I'd been planning on visiting County Fair Racing in Illinois for some time now. For some years now, actually, ever since I learned it existed. But I never quite got around to it, because all the fairs where they do this are way downstate, where the old ChumpMobile couldn't go, and because all the race days seem to be weekdays for some reason, and then on the few weekend dates I was always busy doing something else.
By way of background, Illinois county fair racing is supported directly by the state, through purses put up by the Department of Agriculture, and is designed, as best as I can determine, to support the horse segment of Illinois agriculture. The horses normally seen in these races are the ones that aren't quite good enough to compete in the Illinois restricted races at Fairmount Park. The winningest breeders/owners/trainers of Fair horses seem always to be members of the Holsapple family, which has many representatives throughout the state. Ever since I started getting the Illinois Racing News I've been reading about the Fair races, and it seems it was once, not too long ago, a very vibrant circuit. But like all the rest of Illinois racing, the racing at the fairs has fallen on lean times over the past couple of years.
So anyhow, this year, against the backdrop of rapidly shrinking foal crops of Illinois bred horses, and races at these fairs being cancelled more and more for lack of horses, and even a number of fairs dropping racing altogether, I decided I'd better get out there this year and check it out before this particular facet of horse racing in Illinois dries up and blows away, too. As soon as the IL Dept. of Ag. published the Fair racing schedule back in May or whenever it was, I found the only weekend date on the calendar, namely 7/25 at the Fulton County Fair in Lewistown, IL, and marked the date. This year, I was gonna be there no matter what.
So The Big Day came, but The Big Day didn't start out so great. First I was delayed getting out of Chicago until 10:00 am, which essentially eliminated any spare time I might have in getting to Lewistown (sw of Peoria, nw of Springfield, 200+ miles from Chicago). I'd have to hustle and break a few speed limits to get there by 1:00 post time. Next, at a combination Amoco station and McDonald's down south of Joliet, the damn mechanism of Pump #1 didn't shut off automatically when the tank was full, and sprayed gas all over the LR quarter panel of the poor ChumpMobile. Then the stinkin' McDonald's was out of coffee in BOTH big coffemakers, so my "large" was more like 1/3, and none of their napkin dispensers had any ^$%^^% napkins in them, and so on top of already being smoking mad about being late, I was now double smoking mad from the stoopid combination Amoco and McDonald's.
Tragically, this was only the beginning.
Finally I'm down south of Bloomington, heading west toward Lewistown on a little two lane road cutting through fields of soybeans and tall corn, and judging by the distance I've got yet to travel, and the time, I might JUST make it maybe a little after 1:00 pm post time, and so maybe I'd only miss one race. So be it.
HAH, CHUMP! The racing gods have other plans for you. For there, on the side of the road, about 30 miles into the cornfields, is a sign, an orange construction sign, and what does that sign say? Well, it says "Bridge Out at Havana", Havana being the town at the end of this particular road, just on the east bank of the Illinois River. And Lewistown is a few miles on the west side of that same river.
A quick perusal of the map reveals that there are no other bridges over the Illinois River anywhere close. $%*&%$@# !!! However, at the bottom of the orange construction sign, there's another little orange sign, and it says "Free ferry service available. Expect delays". Now then - decision time. Turn north and go all the way back to Peoria to another bridge, and arrive in Lewistown an hour late, or take my chances on the ferry, even though the damn thing will probably capsize anyhow and drown the ChumpMobile the way this day has been going so far. Well hell - there's no one on this road but me - how long of a line of cars can there be waiting for the ferry, anyhow?
The proper answer was "a line five blocks long". Which moved 1/2 block in the 20 minutes I sat in it, which is how long it took me to calculate that at this rate I would be across the river by Tuesday. And so, starting at 1:25, about the time I imagined that the 2nd race was probably going off at the Fulton County Fair, until about 2:45, when I imagined they were probably just about over, the good citizens of the Illinois River Valley were startled by the flash of the ChumpMobile speeding by, up the river almost to Peoria again, across, and then back down the other side, some 75 miles on twisty little two lane roads through twisty little two lane towns with twisty little two lane in-town speed limits, to reach Lewistown, which had been only about 8 miles away as the crow flies as I sat in that stoopid ferry line.
Fair parking: $1:00. And what a deal that was, too, as I was directed to drive across the horse racing track, and park in the infield. Cool! And as I exited the car, I heard the announcer imploring the winner of that 3rd mule race to come on back to the front of the stands if he wanted a Winner's Circle picture taken, so at least hopefully I hadn't missed everything.
Fair admission: Free. Horse racing admission: $2.00. Unfortunately they were out of programs by the time I got there, so I had no idea what I had missed, other than three mule races, and what was to come, but the announcer was now calling the horsemen for their "2nd call for the 1st thoroughbred race".
The track at the Fulton County Fair is a dry, dusty, hard, and somewhat rocky (I know, I walked across it) little 4f bullring off to the side of the fair grounds proper, with a parking lot for an infield, a few barns on the backstretch, a small covered grandstand structure maybe 20 rows deep, and a small set of metal bleachers off to the "grandstand" end. No safety rail here - the outside is a post fence, and the inside is a low wooden fence about horse knee high that a horse could go over and into the infield in a moment's notice if it felt so inclined. The announcer's booth is a small stand in the infield, and the Winner's Circle follows the same fine tradition of the one at Saratoga, minus the chalk. Today we had maybe 200 people in the stands and the bleachers and the beer garden watching the races.
