Me and America's Day

Van Wert County Fair, Van Wert, OH, September 2, 2002

Winner! The McChump Tour's 2002 "Podunk Track of the Year!

A "new" track? In Ohio?

Hey chump! If this thing is so close to you, why haven't you been there before? Well, that's a long story, but that's what this site is all about, isn't it?

A couple of years ago, maybe more, a Derby List correspondent, whose name I don't have on file any more, informed me there was a county fair meet somewhere in Ohio that ran thoroughbreds and quarter horses. But I was busy then, travelling from Hialeah to Kamloops and everywhere in between, so just kind of tucked the info in the back of my mind and never seriously checked it out. Besides which, if a meet doesn't appear on Equibase, it doesn't really exist, right? But this year, when circumstances dictate that I stick closer to home, I remembered that heads-up, and decided to try and track down the elusive Ohio fair meet. I halfway expected I'd find nothing.

First stop: Ohio Racing Commission website. Bingo! There in the section on county fair meets, which are mostly about evil harness racing, a mention that Van Wert ran tbreds and QH at their meet. This is too easy, maybe.

2nd stop: Google, and a search for the Van Wert County Fair, which site said they did indeed run tbreds and QH sometime during their fair around Labor Day, but no specific dates, other than the Fair. So I sent them an email. No answer. For a long long time. Like months. Hmmm. Trail getting cold.

But I have connections in Ohio. Lister John Gibson, in particular. So I asked him about it, and he didn't know, but vowed to ask around at the next Fair he visited. Which he did, and the story he related goes something like this: Hung around the back of the mutuel tents, looking disreputable no doubt, and finally saw someone doing nothing (presumably a supervisor, and supervisors always know everything). Asked her, who said she was with "the state". Even better! But no, sniffed she, there was not any QH or tbred racing at any Ohio County Fair. This exchange was luckily overheard by someone working the mutuels who piped up and said, "Oh yes there is, Van Wert on Labor Day!". [Woman with "the state" slinks away.] A long-standing tradition, continued he. The trail is warm again.

So there it was: Kind of an annual tradition, QH and tbred racing in Van Wert, Ohio, on Labor Day, verified by three independent sources. The email was finally answered, too, saying they did have racing throughout the meet, though no mention of what days, what breeds, post times. etc. However, in due time, another Lister alerted me to the details which had appeared on the Fair website, verifying that the flats were on Labor Day, 1:00 pm. It became something one could actually trust, thanks to a true group effort by members of the Derby List. The McChump Tour was officially in "go" mode.

One problem: If I was in Van Wert, OH, on Labor Day, I obviously could not also be in Arlington Heights, IL, for the big "America's Day at The Races" celebration at AP. I felt pretty bad about that for awhile, and almost like a Communist, until I realized that northwest Ohio is part of America too, dammit. Not as important a part as Chicago, of course, but still a part. Plus I already go to AP about twice a week, and their season drags on from the beginning of June through the end of October this year, while Van Wert is one single day out of the whole year, so ...

So on Monday morning the McChump Party left Chicago at about 7:00 am with a clean conscience. I figgered, Chicago north shore to Van Wert, and cipherin' for the time change, about ... well, let's just say there was about 40 minutes to the 1:00 pm post when the Party headed east out of Ft. Wayne, IN (several dollars poorer thanks to the Indiana toll road), down US 30 toward the Ohio border, and 10 mtp when the Party finally strolled in through the gates of the race track at the Van Wert County Fair, on a bright, beautiful summer afternoon.

Just in time, it turned out, for Our National Anthem, played by the Van Wert Masonic Fellowship Band, in a slightly bumpy, brassy, fair-type band style, while the American Flag and the Ohio flag were presented to us, horseback, by two fair-queen types dressed up in fancy cowgirl duds. It was a good Anthem, and drew enthusiastic applause. Good start to America's Day.

Admission/Fair parking, $5. $2 extry for racing admission. $2 for the program. And what a program it was, with 13 pages of advertising for everything from "J.D.'s Whine and Dine", to the "I Don't Care Grille", to numerous local politicians (undoubtedly the subject of many conversations at the "I Don't Care Grille"), to the "Glenmore Farmer's Grain & Supply", to the "Van Wert Apple Festival", and so much much more. Oh yeah - there was some info about the races and horses, too.

