Fair play in Ohio

The Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association broadcast nearly every one of the 65 Ohio fair race meetings, counting 128 programs and nearly 1,400 races in 2023. Some 1.5 million people were exposed to its live streams.

by Bob Roberts

There is nothing in North American racing that compares. Without a doubt, it’s the ultimate equine caravan, the pride of Ohio horsemen. Hobby to some, lifeblood to others. And, while the Buckeye state has four pari-mutuel harness raceways, its 65 county fair race meetings and 128 programs, totaling nearly 1,400 races from June through October, is a treasure.

Remarkably, all the action in 2023 was seen live, from the first race through the last, on YouTube and Facebook, as presented by the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association.

“Well, we actually missed two cards this year,” said Frank Fraas, the OHHA’s outreach and public relations coordinator. “There was a rescheduled rainout (Aug. 15) at Zanesville [Muskingum County] and a conflict with three other fairs that prevented us from airing the final program [Sept. 4] from Van Wert [Van Wert County]. Otherwise, we had it covered.”

Covered but good.

According to Fraas, the presentation racked up some incredible viewership numbers.

“It was unbelievable,” said Fraas. “Using numbers from YouTube and Facebook, 1.5 million were exposed to our live streams. That includes 100,000 on Little Brown Jug Day and 252,000 for the five days of Jug week at Delaware. We were seen in 28 states and legitimately in 20 other countries.”

While Fraas did commentary on 25 telecasts, Susan Schroeder, the OHHA’s project coordinator, was the most familiar face, appearing on 50 shows. She even ran camera on one of them. Matt Clark, the OHHA’s video production and media content creator, was behind the camera for 53 fairs.

Fraas said he put 7,100 miles on his car getting to the fairs and back home to Columbus this year. He smacks his lips when it comes to fair food, professing that nothing beats the Trojan Burger at the Hartford Fair in Croton. It’s named for the area’s Centerburg High Trojans and the stand is run by the school’s athletic boosters.

“It’s a Big Mac on steroids,” said Fraas.

On the fair tracks, the champions were Jeff Nisonger, who led all drivers with 90 victories and Betty Clegg, the top trainer with 61 winners. Dunkin’, the star of the Clegg barn, was the winningest fair horse with 15 scores.

“We raced at so many fairs that they kind of run together, but Dunkin’ was special,” said Clegg. “He was so consistent.”

Nisonger was sulky supersonic. He drove at 29 different fairs in a season that was sometimes a blur.

“I was very busy, but it was a good year,” he said. “Wilmington was one of my better fairs.”

Nisonger dominated the Clinton County Fair at Wilmington on July 11 and 12, winning 13 races, including seven in a row. He had 22 drives over two days and was unplaced just once while adding five runner-up finishes and three third place showings.

Next to winning, Nisonger said you can’t beat the Farmer Brown steak sandwich at the Darke County Fair.

“It’s the best,” he said. “I’ve seen the line stretch to where it takes 30 minutes to an hour to get served.”

Here are some of the non-fattening highlights of what online viewers and those in the grandstand saw, stretching from spring through fall in 2023.

The season began on June 12 at Paulding with Why Tomorrow Ray, a 3-year-old pacer, winning off by 21 lengths. It was the start of a strong campaign for the son of Racing Hill. He would win six of his nine fair starts and finish second in the other three. The next day, Lady With No Fear, a sophomore pacer, topped Why Tomorrow Ray by romping by 21 1/2 lengths.

At Circleville (Pickaway County), two aged pacers, Blazen River N (on June 17) and Big Booty Rudy (June 18), missed the 28-year-old track record of 1:57 by a fifth of a second.

Pierce Henry dominated the action at Marion (Marion County) with nine winning drives in two days (July 3-4), and a week later at Wilmington (Clinton County) a lot was happening. Not only did Nisonger win 13 races, Dragon Grad missed the track record of 1:55.3 by a fifth of a second, and there were two dead-heats for win. Drew Neil, the second winningest driver on the year (58 wins) rallied horses to be parts of both deadlocks. In one of the deadlocks, Nisonger missed making it a triple dead-heat by a mere neck.

