A Flair for the Fair
It started this past June after a winter's worth of preparation when we ventured from the home office in Grove City loaded with the Tent, the table, and the Wheel. We also brought along new tee shirts, a collection of trivia questions, some sharply-designed sets of prizes and headed up to the Paulding County Fair in Paulding in northwestern Ohio. The very first of Ohio's 67 County Fairs with harness racing.
My journey of over 10,000 miles had begun.
Driving into the now familiar fairgrounds we waved at and were greeted by numerous people remembered from last year. "There's the guy with the Tent," was often overheard.
We were pleased to see that the press releases which we'd sent out as well as the whole of the three days of racing in its entirety was covered by The Putnam Press along with pictures.
In the midst of the evenings races I poised a question to Judge/Clerk/Announcer (and a hundred other duties) Bill Peters about an idea Susan Schroeder and I had been bantering about.
"A simple question," I offered, "something that they could find in the program like... who's the oldest driver racing tonight?"
"The oldest driver?" Bill answered immediately. "That's Dave Swazey... he's 85."
"Yeah," I agreed, "something easy that the fans could look up in the program and text their answer to me."
"Okay," said Bill, "when do you want to do it?"
And that was the start of our Text Trivia contest.
As a crew of us descended upon the Pickaway County Fair in Circleville the next week we decided to give the Racing With The Stars fan contest a trial run. OHHA Director Renée Mancino had said to "see how it goes." Admittedly it was a bit of a sell to explain it to people and even those involved but when it brought contestant Tom May into the Winners Circle for the "very first time" in his life, his smiles and excitement made us realize we had a winner too.
The Circleville Dispatch graciously covered each racing day's recap just like when Harness Racing was King and the RWTS contest really made great copy as almost every contestant had a story to tell.
In Ottawa in Putnam County we were greeted as old friends and made welcome at Marion in their second year that racing had returned.
An unexpected gust of wind at Marion lifted the unsecured (the first and only time) tent and flipped it over a six-foot high fence and onto the track upside down. As several other people sprang into action and grabbed the tent, I stood slack-jawed as I had never seen anything like that in my life. I came to though when a deluge of water drenched us.
It was comical to think back on it and was the story repeated by many fans throughout the summer.
On to London, Bellefontaine, Wellston, Oak Harbor, Hilliard, Washington Court House, Lebanon, Marysville, and by now we'd gotten a good harmony going between the Wheel, the RWTS contest, and Text Trivia. Bill Peters, along with the other announcers at the Fairs (Ayres Ratliff, Chris Patterson, and Doug Ballinger) were now starting to play it up a bit. When Chris Patterson would roll out "RACING... with the Stars!" I would do my best Power Ranger stance.
The prizes were well-received... tops on the list (other than a tee shirt) were the horse Kan Koozies ("I want one of those" I heard all summer) and I believe RWTS went through 1,500 of them. The kids went crazy over the Pony Bags with the USTA's "A Standardbred Star" coloring book and crayons included. The squeals of joy and the wide grins made even the grumpiest of old curmudgeons smile.
There were long lines and fun times at Eaton, Bowling Green, Wapakoneta, Xenia, Croton, Celina (what a great turnout for Foiled Again), Troy, Attica as fans would sign up for the RWTS contest, spin the Wheel, and be quick on the cellphones for Text Trivia.
We traveled through towns almost like a whirlwind campaign tour so quick that we never saw the good press that we got along the way. I'd like to take this opportunity now to thank the Editors for giving us copy.
The only bad stretch of weather we had all summer was in August as we went from Hicksville to Lima to Hicksville as rain seemed to follow us back-and-forth. Hicksville was able to get its program out but despite all the valiant efforts Lima had to cancel.
Greenville hosted the most impressive crowd when Foiled Again made his appearance at the Great Darke County Fair and brought back memories of the good times we all once shared. Mike, our RWTS contest winner, and his family had box seats along the rail for the Fair since 1986 and when he journeyed out to the Winners Circle and saw the pack grandstand before him, he said somewhat in awe "this is the first time I've ever been on this side of the fence... Wow."
And don't you think 2018 won't be his best Fair ever?
Mt. Gilead fans were really involved with the RWTS as was the crowd at Van Wert, Wauseon, Richwood, Montpelier, and Upper Sandusky. The mutual folks became part of the contests as they would always stop by for a visit.
