By Gary R. Rasberry
It's as much a part of county fairs as carnival games, elephant ears and ferris wheels.
For the Mercer County Fair, harness racing has been a regular mark on the schedule of events for as long as many who run the races can remember..
For at least three dates of the fair, the half-mile track in front of the big white grandstand at the fairgrounds has been groomed and watered down and a regular group of harness racing fans have come in -- some placing two dollar bets at the parimutuel booth and watching trotters and pacers make their way twice around the track.
Over the past several years, improvements, both in facilities and racing, has caused an uptick in interest in the races.
"Several years ago, there was talk of raising stall rates by $2," said Mercer County Fair Board president Bob Geist, also a member of the speed committee that puts together the harness racing at the fair. "Some of us horsemen proposed raising it $5 and putting 15 percent of it into improvements." One of the first projects was building a lean-to on one on the barns. With the cover for 12 stalls, it allowed horse owners coming in a spot for their horse without having to use temporary facilities.
Then it came time to do the barns that store the horses. The barns itself have a unique history.
Two of the main barns actually used to be one building. Back in the 1950s and '60s, the old art hall, a two-story building, was cut. The top story was moved and placed as a barn, while a new roof was placed on the old first floor.
"The first barn we did, the commissioners paid for half the material and the Harness Horsemen paid a fourth and the fair paid a fourth." For the second round, with the budget crunch, so the Horsemen and fair stood the whole cost of that."
There's a lot more that is slated to be done. While the outsides of the barns, adorned in green and white paint, are done, the insides are next.
"My goal when we started this, my personal goal, was go through and get all the barns done outside, then go inside," said Geist. "Gut it, put all new stalls in there. One barn is going to be a major undertaking, a 2-3 year project. We have money allotted to put a cement foundation. When we do that, we have to knock a wall out."
The Mercer County Harness Horsemen's Association, which helps with races and promotes racing in the area, is a big part of the improvements to the barns and track at the fairgrounds.
The MCHHA runs the concession stand underneath the grandstand during the fair. The group also holds an annual banquet and auction, along with a matinee program during the year. All proceeds from their endeavors go into improving the harness facilities.
The (MCHHA) started doing some things for fundraisers," said Geist. "At the concession stand, they raise a few thousand dollars, all goes toward the barns."
One event that has increased the interest in the Mercer County harness program has been the Signature Series. Thirteen county fairs in Northwest and Southwest Ohio sponsor races for both trotters and pacers. The top horses advance to the final race held at the Delaware County Fairgrounds the day of one of the most prestigious national harness racing events, The Little Brown Jug.
"We have the stake races, but what has helped a lot is the Signature Series," said Geist, who is a member of the board of the series as well. "That has brought a lot of pretty nice horses in.
"Over at Wapak, they set a track record last week. I made the comment to somebody about taking a survey since the series started, on how many track records have been broken how many times. I know here we broke the pace once and trot twice since it's been going on. There's a lot of buzz (about the series). Now people are aiming their schedules just to race in the series."
The MCHHA not only raised money, but also put in the majority of the labor to build the facility.
Not only are the local trainers and drivers, many of whom helped do the work, happy with the improvements, they hear good things from those outside the area.
"We race all over the state. A lot of people come to Celina because we have a nice, wide and safe track. It's nice to hear some boys from out of the area say 'Boy, this place sure looks nice," said Mendon's Steve Boroff, who trains horses out of a barn at the fairground and competes all over the state. "We hear that every year. It's nice to hear the compliments. It helps when you do a lot of the work yourself. We have a lot of people come out here because they like the facilities.
"When I run into a bunch of horsemen, they say 'Yeah, we'll be in Celina.' They like to come here"
Geist, who goes to a number of tracks as part of the series and as a harness enthusiast, knows that convenience is important.
"One of the things I said when we started this is when we go somewhere else to race, we like to go as nice a facility as we can," said Geist. "We want to make this as nice a facility here as they do for when we go to places. That's what it's all about."
Rusty Vorhees, president of the MCHHA, agrees.
"Since we're on the edge of the state, logistically, with the WOCRA (West Ohio Colt Racing Association, which sponsors races at the fair), some towards Marysville or Columbus and points east may not want to make the trip," said Vorhees, "But I know that a lot do like to come out because they are treated well. The Fair Board puts together a good program at the fair, the facilities are nice and the track is as good as any other track.
"Another thing is that the Horsemen Association members are really good people. It's kind of like a Mom and Pop organization."