“Ain’t nothing I know of can make you fall in love like a night at the county fair.”
It took me six months to work a line from my favorite country music artist, Chris LeDoux, into a column, but I finally found the right spot to do it.
Don’t worry. I’ll explain.
On the way back from spending Labor Day weekend in Michigan visiting family and, of course, going to Mount Pleasant Meadows, I took a detour to the Van Wert County Fair in Van Wert, Ohio.
What drew me off the beaten path to this modest county fair in the middle of nowhere Ohio?
Horse racing. Duh.
The Van Wert County Fair is one of a very small handful of fairs east of the Mississippi River to offer pari-mutuel flat track racing. As readers out west surely know, the fair circuit is still kicking on their side of the country, but for whatever reason, the tradition has largely died out as one heads eastward.
The Van Wert fair runs a one-day, quasi-sanctioned card of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing each year on Labor Day. The purses are modest, the races don’t show up on Equibase and the starting gate is as rickety-looking and claustrophobic as they come. After seeing photos of the Van Wert races on the Facebook page of some friends who took their horses to run there, I knew this was a place I needed to see.
I arrived in Van Wert in time for the sixth race after a late start getting on the road. The program stand was sold out, so I took the advice of a mutuel teller and hung around the garbage bins until somebody discarded one. It took me a while, but I finally managed to snag a clean program. Not surprisingly, the information was spotty at best. Lots of handwritten information.
In the last four days, the track’s surface had hosted two days of harness racing, a truck and tractor pull and, on the night prior to the races, a demolition derby. Nobody was going to blame his or her horse’s performance on the surface being too deep.
Additionally, there was no inside rail – only pylons from the harness racing days to mark where the suggested boundaries lie, with one pylon surrounded by a long, neon green Styrofoam tube to mark the finish line.
Instead of a booth above the grandstand, the announcer and placing judges were situated on an elevated platform next to the finish line. If riders wanted to file an objection, they rode their horses right up to the stand and state their case.
As for the riders, their assignments were announced over the loudspeaker as they entered the paddock. One jockey puffed on a cigarette while riding through the post parade. I am not an advocate of smoking, but this was truly something to behold.
At this point, it would be understandable to wonder where I am going with this, aside from describing an offbeat racing destination. Again, don’t worry. I’ll explain.
As I noted earlier, the programs sold out by the sixth race. Unless the printer broke down, that means the place drew a crowd, which it most certainly did. The grandstand was packed and it was just as populated around the track’s turns and backside with tailgaters who grilled and enjoyed spirits like they would for a football game.
The crowd demographic was quite a bit different from the average racetrack. The stereotypical down-and-out degenerates that populate the bigger tracks were few and far between, or at least their cries were drowned out by the brass band that played in between races.
It seemed like the coveted “young people” demographic was not terribly in force, but the “very young people” group was there in spades, and they can be just as valuable.
The number of kids with what appeared to be a legitimate interest in what was going on was rather staggering. Even if some of them were still deciding on which horse they wanted to “vote”, they still formulated legitimate analyses on the races before them while their supervising adults filled in the blanks.
These kids may not be able to put money through the windows, but creating the desire to play the races down the road is worth just as much.
Warranted or not, most racetracks do not have a reputation for being a great place to take the “very young people” demographic unless they grew up in the industry. Generations of real and imagined stories about shady dealings and Runyon-esque characters are enough to convince most parents to look elsewhere. The advent of casino gaming at the racetracks has only furthered this notion.
A county fair does not carry this stigma. The family and agricultural atmosphere creates a safe environment for parents and grandparents to bring their young ones once or twice a year and teach them about racing. To bring it back to the Chris LeDoux quote, the county fair is a great place for kids to get an up-close, hands on introduction to horse racing and fall in love with the sport.
For those who believe we can’t count on tomorrow to save today, consider the size of the crowd and the money they put through the windows. With no extended meet to worry about maintaining purse structure or facilities, there is a good chance a significant portion of the handle goes to the county fair, strengthening the community without leeching tax dollars from the public.
Somewhere along the line, the eastern part of the country appears to have lost its way in regards to fair racing. The sport has lots to gain in reviving the tradition, from generating local grassroots interest to giving horses and connections a place to run in an era of consolidation.
Besides, horse racing is way more fun on anything on the midway.