Harness racing fans satisfy old-fashioned need for speed

Sunday afternoon was hot, but a crowd still gathered in the aluminum grandstands and under surrounding shade trees to witness one of the Washington County Fair’s annual traditions-harness racing.

“This is the main event we came for, although we also like to see the 4-H exhibits, but we enjoy watching the horses,” said Betty Lott who sat in the grandstands with husband, Michael, during Sunday’s races.

“Horses were here long before the monster trucks and tractors,” Michael added. “And we just love to watch this event.”

The couple didn’t place bets on the horses, although pari-mutuel betting was permitted during each of Sunday’s 10 races.

It was a different story for Gerald Schwartz of Marietta.

“I enjoy watching the harness racing, but I think it’s more interesting when you place a couple of bucks on the race,” he said. “And you don’t make any money doing this. But I’ve been watching these races for 57 years now-they go back as far as I can remember at the county fairs.”

Schwartz said his interest in harness racing began during his youth as a local 4-H Club member.

“It was something different to do at the fair,” he said.

Dave Myers, 54, of Logan was one of the harness drivers during Sunday’s event, which included between 50 and 60 horses. He’s been harness racing for 34 years.

“I’m originally from Pennsylvania where we lived close to the Meadowlands (racetrack near Washington, Pa.),” he said. “I spent a lot of time at the track, and that’s where I became interested.”

Myers later began racing at Scioto Downs in Columbus. He said the sport can be dangerous.

“When I was younger it was a real adrenaline rush to race, but lately my main concern has been on safety,” he said. “I’ve had some wrecks, and one time even broke my back.”

Myers noted many county fairs have eliminated harness racing over the years, but the sport is enjoying some new popularity since states like Ohio have enacted legislation that allows casino and “racino” gambling at state tracks.

Mike Woehkenberg, starting judge for Sunday’s event, agreed.

“Sixty-five out of 88 Ohio counties do harness racing,” he said. “And this fair gets purse money and some extra funding that comes through pari-mutuel betting statewide. The state also makes money off of the betting that is used annually to support local schools and education.”

Woehkenberg added that each of the horses brought to Sunday’s harness racing event translates into between $1,000 and $1,500 pumped into the local economy through gasoline, food and lodging purchases.

“And we have all the same elements as NASCAR,” he said of the harness racing circuit, noting the harness drivers wear similar flashy outfits and race around a track-but with “1-horsepower” vehicles that don’t require gasoline.

“We also have a 300-year tradition in this country-something that NASCAR doesn’t have,” Woehkenberg added.