Harness racing one of many traditions at Montgomery County Fair
By Rusty Pate
The pending arrival of fall means the return of school, fewer hours of sunshine and weekends full of football. It also means county fair season. While the old days of celebrating the harvest and showing off the products of a long season of farming no longer mean what they once did, fairs still play an important role in our communities.
The Montgomery County Fairgrounds again hosts the Montgomery County Fair this year, just as it has for the last 160 years.
“In 1853, it was first held on this location,” said Dan Bullen, general manager of both the fairgrounds and the Montgomery County Agricultural Society. “There were fairs prior to that, but from this location, it’s 160 years.”
The late 1800s saw the grounds expand after the Patterson family sold a large plot of land. The current grounds stand at 23 acres.
“At the time, that was farmland,” Bullen said. “It wasn’t part of the city. The city basically stopped where (State Route) 35 is.”
The 2012 installment will take place from Wednesday, Aug. 29 to Monday, Sept. 3.
Where the fair once was a place for farmers to display the fruits and tools of their labor, the modern fair takes a different focus.
“Nowadays, they are more of an education than a display of products,” Bullen said. “We’re trying to still promote agriculture education, because that’s what we’re here for – to promote agriculture.”
Still, it wouldn’t be a fair without rides, food, demolition derbies and harness racing.
Racing horses has always been a staple of the county fairs, especially in Ohio, according to Jon Weist.
“Harness racing was kind of the start of the fairs,” Weist said.
Before combustion engines took over the brunt of the farmers’ workload, they depended on horses. Tractors, combines and trucks represent just a few of the modern mechanized tools, but much of that work was once handled by animals. When a trip to the grocery was needed, the horse was the means of transportation and if a neighbor was also on the road, the natural competitive human nature kicked in.
“You know how that stuff goes,” Weist said. “Rivalries would come about – going to church or something, ‘my horse is faster than yours.’ Then they kind of evolved to the racetrack.”
The modern-day harness-racing horses have also evolved. They no longer work around farms or carry their owners to the market. The term is “standard-bred horses” and the focus has less to do with bragging rights and more to do with winning purses.
“Now, it’s more about money. It’s not a rivalry anymore,” Weist said. “It’s just a profitable business.”
There are two types of harness racing horses: pacers and trotters. The difference lies in how the horses move their legs. When a pacer’s right front hoof is forward, so is the back right. Trotters work the exact opposite way – when their right front hoof is forward, the left rear matches it. The horses also are split by sex, with fillies and colts having their own divisions.
Each type of horse is also classified by age in three different divisions: 2-year-old, 3-year-old and overnight. Overnight horses can range in age from 4 to 15. Once a horse reaches 15, it retires from racing.
The races have changed even in the last few decades. Where horses once ran two heats of a mile a piece, the modern horses just run one mile a day. Each race now carries its own purse.
The Montgomery County Fair features horses from the Ohio Colt Racing Association (OCRA).
“Most of the county fair purses for overnights is anywhere from $600-$2,000,” Weist said. “Some of the OCRA (races) for 2 and 3 year olds, they’re going anywhere from $2,000 to $3,200, depending on how many are entered in that race.”
Weist said the prime age for the racehorses tends to be from about ages 3 to 7.
The harness races take place Aug. 29 – 30 at 7 p.m. In addition to the races, fair attendees can play in a cornhole tournament on Friday, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. The truck and tractor pulls take place Saturday, Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. The demolition derby takes place on Sunday, Sept. 2 and Monday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. The tractor pulls and demolition derby have $5 admission fees.
On the entertainment side, bluegrass group Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers take the stage on Thursday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. Nashville singer-songwriters Michael Shoop and D.J. Phillips play Friday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. and the Miss Miami Valley pageant takes place Saturday, Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. Urban group Live Your Dream closes out the entertainment tent with two shows on Monday, Sept. 3 at 5 and 7 p.m.
On Wednesday, Aug. 29 through Friday, Aug. 30, Fair Time for Lunch Time allows patrons free admission from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Opening Day on Wednesday, Aug. 29 is half-price day for all patrons and the following two days, senior admission will be half price. Admission all other days is $6.
For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit www.montcofair.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@daytoncitypaper.com