The first thoroughbred race turned out to be a 5f MSW event for Illinois bred 2yo fillies, running for a purse of $2750. This race originally had six entrants, but one was scratched. After much cajoling by the announcer for the horsemen to get their horses ready and then to get the jocks up, the horses appeared from the backstretch by the barn area and jogged on by the stands for the post parade. The horses themselves didn't look too bad, but only two of the riders appeared to be real jockeys, while the riders of the other three horses I'm not sure about - they appeared in jeans and cowboy boots and regular shirts, with flak jackets over their shirts, and then what looked like exercise helmets. All the jocks were laughing and joking with the crowd, which, as Ted M. predicted, wasn't doing any official betting, but all of whom seemed to be intensely interested in which horse was going to win, and why, anyhow, and everyone there seemed to be having lots of fun, including me, whose bad attitude had melted as soon as I stepped out of the car in that infield and smelled the wonderful smells of a fair.
After taking a saunter around to the backstretch, the horses approached the starting gate positioned up the top of the stretch by a tractor that had to pull both the gate and the truck that normally pulls the gate since the truck didn't seem to be working, got loaded up, and then they were off, kicking up small clouds of dust from the track that was so desperately in need of a visit from a water truck. I'd been concerned that I wouldn't be able to tell what horse was doing what in the race, as I didn't have a program, but the announcer saved me from confusion by calling the race according to number: "Alright we got the 2 with the lead going into the first turn, and the 4 is right there with him, but it's still the 2 down the backstretch, AND HERE COMES THE 6!"
And win that first race the 6 horse did, in a strong move through the stretch, finishing the 5f in 1:01.86, which I personally didn't think was all that bad for a 5f race around two turns. Winning trainer/owner was Monty Ragan, who is also a regular fixture on the Fair circuits. After the picture ceremony down front of the stands, I decided I'd wander out into the Fair proper, and see what I could find in the line of food and drink.
Saturday was the final day of the Fulton County Fair week, and the fair itself seemed to be a ghost fair. Hardly any people on the grounds, carnies standing around their booths and rides bored to death, the Tilt-A-Whirl running with just one rider, the animal barns deserted except for a couple cages of chickens in the Chickens and Rabbits barn, and the mandatory display of farm machinery standing lonely and quiet, and a little bit dusty after a week's worth of displaying, with nary a little kid clambering over any of it, like we always used to do at the Montana State Fair. There were still plenty of food stands in operation, offering the usual fare of corn dogs and cotton candy and snow cones, and several offering that rural Illinois favorite, the butterfly pork chop sandwich, and even one stand offering up a heaping helping of livers and gizzards for the price of $3.50. I decided to go with the 4-H stand's $2.50 pork chop sandwich, and then wandered down to the beer garden, situated right next to the track, and well attended, for a $1.00 Budweiser (small).
Tasty lunch out of the way, it was time to get on back to the stands for the next event, the 4th mule race of the day. To my surprise, these weren't the big strapping mules I'd seen racing in Arizona, but these dinky little things about the size (or maybe smaller) of the ponies that grace the Hawthorne infield, with really big floppy ears. They were dwarfed by their riders, none of whom looked like they had made 114 in about the last 20 years, at least.
The mules got lined up at the head of the track, and then they were off, churning away with their short little legs, and the riders flailing away, and the crowd and announcer going wild, and even running fast enough so that one rider's hat blew off in the tremendous breeze generated by the running mules. The 3 mule (I think) won the race going away, his time was announced as :18.15 (for what distance I do not know - about one furlong), and then we had ourselves another Winner's Circle ceremony.
I decided maybe I'd catch the next race from the beer garden, so wandered down there while the announcer implored the horsemen and jocks to get ready, scored myself another $1.00 small frosty, found a good spot by the rail, and watched the 2nd race from there. Pretty much the same story as the first race, 5f for 3yo colts and geldings (I think), run in a time of 1:01 flat, and the only real exciting thing that happened was that the 5 horse got a huge lead around the first turn and then into the backstretch, and then decided it was time to go back to the barn, and tried to, while the rest of the field passed him by as the jock wrestled him back into the race (this horse had also been an idiot in the post parade). The 6 horse won this race, too, completing what would have been a lucrative 6-6 early double had there been an early double, and one of the Holsapple family got to be in the Winner's Circle picture this time.
The announcer announced that the entire 3rd TB race had been scratched due to a lack of horses (note this is a "van 'em in on the day of the race" circuit, and often people simply don't show up - or maybe they were stuck at the Havana ferry, too), and so the next race we'd see would be the 4th TB race on the card, a 6f open event for older horses. I decided it was time for a little more Fair wandering, and watched an exciting squirt gun race event between two contestants at one of the midway booths, wherein the lucky winner came away with a really cheesy stuffed animal, and the carnie in charge blared out to the empty midway "There goes another lucky winner! A winner every time!", before heading back.
Just retook my seat in the bleachers, when the announcer came on and said "Well folks, the 4th race has just been scratched, too, so horse racing is over for the day". So everyone got up and filed out, including me (who stooped a discarded program on the way). The original card was to have consisted of the four TB events, 2 MSW with purses of $2750, and two "open" events with purses of $1325, plus 2 QH events, with purses of $700 and $800, which as far as I know are not supplied by the state so I guess the county was putting these purses up themselves, run at the interesting distances of 1/2 mile and one mile, respectively. I don't know if those QH events took place before I got there, but I kind of doubt it. I think what the Fulton County crowd got for its $2 on the day was four exhibition mule races and two thoroughbred races. Would not be at all surprised to see Fulton County drop horse racing from its schedule next year, joining the three counties that dropped out this year.
So I'm damn glad I went to see it while I still could, even if getting there was truly the trip from hell. And thanks very much to Fulton County for at least trying to put on racing.
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