GUEST COLUMN: Sadly, the Little Brown Jug isn’t what it used to be

Thoughts from a devoted Ohio Jug Head on what’s wrong and what needs to change about the event he loves.

by Brock Schmaltz

Growing up in Ohio with an award-winning racing writer for a father, the third Thursday after the first Tuesday in September has always been a holy day. My first Jug was in 1992 when Fake Left’s flared nostril denied Western Hanover and Ohio legend Gene Riegle their chance at the coveted vessel. The following year I clutched a rusty chain link fence, a whip-length from Riegle, as Life Sign’s heart was just big enough to give the Hall of Famer his first victory in the Great American Harness Race. That day, I learned what it felt like when tears fall on goosebumps.

In the subsequent 25 years, I have coerced professors into changing test dates, taken jobs based on my ability to take time off in September and even postponed the delivery of my youngest daughter so that I could roll my cooler onto the Delaware County Fairgrounds and listen to the ‘Voice’ Roger Huston remind me that lines are long and I simply MUST ‘Wager Now.’

In the past year alone, I danced my first dance with my wife staring out the barn doors at the aging grandstand and saw the unbridled excitement in my oldest daughter’s eyes when I told her that next year would be her first chance to play hooky and chain a lawn chair to the half-mile track for a glimpse at greatness.

I share all of this not to prove my bonafides, but to set the stage for the soul-crushing realization that set in this week when I told my father who missed his first Jug in over 40 years… that if he was going to retire to wine country, this was the best year for him to miss.

As my wife and I hauled the remnants of our annual Bloody Mary bar back to the minivan, it wasn’t our recent nuptials that we reflected on, but rather the past glory of this race, this day and this place that once were without parallel. While Father Time has been relentlessly assaulting the passionate ‘Jugheads,’ the fair’s facilities and the financial realities of holding world class racing one week a year, 2017 was the year he finally stuck his head in front at the wire. I learned what it felt like when tears dribbled where goosebumps used to be.

Harness racing has long struggled to balance its glory years and rich traditions with modernity and the reality of younger generations who have never seen a sulky or mucked a stall. Like a static roadside attraction built on generations stretching their legs and sharing memories, a metaphoric super highway was built a few miles away from the Jug and millennials can’t find either in their Waze app.

The time has come for this attraction to stop staring at an empty road and meet the people where they are and not look for them where they used to be. The sins are many and often committed out of circumstance or ignorance, not malice. Still, the results are just as catastrophic. Small purses. Short fields. An antiquated view of corporate sponsorship. Provincial and small-minded regulations designed with authority and entitlement in mind instead of accommodation. Positions granted by seniority in lieu of achievement. It’s time to look in one of the fractured mirrors hanging above the grandstand urinal troughs and commit to self-improvement.

That harsh reality set in when one of the most visible and active millennials in the sport stood with me next to the track on Jugette day and told me that he just didn’t understand what the hype was about and he felt like a dismissed outsider. To a Buckeye who grew up chucking ping pong balls at goldfish and betting with his father on just how fast Stand Forever could glide over the blistering surface prepared by Greg Coon, it was devastating news.

The good news is that it isn’t too late. An announced attendance north of 40,000 gathering mid-week to encircle a rural half-mile oval 30 minutes north of Columbus proves the appetite is still there. We just have to serve a better meal. What passed as think-pieces in the racing industry decried things like needing more owners in the sport and a lack of television coverage. Surely with those two panaceas everything would be back to normal, right? The mirror. I direct the entire industry back to the mirror. Look closely. Why would owners want to climb in a deck chair on the Titanic? Why would a television network, facing its own mortality, want to air another bad product? It’s the fall. There’s plenty of those losing money as you read this.

The Jug (and harness racing in general) are not irreparably broken. Paths to success have been paved or are just waiting for funding. The issue is to the cart-driving cognoscenti, those paths are uncomfortable, unfamiliar and will require unprecedented levels of cooperation and partnerships outside the industry.