The Fair regulars who traveled the circuit would always come by and always entered the RWTS contest. They became quite adept at playing Text Trivia too often guessing the answer before I even asked the question. It became an effort for me to try and outsmart them too but usually I only outsmarted myself.
Once I had scoured my brain for a tougher one and Ayres announced: "what is the only horse that has been 'on the board' - 1st, 2nd, and 3rd - for all of his 2018 starts?"
"Good question!" said perennial player Ron C. as he leafed through his book. He then calmly informed me "but there's TWO of them."
"Either one's acceptable," I snapped with a shake of my head.
When we reached Delaware for Jug Week, we had worked out most of the kinks (hopefully) and were able to give a announcer Jason Settlemore some error-free questions.
"Is this that trivia thing?" he grumbled as he sorted through stacks of his paperwork (like he didn't have enough to do already) "Okay,' he consented. "I'll do a couple."
By Tuesday Jason had gotten into the spirit of it and was even playing theme songs to various quiz shows just before questions such as "Who was the first trainer/driver to win back-back Little Brown Jugs?"
Longtime Delaware horsewomen Terri M. said of the contest: "it was pretty cool to see everyone looking in their program all at once in search of the answer" ...which was: John Simpson Sr. in `57 and `58.
OHHA gave away a lot of prizes to a lot of visitors at the Jug and the entire crew from the home office put in a very full week.
With the final fairs at Dover, Coshocton, and Lancaster the 2018 Fair Season was over and the RWTS (western division) had visited 45 Fairs.
A thank you to all the track photographers who shared their space with me: Brad, Ken, Jake, Annette, Shari, and Bob. By the way: I was that guy over your right shoulder.
While we were treated so very well at all the Fairs by the Officials and crews and so many others who put in one heck of an effort to entertain the fans, I do want to give a tip of the well-worn red cap of mine to Henry County for going that extra mile. Not only did they keep everyone involved with music and giveaways between the races but for the six weeks leading up to their two days of racing in August they had the local paper run articles on their hometown horsemen. It is press like this that shows how involved harness racing is in the community and introduces the sport to your friends and neighbors. The adage about news runs true: keep it simple and keep it local.
Added to the fact that Jeanne Gerdeman and her Speed Committee cleaned up and resurfaced the track so the Napoleon fans were treated "as promised" to numerous new track records and an exciting evening of fun.
It was an example how it can be done so that it keeps the fans coming back.
Thanks to everyone who made it a great year for Harness racing in Ohio and thank you for bringing back the thrills, the smiles and the laughter to us all.
Addendum - when we arrived for the WOCRA/OCRA awards banquet in November we were warmly greeted by several of the Fair Directors. As one shook my hand I kiddingly asked "where do you want me to put the Tent?"
"We've got a spot for you right over there by the wall," he said without missing a beat.
Gene, Gene, the pacin' machine...
He was born during the days of some of the toughest combat in World War II… before Operation Overlord, better known as D Day, the Invasion of Normandy began. Legend has it that he was foaled in the infield of Putnam Country Fairgrounds in Ottawa, Ohio and it was only natural that he become a great half-mile track horse.
Bred by Ottawa native Clinton Lighthill (born 1888) the son of Bert Abbe-Rose Marie would pace free-legged and win 14 of his 16 two-year-old starts, campaign in New York under the guidance of Fred Parks from Canton, NY – who called the colt “the safest free-legged pacer he had ever handled or seen for that matter” – raced until he was six with 49 wins, 46 seconds in 151 lifetime starts and go on to rewrite the record books as a sire.
His name was Gene Abbe.
In 1952 he went to stud at Toledo Doctor Roy Knisley’s Eventime Farm in Washington Court House, Ohio (later to be bought in 1959 by their trainer Eddie Cobb of W.C.H. and Adolph Golden of Coshocton and renamed Fair Chance Farm) but Gene Abbe would service his best years at Hall-of-Famer and Northfield Park founder Walter Michael’s Pickwick Farms in Bucyrus, Ohio. Under the supervision and management of Hall-of-Famer Hal Jones, Gene Abbe would be the first to incorporate artificial insemination and become the first stallion of any breed to register more than 100 foals in a breeding season eventually standing from 1951 through 1977 and siring 1,073 foals. Ironically Gene Abbe was only five generations removed from another prolific sire by the name of Hambletonian.