For instance, the program told what race it was, the horse names, the owner names, the trainer names, the distance and breed, the sponsor, and the purse amounts. Turns out the local Fire Department has the program concessions, and I suspect they, or at least someone, got the details of the entries over the phone, as Our Announcer spent all afternoon correcting horse names and owner names from the spelling in the programs. Actual pp's, however, were non-existent.

It was apparent right away it was going to be a paddock inspection sort of day.

Inspected the horses, placed a bet in the first, and lost $2. Dang. Seems I had actually selected a last place horse. But he had looked good!

Actually, what had been really apparent right away was the hot dog/corn dog/sausage stand out right behind the paddock. Outstanding Italian sausage (though maybe not Northampton quality) with peppers, onions, and red sauce - $4. It was that damn sausage that had distracted me. Distraction thus disposed of, it was time to look at the 2nd race, and take a look around.

Somehow selected the last place horse in the 2nd race, too. But he had looked good!

What we have here is a large, ancient, open air wood grandstand, apparently rebuilt in part over the years, with a few rows of box seats down front, and a kind of not-so-good concessions stand underneath. "No Smoking Allowed", wisely, as with many of its ancient wood cousins in other parts of the country. Narrow grass apron out front, filled with folks parked on portable folding chairs. Big grass area down to the left with some bleachers by the track and a "mutuel windows shed" in back of that, and a small grassy paddock to the left of that, with uncovered saddling stalls. Kinda wide four furlong dirt track with no chute and a grass infield with only a few pickup trucks and pieces of track type equipment populating it. This track had the harness horse "hubless rail" little plastic posts for an inside rail, and was in surprisingly good shape for a fair track, with hardly any rocks at all evident in the surface. Plus they groomed it after every race, and even watered it a few times, so kudos to them. Very professional. Small judges stand by the finish line in the infield, a wide gravel Winner's Circle in front of that, plus a small pavilion where the Van Wert Masonic Fellowship Band was esconced and proceeded to serenade us with additional slightly bumpy, brassy, fair-type band tunes throughout the day between races. All this, set in the NW corner of a big busy fair grounds, with some big trees, a parking lot full of Winnebagos, fair pavilions, and fair rides (including "The Hammer"), in the background.

The most amazing thing about this track was that the place was absolutely jammed. Huge HUGE crowd, though not too rowdy, as no beer was on sale (minus points there), but in spite of the "no alcohol" sign at the gate many folks had brought in coolers of their favorite brew, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. Good small-town type folks, mostly, very few body piercings and very little purple or green hair observed, and even quite a few in Mennonite and Amish garb, Van Wert apparently being located in the midst of Mennonite and Amish country. None of these latter were observed betting. Actually, the number of people betting was small overall. Had all those folks in the stands ever come down, the windows would have been jammed. They never were. The bulk of the crowd seemed to be there to just watch horse racing. I know it seems odd, and maybe impossible to some that people would show up just to WATCH horse races, but on America's Day in Van Wert, Ohio, apparently anything is possible. And that wasn't all. The entire circumference of the track outside the paying gates, and far away from the mutuel windows, was jammed with people who'd set up chairs or pulled their RV's up to the fence to simply watch the local races. How strange.

As for the world of horse racing outside Van Wert, it seemingly did not exist. No simulblast, no America's Day Triple, no nothing. One guy did have a hat from some quarter horse racing stable, and one groom or trainer had a Belmont Stakes t-shirt. So I guess they HAD at least heard of racing elsewhere.

The local races consisted of a card of 10. Seven thoroughbred races, three at 5f (the entire straight, twice, plus two turns), three at 6-1/2f (part of the backstretch plus three turns and two trips by the stands), and the feature of the day, the Van Wert Derby, at 1-1/8 miles, which incorporated three runs by the stands, and four turns. Also three QH races, two at 220 yds, the entire length of the stretch, and a big 550yd event, which started about the middle of the back stretch. Purses generally $2150 or $2180, except a few that had a $400 OTF bonus if an Ohio-bred won, and then of course there was the big Van Wert Derby, run for the princely sum of $2650 plus the $400 OTF.