Nisonger and Dan Noble dominated the July 17 program at Lebanon Raceway (Warren County), winning 11 of the 16 races (six for Nisonger) while a pair of sophomores (Fiesty Sam and Jumping The Line) trotted within a second of the track record of two minutes flat.

Grover Hill moved to the head of the pack of romping fair winners July 18 when he scored at Oak Harbor (Ottawa County) by 21 ¾ lengths, topping Lady With No Fear’s Paulding score by a quarter of a length.

The July 18 doubleheader card at the Caroll County Fair at Carrollton was a celebration of a life well-lived when driver Don McKirgan won a race on the afternoon card and one on the evening presentation. He did so at the age of 82. He was just three months shy of his 83rd birthday.

The Carrollton races also saw a track record performance when Townline Flight paced his mile in 1:57.2, shaving a fifth of a second off the mark set last year by Rockin Requiem.

The Crawford County Fair at Bucyrus saw the largest winning margin of the year get a new leader after the freshman trotting filly Tammie Sue buried her rivals by 24 lengths for trainer/driver Darren Harvey on July 20.

Fiesty Sam missed the track record at Lebanon, but he got it at Marysville (Union County) on July 23 when he trotted home in 1:59.3, eclipsing the former mark of 2:00.2 set by Blasco. The son of Victory Sam is owner, trained and driven by Matthew Brown.

A race is a race, even it’s just a two-horse race. Which makes the effort of Unhinged in a race on July 26 at the Shelby County Fair at Sidney, the largest winning margin of 2023. He won off by 27 ½ in a pedestrian 2:11 over a track labeled “good.”

For years, Don Irvine, Jr. dominated the races at Northfield Park. At age 72, he reached back for a bit of the old magic on July 28 when the Summit County races were presented at the Rt. 8 oval. Irvine won five of the 16 races, including a sizzling 1:54.4 mile behind the trotter Along In Time.

Nisonger and Hank Le Van shared sulky honors July 30 at the Preble County Fair at Eaton with five winners each, but Le Van won the day as he trained all five of his triumphant racers. Le Van had 47 scores on the year, second only to Clegg.

In a July 31st race at the Columbiana County at Lisbon, a race in which all three starters broke, the 5-year-old pacing mare Filet Mignon got back on stride and stayed there to win off by 39 lengths, the new holder of the largest winning margin of the season.

It took just two days for Filet Mignon to lose her ranking. Besting a three-horse field on Aug. 2 at the Auglaize County Fair at Wapakoneta, Normally Stormy marched off to a 47 ¼ length laugher. It was the maiden victory for the 7-year-old mare and her only triumph of the year.

Both Wapakoneta track records fell, as Four Wheelin trotted in 1:59 on Aug. 1 to shave a fifth of a second off the mark set in 2019 by Rockinthepines and matched in 2021 by Windsong Patriot. The pacing standard fell Aug. 2 when Dancinbytheseaside, a 3-year-old filly was clocked in 1:56, erasing the 1:56.1 mark set by Mystical Rock in 2018.

Unraced at two, Vh Volt made up for lost time in 2023 by winning seven times, including an Aug. 4 score at the Athens County Fair in Athens with a track record mile in 1:57. VH Princess Brea set the standard of 1:57.3 in 2019.

Another track record fell on Aug. 6 at the Ross County Fair in Chillicothe. Party Boy Hill, racing in the final heat of the day, won off by 6 lengths in 1:56.3, knocking a fifth of a second off the old mark set by C’mon Cha Cha Cha in 2006.

There were no track records or length-of-the-stretch victory margins at the Champaign County Fair at Urbana on Aug. 8, but the purses were eye-openers. Of the 11 races, nine carried a purse of $20,000 and another offered $10,000. That’s big-time racing at the fairs.

When Nick Clegg got Dunkin’ to go wire-to-wire Aug. 15 at the Henry County Fair at Napoleon, it gave the sophomore gelded son of Pet Rock his ninth consecutive Ohio fair victory. He would go on to win six more fair starts. His only loss on the Ohio circuit came at the Delaware County Fair when he finished fourth in the $61,500 Ohio Breeders Championship.

