Harness racing is a fair tradition
Four horses raced around the track in front of a packed grandstand Saturday afternoon at the Walworth County Fair. Spectators clapped as the horses settled into the running line.
Angel Graves of Whitewater leaned over the stainless steel railing as Old Green Couch and Margene’s Kim raced next to each other down the home stretch, Margene’s Kim pulling ahead with mere meters remaining in the race to record a narrow victory.
She raised her arms in the air, race card in her left hand, and cheered.
Angel and her husband, Clarke, wagered a quarter each on win, place and show. It’s something they’ve been doing for years, they said.
“We just love the horses,” she said.
Turns out Angel won 50 cents, a quarter each on place and show. Clarke won 25 cents for selecting the first-place horse.
The Walworth County Fair is celebrating 150 years of trotting and pacing on the limestone track while fair boards across the Midwest have had to trim their harness racing programs, many considering eliminating the sport completely.
“This is what caused the fair to be in the first place,” said longtime harness racer Russ Dzurick of Elkhorn. “It was the tallest cornstalk, the fattest pumpkin and the fastest horse.”
Harness racing traces its origins to ancient Roman chariot races, but it developed in the United States when people raced their horses home from school, church or the store, he said.
“The sport has its roots in farming,” Dzurick said.
Harness racing is a popular spectator sport across the country and almost always packs the grandstand at the fair, said superintendent of speed Dyan McCabe of Elkhorn.
“I hear more people say it’s such a pretty sight,” she said.
In competitive harness racing, a standardbred horse is hooked to a two-wheeled cart called a sulky, where the driver sits as the races around the track. The one-mile races last less than 2 minutes.
“It’s the speed and the excitement,” said Bob McCabe. “It’s a sporting event, and it’s so exciting because the horses are bred to do this. These horses love to race.
“Horses are such athletes, so there’s a competitive nature to it that just gets the blood going.”
Bob and Dyan McCabe have raised, trained and raced horses for more than 20 years through their operation, McCabe Racing Stables in Elkhorn.
Both are found daily in the barns at the fairgrounds, getting their young horses acquainted with the harness, walking them around the track and then attaching a cart and “getting miles in ’em.”
It takes but a couple of weeks before a horse is ready to race competitively, they said.
For trainers such as the McCabes, the satisfaction isn’t just in the photo finish; it’s in the time that’s invested into the horse before it ever enters the starting gates.
“It’s nice to see a horse … if it has lameness issues, to get those corrected and then see it go out to race,” Dyan McCabe said. “They’re like any other athlete. They get injuries, aches and pains.”
Teaching the tradition
What makes harness racing at the county fair different from harness racing on the professional circuit is the trainers’ and drivers’ ability to educate people about the sport, Dzurick said.
“At the fair, people of all walks of life wander through the horse barns, asking the grooms about their horses,” he said. “The fair is about teaching people.”
Dzurick has raised, trained and raced horses through his operation, Bravo Stables in Elkhorn. He also raced horses professionally for 25 years.
He said modern equipment and increasingly higher stakes have changed the sport, making the races at the county fair a unique experience—one that must be preserved along with other county fair staples such as 4-H projects.
Dzurick said interest in harness racing is fading, unable to compete for fans that want to spend their entertainment dollar on big-name musicians, amusement parks and video games.
“But this is part of the texture that makes the fair,” he said. “There’s got to be a reason people keep doing these things.
“It’s a tradition—and it belongs here as long as they have the fair.”
HARNESS RACING 101
Harness racing: A form of horse racing in which the horses race for one mile in a specified gait, a trot or pace.
Standardbred: The breed of horse to which harness racing is restricted. The breed is so named because only horses that could complete a mile in standard time were entered into the stud book. Standardbred horses have shorter legs and longer bodies than thoroughbred horses.
Trotter: A horse that moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs, right front and left hind, then left front and right hind.
Pacer: A horse that moves its legs laterally, right front and right hind, then left front and left hind. The majority of harness races are pacing races. Pacers are faster and less likely to break stride,
Sulky: The lightweight, two-wheeled cart equipped with bicycle wheels that horses pull during a race. The driver, who sits in the cart, uses a long, light whip to signal the horse.
Hobbles: The straps connecting the legs on each side of the horse to maintain a pacing gait.
Break: To lose trotting or pacing rhythm. A horse that breaks into a canter or gallop during a race must be pulled back to its correct gait, losing ground to its competitors, or be disqualified from the race.
First-over: The first horse to make a move on the leader in a race, moving up on the outside.
Parked: A horse racing on the outside with at least one horse between it and the inside rail.
Boxed in: A horse racing on the rails and surrounded by other horses in front, behind and to the side of it.
Pocket: A horse unable to obtain a clear run because it has other horses in front, behind and to the side of it.
Cover: A horse racing with another horse in front of it, cutting the wind resistance.
Distanced: A horse that is out of touch with the rest of the field at the end of the race.
Source: United States Trotting Association
IF YOU GO
What: Harness racing
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Grandstand, Walworth County Fairgrounds, Elkhorn
Admission: Free for harness racing. Fair general admission is $9 for adults; $3 for children age 6 to 12 and free for children ages 5 and younger.