Thanks to the efforts of Brian Tropea, the Ontario Harness Horse Association and Oshweken band leadership, Saturday’s short fair racing meet was deemed a success.
by Garnet Barnsdale
Fair racing with pari-mutuel wagering in Ontario was all but dead, but thanks to many dedicated people it has made a home at the Oshweken Fair the past two years and they held some races there again Saturday afternoon in front of a decent-sized enthusiastic crowd. While there were only four races on the card, two of them were for purses of $5,000, which is much higher than a typical fair purse and the racing was competitive despite the small fields.
Ontario Harness Horse Association (OHHA) general manager Brian Tropea played a big role in organizing the event and he explained how the Oshweken Fair resurrected harness racing, at least for the time being.
“Going back three or four years ago, some members of the council here approached us about possibly building a racetrack at some point on the reservation, so I’ve appeared in front of the council a couple of times and met with the gaming commission on the reservation,” he said. “So there’s an interest in bringing racing back here, so this is helping to get some exposure for harness racing and help build up some support for it.”
It was also hoped that carding some races might get more people out to the fair. “The fair was also struggling with attendance, and it was seen as a way of boosting attendance, and it’s worked for them,” Tropea said. “Albert Green is instrumental and the driving force getting it all organized and getting sponsors and the purse money. They’re giving away $14,000 in purses in four races and that’s all because of Albert’s hard work.
“It’s nice to see and I wish we had more fair racing around the country. If we could box it up and say to the fair: we’ll bring the starting gate and the horses, we’ll do the draw and we’ll get the programs done we might be able to bring some fair racing back again. There are still some places that have good half-mile racetracks. It would get the communities involved and get more exposure for harness racing again.”
Bandleader Ava Hill said she was pleased with the turnout, which looked to be around 200.
“I’m looking around trying to compare it to last year’s crowd, and it looks like it might be about the same, or a bit bigger,” she said as she scanned the fairgrounds. “We’re just so happy that harness racing is back, because it has attracted the crowd here to the fair.”
Hill explained that it takes a lot of work and dedication to get the races up and running. “It’s all done by community volunteers, part of the Six Nations Agricultural Society,” Hill said. “This is 151 years that we have been having our fair, and I just said to my cousin that having harness racing here brings back so many memories. My father (Fred) used to be a driver, so we would do the whole fall fair circuit back in the day. Hopefully we can make an impression on other fall fairs to bring harness racing back, even if it is only four races to start.”
Local councillor Mark Hill echoed the bandleader’s remarks about harness racing becoming an attraction at the fair. “We wanted to get people out into the community and see what it’s all about,” he said.
Green sounded determined to get the races back running at the fair, despite facing local skepticism. “We raised quite a bit of money through sponsorships this year and last year,” Green said. “With the money we raised last year, we put up some paddocks in the back and we could accommodate 37 horses now.”
Green’s efforts to get harness racing going again weren’t met with unanimous optimism, but he persisted. “There were so many people that told me that we would never have racing back here again,” he said. “I was told that right to my face, and I said, ‘We’ll see. Let’s see if we can pull ‘er together.’” He also mentioned that he hoped the purses would help attract more entries in the future. “Seventeen years ago, we were racing for $500,” he said. “Now we’re racing for $5,000 and every horse that races here gets a cooler. One guy told me that was unheard of.”
Winners on the card were Flysantanna for driver Ken Oliver in 2:01.1 in the $5,000 opener; Lyonsfair Hanover in the $2,000 second race also for Oliver; Mighty Mouse in the $2,000 third race for teamster Scott Coutler and Vijayscam in 2:02.2 in the $5,000 finale for reinsman Don Graham. While the estimated crowd of about 200 didn’t break any handle records by betting $2,096, it was obvious by the buoyant mood of the event’s organizer’s that the unanimous feeling was that this was just another step in the comeback for harness racing for at least one Ontario fair.