Whatever your view of casino gambling, it is legal here in Ohio and as a result of tireless efforts by the equine industry, money is earmarked to protect and serve one of Ohio’s foundational industries. Unfortunately many of the same people lauding the Jug and its place in the industry’s past, present and future are the same ones withholding the pocket change necessary to make race purses competitive. The horsemen of this state have a vital role in the current struggles and future success as well. Racing at any track, especially Delaware, is a privilege and not a birthright. I am elated that foal numbers are finally again climbing in this state. But by carding innumerable state-bred races (over too many days) for a paltry purse and a chance for a winner’s circle photo at the Parthenon of pacing, we are celebrating mediocrity and not encouraging greatness.

The Little Brown Jug itself has always been, and will always will be, the powdered sugar of racing at the Delaware County Fair. But the crisscrossing and foundational batter of the funnel cake was the ancillary stakes races. Large barns from Canada and Pennsylvania and New Jersey may have one horse in the Jug. But they could send caravans housing their best and brightest for the Jugette, the Old Oaken Bucket, the Buckette and the divisional Standardbred stakes. Now, they’re sending a one-horse trailer housing their three-year-old colt pacers. Who can blame them? Onerous fees, track personnel treating them as interlopers and purses lower than overnight races at Buffalo Raceway all serve to dissuade the mighty barns from leaving their comfy confines. Delaware should be a half-mile proving ground on the way to Lexington’s hallowed Red Mile and the Breeders Crown, but it’s now an over-priced and under-appreciated speed bump.

Kudos to North America’s drivers, the visible human stars of the standardbred sport, for continuing to make the trek. They know that for a trainer from Ashley, Ohio to hand the reins to Yannick Gingras is still something special. They know that the chance for Roger Huston to call their name as they cruise past the transplanted mums is still something that can infuse adrenaline into a schedule that sees them driving in thousands of races per year. The reality is that’s not good enough. If they’re stars, they should be treated as such. Karaoke at the demolished Delaware Hotel is off the table, but how about asking folks a few miles down the road why the top golfers circle the Memorial Tournament in sharpie every year. It’s more than just on-demand milkshakes. They are treated like rock stars, not the in-house cover band. Hospitality, respect and gratitude still mean something even in a digital age.

While the conversation is taking place in the House that Jack Nicklaus built, perhaps discuss how to stroke the corporate sponsors that trip over themselves to overpay for weekly badges and marked up liquor. I guarantee sitting under a canvas tent with weeks-old Vietnamese shrimp that are comfortable In their fetid environs won’t come up. With a robust food scene in central Ohio and a burgeoning booze industry, there’s no excuse not to involve them in this high profile event.

Nobody loves Columbus more than Columbus. We want to support our own. We just need a reason. Even if that’s just some well-placed pats on the back, integrated promotions targeted at key demographics and a pro-am over the Delaware oval. Our dearly departed Dave Thomas couldn’t have gotten a leg up on Sectretariat, but we could have put him behind Niatross.

Columbus has the infrastructure to help Delaware succeed. One of the best Vet Schools in the nation with a Dean who is pro-equine could use the day and the week as a proving ground. Former Hoof Beats editor Nicole Kraft already uses it as such for her journalism students so is that such a stretch? With a Sports Commission led by the incomparable Linda Logan bringing numerous high-profile events to Columbus and an integrated support system of corporate sponsors drooling over additional opportunities, how are they not more involved? The answer is they haven’t been engaged due to provincial and parochial ‘small-p’ politics.

New fair manager Sandy Kuhn is a passionate and lifelong advocate of agriculture and agribusiness. She is like a caged tiger waiting to pounce on opportunity. She just needs a longer leash and a mandate for change; not a directive to hold the line at any cost.

As a PR professional and a business owner, I am prepared to put my time, talents and treasure on the line to help. My past and my children’s future are on the line. But I can’t do it alone. Is the industry ready to help? It’s belated. But it’s not too late. But it will be soon.

Rome is burning. And all I hear is someone fiddling Glenn Miller’s 1939 classic ditty … Little Brown Jug.

— Brock Schmaltz is the owner of High Stakes Public Relations in Columbus, OH.