Most fields were fairly small, like 5 or 6 horses before scratches, and as far as the horses go, I didn't recognize a single name. Which also extended to the trainers, owners, and jockeys, for the most part, except a few owner & trainer names sounded sort of like Illinois county fair names, for instance, one of the far flung Holsapple clan. The core jocks, so far as I could make out from the announcements (so excuse the spellings), were Rusty Shaw, Al Rostner or Rostman, Jerry Wallace, Jimmy Wallace, Jimmy Montgomery, Lee Gates, and Jeremy Steely. A number of others who only rode one or two races. No weights on these guys reported.

The real power at this meet was invested in the Bragg clan, from somewhere in OH, which listed H. Bragg as owner, P. Bragg as trainer, and horses which sported names after the family as well, including Braggs Little Mag, Wild Child Bragg, and Bragg Power, plus a couple not named after themselves, namely The Warrior Poet and River Shark. These all usually went off as the race favorite and finished first or 2nd, except for Wild Child Bragg who finished a disappointing 4th after sweating up badly in the paddock. Other powers included the Palmer clan from Grove City, OH, owner R. Palmer, trainer C. Palmer, and rider Lisa Palmer, who won both races they entered, and the Hollingsworth clan from Marion, IL. Had you simply bet on Braggs, Palmers, and Hollingworths all day, you would have done well. Maybe not made much money, but done well. Their horses had actually been trained to negotiate the tight turns, unlike many others. This was fairly easy for me to discern - after the fact.

Other family outfits were on hand, as well. For instance, the #5 horse in the 6th, Sayhiasigoby, was a real good looking horse in the paddock, listed as owned by Ray and Ma Patterson, trainer E. Crothers, and to be ridden by Christine Crothers. (I think). He looked good in the paddock and like a possible bet until he got saddled up, when he appeared in an English riding saddle, and then Christine got up, in long English riding stirrups, and a nice black velvet English riding helmet. Right then I decided "no bet". As it turns out, I wouldn't have lost, though. The horse sat down in the gate, and then went down even further, the race was held up, and Sayhiasigoby was eventually scratched. Christine also neglected to return her silks after that scratch, as she had to be called back to the paddock for the 7th so someone else could wear the silks. Somehow I didn't see this as the cutthroat evil horse-druggin' outfit we've been assured populate these type of small-venue affairs by some writers on the Derby List.

Oh yeah - speaking of those drugs. Well, I looked and looked, and didn't see a one. I was at a loss to figure how anyone in an audience could see drugs "everywhere" at a meet like this when I couldn't even see a one, but I am just a racing neophyte, and there are many things I do not know. And the oddest thing - after every race they took the winner right out in front of the stands and drew blood from his neck, just like they were testing for drugs or something. 'Bout dat!

The Sayhiasigoby incident was not the highlight of the afternoon, however. Oh sure, there was plenty of the usual fair racing semi-chaos. Horsemen had to be repeatedly badgered to bring their horses up to the paddock, jockeys simply didn't show up, after one race we got a way WAY late correction of the name of the jockey who had been riding the winner which incidentally was already going back to the barn ("And by the way, Six Illusion was ridden by Jeremy Steely, not Jerry Watts"), and one horse that had been involved in a photo finish left the track and had to be called back from the barn area because he had won. And so on.

But no, the Big Event of the afternoon occurred in the 3rd, due to a misprint in the Fire Department program, where the Horse Numbers and Post Positions had inadvertently been transposed in the one race of the afternoon featuring an entry, which apparently had thrown a monkey wrench into the works. Our Announcer (a very good one, btw - Willard "Bill" Peters, Jr., according to the program), patiently explained to the crowd that the two sets of numbers were mixed up, and that if you wanted to bet on Merri Rabbit, for instance, you would bet on #2, and not #1, like it said in the program. However, he explained, the #1A horse would be wearing a #1A saddlecloth but the jock would have the #6 silks, the Van Wert County Fair apparently not being possessed of two sets of #1 colored silks (which color, I believe, was black). Our Announcer explained this all a couple of times, and we were pretty well all squared away.

Squared away, that was, until the horses came out on the track for the post parade, led, as usual, by the two horseback fair-queen types dressed up in fancy cowgirl duds and carrying the American and Ohio flags. The jocks had on different silks numbers/colors than the horse saddlecloth numbers they were sitting on, which did have different numbers but were all the same color, normally a dirty pink, but sometimes dark blue. Merri Rabbit had the #2 saddlecloth, while his or her jock was wearing #1. FL Bott-Dash (if that WAS his real name - I think this one was also a misprint) was outfitted in the #4 saddlecloth, while the jock sported #3. And so on. The only one suited up correctly appeared to be the jock on top of #1A, who was wearing the pink (?) #6. Apparently, the jockeys had not been apprised of the misprint, or, if they had, hadn't quite got it all figured out.

