SIDNEY — The tradition and magic of horses flying through the air again charmed the Shelby County Fair on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
The harness races, held at the grandstand, were free to fair-goers. On-lookers crowded the bleachers and fences outlining the grandstand track and on the lawn outside of Emerson Elementary School.
Gamblers had the opportunity to bet on the 13 races held on Tuesday, July 23, or the 11 races held Wednesday, July 24. Every 15 minutes provided an opportunity for seven new horses to fly around the half mile track twice for the mile long race. A rush in the air was palpable.
Horse drivers hailed from across Ohio, Indiana and Michigan for a chance to win a pay out of up to $4,200 on at least one of the Wednesday’s races.
Harness racing begins at a running pace behind a rolling starter car. The car has the race gates attached to the back and then as the gates go up, the vehicle veers off to the side as the horses gain speed and continue around the track.
“Alright ladies and gentlemen, lets bring ‘em this way,” race starter Mike Woebkenberg, of Preble County, instructs the riders, as the starter car slowly rolls toward the top of the track. The starter car then picks up speed, as do the horses. He next tells riders to “gather ‘em up” or bring the closer together to avoid anyone to get an unfair advantage as the horses gain speed toward the point where the race gates go up.
Mike, along with his wife Becky, operate the rolling race gate, which is a moving starter vehicle with the race gate attached to the rear.
He has a unique perspective on the race, not only visually by facing the excited horses with tongues waging, but also from years as a former driver and trainer himself.
Mike sits in the back seat of the starter vehicle, facing the rear toward the trailing, oncoming horses, and opens the race gate, and operates the vehicle’s power. Becky steers and gets the vehicle moving. The husband and wife team is the starter for races all over the midwest, including Miami Valley Gaming, Hollywood Racing and over half of the 66 county fairs in Ohio for the last 27 years.
“We have 70 horses tonight (on Wednesday),” Mike said. “We are a very family oriented industry and multi-generational. Everybody knows everybody. We have drivers who do this professionally and for a hobby. We have men and women drivers. It used to be that 65 to 70-year-old (drivers) was the average. Now it’s (age) 35 to 40. It’s at the county fairs where you learn how to race and drive.”
“No other sport has men and women on equal footing to compete as this sport,” he continued and noted there were women and men drivers in Wednesday’s race day. He also pointed out that one of professional drivers, Sherald Haynes, was 84-years-old, and is “tough as nails.”
“We are doing fine (today). It has its ups and downs like anything else,” Haynes, from Michigan, said, although he admitted they didn’t do well with his first horse’s race. He travels every week to race and was at the fair Wednesday with two other drivers.
Michelle Cauldwell, of Leesburg, was racing for the first time at the Shelby County Fair. She recently obtained her driver’s license to race after helping her family for the last seven or eight years.
Cauldwell’s brother Roger Hughes, of Jamestown, said their team had four horses competing Wednesday. It is just a hobby for he and his sister. He works a full-time job, races for fun and also paints the helmet the drivers wear. Hughes said although his family has been involved with harness racing his whole life he took a small break from it and has only been racing again for the past 10 years now.
“I enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun,” Hughes said.
Mike pointed out that when county fairs originated 100 to 150 years ago, they started out as races and then all the other stuff, such as the food stands, games, livestock shows, and rides were later added.
“We don’t do a good enough job educating the public (about the benefits) of our races,” Mike said of the racing industry which he said puts billions into the Ohio economy.
During more than one race, Mike pointed to the horses’ feet speeding around the track. “Just look at their feet! You can see daylight under all four of their feet. They literally flying through the air. It never gets old watching they them fly.“
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