His sons and daughters made headlines as well such as Rex Pick p 4, 2:00.2h, a foal of 1960 who earned $277,918 and raced against harness racing’s first millionaire Cardigan Bay; the often-remembered full brothers 1956’s Stephan Smith p, 1:58.4h ($335,527) and Irvin Paul p, 1:58.3f ($548,518), a foal of 1957; Blaze Pick (one of them “Pick” horses) who took a mark of 1:59h in 1969 as a five-year-old and earned $297,677 who’s unraced 1970 daughter JR Amy would be bred to the Meadow Skipper line stallion No Nukes in 1980. She would produce World Champion and another excellent sire in Jate Lobell p3, 1:51.2m who would earn $2,231,402 in his two years of racing.
While I’ve researched Gene Abbe and his progeny (especially these past few days) my own experience with them date from the early `70’s when I began paddocking on my own at Foxboro’s defunct Bay State Raceway and an 11-year-old gelding by the name of Skipper Gene. He was in a cheap “claim-ah” by then, with a tag of $2,500, and I was scurrying around to make sure I was doing everything all right. As he stood calmly on the crossties and I took his gear off I remarked to the trainer’s wife that he “looks like an old mule.”
“This is a GOOD horse,” she barked as she glared at me. “He raced in the Little Brown Jug! He holds the track record at Rockingham! And he doesn’t look like any MULE!”
I quickly went back a few steps and agreed with her 100%. Particularly when I found out that he had raced in the 1965 Little Brown Jug… against Bret Hanover.
And held the half-mile track record at Rockingham with a mile in 2:00.2h in 1967.
And earned $136,587 – back then – the hard way.
While Skipper Gene’s momma, Karen O. was a non-descript mare by Shamrock Joe, her bottom line traced back to Butternut King who was by Billy Direct.
Gene Abbe was bred to so many different lines of mares (according to Hal Jones “Mr. Michael wanted quantity”) such as Humdinger Pick p9, 2:01.3h out of one of Hambletonian winner Scott Frost’s daughters. When Jones moved to the newly-formed Blue Chip Farms in 1969 he brought the 25-year-old stallion with him. Sly Attorney p, 1:54.4m ($325,051) arrived in 1971 but his best and just about his last was a foal of 1974 from a Shadow Wave mare that competed on the New York half-milers by the name of Big Towner p, 1:54.4m ($547,518).
Towner would win the $227,000 OTB Classic as a three-year-old in 1:58.3h after being parked the entire mile and always put the fear into Governor Skipper whenever they met at Roosevelt or Yonkers and would go on to be a dominant broodmare sire too.
While this might seem like ancient history there is another nice colt that traces back to Gene Abbe on both sides of his pedigree that you might have heard of this past month. He was named Ohio’s’ Horse of the Year: Gary and Barbara Iles’ Lather Up, p3, 1:48.1s ($967,612)
Because a good horse, and a good horse story, never goes out of style.
* * * * *
So Eben, a big, strapping, not-too-bright farmboy from Iowa, would walk 8 miles to the nearest neighbor to pick up his mail about once a month. She was a large, unattractive woman with a huge wart on her chin but she had a caring heart and was always up on the latest news. He arrived one late afternoon.
"I'm afraid," she began, "but I've heard that your Aunt Henrietta has passed from cholera."
"Aunt Henrietta!" he called out in anguish with his eyes welling with tears. "She was my favorite aunt!"
"There, there," said the woman as she hugs him to comfort him. She gives him a kiss on the cheek.
He looks into her eyes and they're suddenly both overcome with passion, They tear their clothes off and go hot and heavy for three solid hours before they collapse exhaustedly.
"I truly apologize, ma’am..." he stammers.
"I understand. I understand," she says quietly as she tries to compose herself.
They both get dressed. He tips his cap and heads back to the farm.
A month goes by. Eben goes to the neighbor to check his mail again. He's met by the woman.
"Your Cousin Loretta has died from typhoid."
"Not Cousin Loretta!" yells out Eben.
It was the same scenario as they embrace and literally go wild for over three hours.
Again he sheepishly apologizes and then is on his way home.
Four weeks pass before he goes back to get his mail where the woman is at the door waiting.
"Your Uncle Luther has been bit by a rattlesnake," she calls out. "And the good news is that they don't expect him to last the night!" ***