Mass confusion erupted in the betting pit.

Our Announcer came to the rescue however. As the horses milled behind the starting gate on the backstretch, preparing to run a 550-yd QH "hook", he began calling out to the jocks: "Al Rostner, if you are sitting on Merri Rabbit, you should be wearing the #2 silks. Jimmy Montgomery, if you are on Liberty Star Line, you should be wearing #3". And so on. Thus the race was slightly delayed, and we were treated to the sight of the jocks stripping silks and exchanging them, all the while still milling around on horseback, out behind the gate.

FL Bott-Dash (if that WAS his real name) won the 550, finally carrying the #4 silks.

On the downside, we did have one breakdown on the afternoon, thankfully on the far turn away from the grandstand, but still a breakdown.

Bettingwise, I didn't do so good. Picked two 4/5 winners, which didn't pay for the day. In fact, you probably don't want to do any serious betting against this crowd unless you "know" someone involved, which most people who were betting apparently did, as numerous hushed conversations went on between patrons and the trainers walking their horses in the paddock. Sometimes they were right, and sometimes wrong, but my greatest respect was reserved for the trainer who answered a query about his horse's chances with "I have no idea". Despite the lack of pp's, the crowd did a good job of tabbing the correct horses, with the favorites generally doing quite well. For instance, the 7th, the odds on the 1-5 finishers were as follows: 1/1, 5/2, 3/1, 6/1, 13/1. Not a bad job. At least the rest of the bettors and myself never had trouble getting our bets down. The mutuel tellers at this fair were far above the usual fair-quality mutuel tellers, and got us "down" in a friendly and efficient fashion.

Finally the big Van Wert Derby came around, and highly favored Bragg Power was behind on the first pass past the grandstand. However, by the 2nd time around, he had a short lead, and a mighty cheer erupted from the crowd. (But not from me - my horse was busy blowing turn after turn and I was transfixed watching him to see if he'd ever get the idea.) Finally, at the wire, 3rd time past the stands, Bragg Power had a clear lead and won as the popular choice, and all the connections congregated in the Winner's Circle to get their photo taken along with the blanket that had been won. (The winning jock in each race also got a gift certificate from Texas Tenderloins, out behind the stands.) Three jocks had tied with two wins each on the day, and each got a $25 gift certificate from the Van Wert County Fair as "winningest jock".

All in all, a mighty fine "America's Day at the Races", I thought. Immediately after the racing was over, the road graders in the infield fired up, and started scraping off the cushion in preparation for the evening's harness races. The folks parked along the outside fence simply left their chairs in place, apparently planning to come back at 7:00 pm for Round 2.

But wait!

This story would not be complete without a report on the Fair, and a darn good one it was. Tons of food stands, really a lot, with many stick food items, and of course barns full of animals of all variety, with a good rabbit barn and a very nice selection of miniature horses, most of the really important rides, and a gaming area where you could "Win Live Pets!". Rather cheesy farm implement display, though. Don't even bother putting out a farm implement display if you're not going to have the largest and most deluxe Massey-Ferguson combine on the planet, is my thinking on that.

On the way out, there was an intriguing proposition. "World's Largest Pig", it said, "4 feet tall, 1100 pounds, and still growing!". I have already received a raft of abuse from the VP KSFC for not ponying up the 50 cents to view this important attraction, but I could see where it was all heading - first 50 cents for the World's Largest Pig, then $1 to see the "World's Smallest Horse", and another $1 for the "Giant Louisiana Alligator", and God only knows how much for the "Backyard Zoo" featuring a lion, two leopards, and an undisclosed quantity of bears. No thank you! I'm not made of money!

Huge thumbs up for the Van Wert County Fair and its racing. The town of Van Wert looks kind of interesting, too, with lots of cool old houses and architecture, as well as antique shops and malls just beckoning those who can be beckoned by such things. Worth a visit. And oh yeah - very friendly folks here in America's heartland.

A hearty "thanks" to whomever mentioned this to me, lo those many years ago.


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