By Ashley Luthern
As horses sped around the Canfield Fair’s half-mile grandstand track Saturday, local racing organizers and officials say the sport is charging toward a brighter future in Ohio.
The Canfield Harness Horsemen’s Association, one of the largest horsemen’s groups in the state that has been active in the Mahoning Valley for more than 30 years, presents the races each year, but the number of horses and the total number of races have declined over the fair’s history.
“The horse industry is way down in Ohio in harness racing due to area places that have slots at the tracks. The majority of racers around here will compete at Meadows [in Pittsburgh] or county fairs,” said Tim Bates, a member of the Canfield Harness Horsemen’s Association.
Forty horses raced Saturday, compared with the usual 60. Racing used to take place at the fairgrounds Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday, but is now scheduled for only two days, Bates said. The first race Saturday only had one entrant (and no wagering was allowed in that race).
But the association is optimistic because of the upcoming opening of Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown.
“Even though a different breed of horse will race there, we’re so excited by Austintown’s opening,” said Joan Day, who co-owns Two Day Stable in North Lima and had horses competing at the fair Saturday.
The horses that race at the fair are standardbred; those that will compete at Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course are thoroughbred. The U.S. Trotting Association is the governing agency of standardbred horses and their owners.
“With all the wagering going on, a percentage of some of the money will be used to promote harness racing here and around the state,” Day said.
Bates said as more racers competed out of state, traveling to areas that had racing and slots, the breeding farms left Ohio.
“It’s declined over about 10 years, and it will probably take about 10 years for those breeding farms to return,” Bates said.
Fair board member George Roman said throughout the state, county fairs have stopped offering harness racing, but that it remains a staple event in Canfield.
“It goes back to our theme of “Celebrate the Harvest” and keeping with to tradition. The Canfield Fair has offered harness racing for a long, long time,” Roman said.
Fairgoers who crowded into the grandstand were as enthusiastic as ever as they watched eight races, five pace and three trot. Trotters have a diagonal gait while pacers have a lateral gait, with both front and back left legs moving in unison.
“The grandstand is free, and people still line up along the fence on the edge of the track. We’re getting a lot people going inside to watch the harness racing,” Bates said.
One of those spectators was Samm Lewis, of Warren, who said she keeps coming back.
“I like the horses, and I like the people,” she said.
Lewis had a race program that outlined which horse was running which race.
“Everyone will choose a horse based on something different. A lot of times, people base it on the horse’s name or number or the color it has. I usually look at how they place in previous races,” she said.
The fair offers a seminar on reading the race program and parimutuel wagering 30 minutes before the races start.
The largest purse offered Saturday was $2,400 in the 1-mile pace “free for all” and also in the 1-mile trot “free for all.”
To put that in perspective: It costs $60 to $85 to shoe a horse, which should be done every six weeks; a race bike costs between $3,000 and $4,000. A longer, heavier jog cart used for training is about $1,000. High- quality wheels can cost about $2,000. The harness is about $500, and grain and hay to feed the horse is about $100 a month.
“That’s not even including the cost of purchasing your horse or any veterinary bills,” Day said.
Roman said the fair board appreciates all the local racers who come out to the fair each year.
“It’s getting harder and harder to maintain these horses, and it’s expensive. It’s not a sport you get into on a whim,” he said.
Harness racing will be back at the grandstand at noon Monday. Fairgoers can meet a racehorse at the south end of the track at 10 a.m. and attend the free parimutuel wagering seminar trackside at 11:30 a.m.