A few years back, when a worker was asked to rank the Darke County Fair at Greenville against the others in Ohio, she quickly answered, “Honey, compared to our fair, the rest are just carnivals.”

The annual four-day Greenville celebration ended in record-breaking fashion on Aug. 24 when both the trotting and pacing track standards fell. Yo Mister, a 4-year-old gelding, got the trot record in 1:55, clipping a fifth of a second off the record set by I Know My Chip in 2019 and matched by Smoking Jet last year. The pace record of 1:51.4 was established by Swing City in 2017, but Charlie May crushed it in 1:50 in winning the $35,000 Gene Riegle Memorial Open. He romped by 9 ¼ lengths.

Brett Miller drove both Yo Mister and Charlie May.

Vh Volt, a track record setter at Athens, collected a second record at the Monroe County Fair at Woodsfield on Aug. 22 with a 1:56.1 mile. His bragging rights lasted just 34 minutes. Rockin Requiem, driven by Ronnie Gillespie, went wire-to-wire two races later in 1:55.4. The old mark of 1:57.3 was set by J J Tanner in 2019.

A track record, and a track record equaled made for a lively two evenings (Aug. 28-29) at the Noble County Fair at Caldwell. Hillbillypacinhill, a 3-year-old gelding, blasted to a 1:56.2 clocking, knocking a full second off the 26-year-old record set by Glive in 1997. On the second day of racing the aptly-named Father Time (he’s 6) won in 2:00 to match the trot standard set by Uncle Leroy in 2018.

The casual racing fan might not have given much thought to Southwind Amazon’s 1:57.2 mile at the Stark County Fair at Canton on Aug. 30. While It did equal the track pacing record set by E T’s Camille in 2000 and matched by Beedis (2001) and Jomary (2003), it meant he stepped a little closer to history. The 13-year-old Southwind Amazon has won 130 races and is eight victories away from being harness racing’s all-time winningest horse.

Three horses no longer share the Hancock County Fair trotting track record of 2:00.2. Stoney Ridgetop’s 2:00 mile at Findlay on Aug. 31 erased the work of Sonofapreacherman (2003), Wardon’s Daughter (2012) and Sultan Of Cash (2022).

The renewal of the Mahoning County Fair races at Canfield on Sept. 4 resulted in both the pace and trot track records falling. Tan Man lead from start to finish and won by 14 ¼ lengths in 1:53.3 to lower the pace mark that was set at 1:54.1 by Bittrsweetsymphony in 2022, and Majestic J in 1:56.4, nicked a fifth of a second off the trot mark set by Talladega Hanover in 2013.

In a battle of 2023 track record setters Hillbillypacinhill (Noble County) got the better of Vh Volt (Athens and Monroe) on Sept. 3 at the Washington County Fair at Marietta, eclipsing the 1:58.3 pacing mark of Cam-N-Sam’s Trick with an eye-popping 1:57 effort.

If there is one fair that is more a pari-mutuel raceway than it is a county fair, it’s the Delaware County Fair and its historic Little Brown Jug. The track records survived the five days of action this year (Pet Rock’s 1:48.1 pace mark is now 10 years old) and no horse won off by a record margin. So, if you want to relive Jug week, try Harness Racing Update’s archive files.

Dunkin’, whose only Ohio Fair loss would come later in the week at Delaware, was on his toes at Ashland (Ashland County) on Sept. 18, not only winning, but doing so in track record time of 1:57.2. The old mark was 1:58, set by Bourbon St. Hanover in 2016.

The most stubborn county fair track record in Ohio is the pacing standard at Coshocton (Coshocton County). When Beach Party won on Oct. 4 in 1:56, he matched the record set in 2003 by both Secret Harbor and Jomary and repeated in 2007 by Gerald N Sam.

It is somewhat fitting that the last track record to fall in the 2023 season would come in the final race on the last day of the last fair, the Fairfield County Fair at Lancaster. On Oct. 12. Toureg Seelster, with a late surge, caught Rockin Requiem (who set the track record at Monroe County), in 1:57.4. The old pacing mark was 1:58.3 set by Ocean Pearl in 2011.