Race of the Week 2017

Thoroughbreds Steal the Show at the Van Wert County Fair

Photo: Madison Jackson

Junk food, loud music, and carnival rides are some things that come to mind when one thinks of elements of a good, old-fashioned county fair. When thinking about it, some equestrians even entertain the possibility of seeing live Standardbred races at their local fair. In fact, in the Midwest, it’s almost a rarity to see a county fair without some type of horse racing, whether it be with Standardbreds or barrels. It seems that only one major, racing breed is left out, and this raises the question: can Thoroughbreds successfully run in a county fair?

The Van Wert County Fair in Van Wert, Ohio answers that question with a resounding yes. The only fair in Ohio and one of only a handful of fairs east of the Mississippi to put on live Thoroughbred racing, Van Wert offers veteran racegoers and new fans alike the opportunity to witness the sport of kings in an extremely family-oriented environment. When walking in, the fairgrounds are alive with activity: some fair-goers walk to and fro between different food vendors, searching for the perfect fried indulgence, while others buzz around the outside fence of the track, hoping to catch a glimpse of the racehorses parading in front. Here, age truly is but a number; on the rail in front of the looming, century-old grandstand a seasoned handicapper marks up a program, while three feet to his left, a child attentively plays with a toy bulldozer in the grass. 

“It’s just a great atmosphere,” Van Wert Fairboard Director and Speed Superintendent Mike Poling replied when asked what he thought of the fair’s environment. “It’s actually kinda like a family reunion. You don’t get this atmosphere in a commercial track.” The fair director wasn’t just saying this to promote his fair; throughout the entire day, one could continuously hear surprised greetings from old childhood friends seeing each other for the first time in years, or from different Thoroughbred trainers who hadn’t spoken in ages. Mixed in with those, though, were the inevitable, constant introductions one found him or herself making in the familiar racetrack environment.

Hardly any spectator stood alone near the rail, and those that did ended up conversing with another in some way, whether it was with a young adult seeking handicap advice or a constant racegoer who simply loved to talk. This fact is something Poling, who oversees the six day, 161 year-old fair, seemed to be particularly proud of. “We’re small enough that it gives us that family feel. Everybody kinda knows everybody, you may not know them like you know your next door neighbor or your best friend, but because of the event itself, they like coming here and catching up, they have a good time for a day, make some memories, enjoy the day, eat some good food, go home, and wait for next year.”

Racing fans that sat faithfully by the rail, despite the 93 degree heat, were rewarded with a day of eventful Thoroughbred and Quarter horse racing, which was then followed by Standardbred racing later in the day. Van Wert’s $21,600 racing card started out with a 220-yard Quarter horse dash, and was followed by eight Thoroughbred races in distances ranging from five to eleven furlongs around the half-mile track. The winner of each race was presented with a special blanket embroidered with the name of the race’s sponsor, and was then walked out of the winner’s circle and off the track to the applause of the many racefans. Later, the $6,000 Vince & Dianna Smith’s Memorial Derby concluded the ten-race card, and Maelstrom, trained by Josh Bishop and owned by Norman Bishop, took the race by open lengths. 

Though the glamour of the Ferris wheel looming over the Thoroughbreds as they run makes Van Wert feel invincible, it still faces many of the same problems that plague the rest of the racing industry. Horse racing in general has taken a serious hit in popularity since its prime in the 1950's and 60's, and Van Wert is no exception. Poling believes there’s one explanation for this. “Technology,” he blames. “You know, with all the technology, you’d think it would have made it easier for people to get information and come back to the sport, but instead it gave them more options for things to do and discover more interests that they didn’t have before. And now we’ve got to use that same technology and the same method that took them away, to bring them back.” 

“But you look out at those stands,” he pointed at the grandstand in the distance. “There are a lot of young faces out there and that’s good for us.” As the horses run by, the awe in the faces of countless children alongside the rail seems to say that, maybe there is hope after all. And if at least one of those kids goes home and turns on TVG, or follows a racetrack on social media, it will have been worth it. In those respects, Van Wert is not only home to the only Thoroughbred fair racing in Ohio, but it is also home to where many longtime racegoers got their start, and where many more will continue to return. 

~Written and Photos by Madison Jackson @MaddieJacksonTW


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