one of his funniest moments as a judge came this summer when a woman came to him with a problem.
“She said her horse was sick and wanted to substitute another horse for the sick horse,” he said. “I had to straighten her out a little bit. Yes, just what we would have needed, a ringer in a county fair race.”
Wiley is not only looking forward to next year’s fair schedule, he’s looking forward to walking down the aisle.
“I’m engaged to be married,” he said. “I lost my wife of 58 years and three years ago I met a lovely lady.”
Hoover Fudge of Canfield, Oh, has been selling sweets at Ohio fairs for more than 60 years. This year the employees served up a bit of politics with slabs of its famous chocolate peanut butter fudge.
Positioned on both sides of the scale that weighs purchased confections are candy jars with the wording “Tips for Trump” and “Tips for Hillary.”
We’ve been doing it all summer and the Trump jar always seems to have more money in it,” said a Hoover worker.
But the guy offering Fairfield Fair memories they stretch beyond this weekend and this lifetime is Bill Boone. He is the president of Logan Monument Company and he has more than two dozen headstones on display just below the banked stretch turn at Lancaster.
“At 90 plus years, we’re the second oldest vendor at the fair. Only the cane toss guys have been here longer,” said Boone.
And the headstones and his newest product called Garden Tributes?
“I’ve sold two,” said Boone. “They are not just for broken down horseplayers.”