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Published: Sun, August 26, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ASHLEY POWERS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

CANFIELD -- The countdown is under way.

A few cars litter the lot in front of the administrative building. A tipped trash can here, a fast-food wrapper there defy the cleanliness of the midway.

The concept of a fair implies a quick setup, instant gratification. Concession stands roll in, rides reach for the sky, people pour through the front gates, all in a matter of days.

But before the Canfield Fair -- a fair that gets almost a half-million visitors each year -- the scene should be more hectic, right?

Well, sort of. The action today is at the racetrack, where a heated battle is riveting the empty green bleachers of the grandstands.

At one end of the track is technology; at the other, nature.

Nature just lapped technology. Twice.

The fair is edging perilously close for both: the horsemen and women training their racing steeds and the groundsmen prepping the fairgrounds. Both are consumed in these weeks with perfection, either with being the fastest or the most pristine.

Big event: For racer Jim Criss of Benton, this is the big one. The home fair, the place where he stables his six horses. He'll race Friday, Saturday and Monday of the fair, with his 13-year-old niece, Lauren George of West Branch, standing by.

Lauren pets the horse he was training on the grandstand track, Western Prize. "Look at the muscles in his body; he's got good lungs and speed," she said. "He just wants to race."

It's six-day-a-week, year-round training -- the type of attitude exuded by many people who bring animals to the fair.

"You start with a young horse," said Criss, 52. "You break him, you get him whatever he needs, you see how far he can go. Like a coach to an athlete."

The payoff comes down to milliseconds.

Groundskeeper: Curve around the racetrack, away from the stables, and you'll meet a man who is concerned with milliseconds, too. But it's the first impression Ray Penny is worried about, not the finish line.

The leveler lapped by Criss' horse on the track is one of many machines Penny, 74, of Canfield, will drive back and forth across the quiet grounds in the next week and a half.

"Some days a waterline will break, some days you'll load manure. There's all kinds of little stuff before the fair," he said.

He said his attention to detail, "keeps the horse people happy." And the pig people, the cow people, the stop-and-look-at-the-animals people. He's done this for 17 consecutive years.

"I can sit back and say I help do this and do that," Penny said. "And it makes me feel good to upgrade the fairgrounds in some way."

The morning gives way to afternoon. Criss grooms his horse. Penny continues driving.

Each, in their own way, is putting his mark on the fair, slowly, steadily. In the next few days, hundreds of others will do the same.

But right this minute, it's still preparation time.

apowers@vindy.com




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