After 25 years of promoting harness racing at the county fair, the Ottawa County Harness Horsemen’s Association has voted to not conduct the racing program at next year’s fair.
Betty Jo Sherman, association secretary, said members voted in September to not participate in the program but added the Ottawa County Fair Board may continue to offer a race program.
She said the board’s decision to schedule only one day of harness racing during the seven-day fair was a factor in the association’s vote.
“A lot of our members are 70 and over and it’s a lot of work for one day of racing,” Sherman said. “The track is not used in other times of the year other than for things like a demolition derby or a rodeo or something like that, which tears up the track. It takes about a month to six weeks to get the track ready for racing after all this stuff is going on. Mostly the guys weren’t willing to put out that much effort for one day.”
One suggestion from the fair board planning committee was to schedule racing on the Saturday before the opening of the fair and hold Sunday as a rain date, Sherman said.
“That wasn’t going to work. You have to have the races during the fair. Really what they’re looking for is something more of a money maker for them other than the races,” she said.
Two days of racing, Monday and Tuesday, were scheduled for the 2011 fair but rain forced organizers to scrub the first day and hold races on Tuesday.
“When we first formed we had three days of racing,” Sherman said.
Jon Overmyer, the fair board treasurer, said the board was considering one day of racing for the 2012 fair but hadn’t made any decisions.
At its October meeting, the board heard presentations from the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association and an organization representing colt stakes racing on how to make racing more feasible, he said.
“The board never told them (the county harness horsemen’s association) it wanted only one day,” Overmyer said. “They had already made their decision.”
The company that oversees pari-mutuel betting at the fair had indicated it would charge more for two days of racing, he said, adding the board’s contract with the company is set to expire.
Sherman and Overmyer both say harness racing in Ohio has dropped in popularity while it has grown in neighboring states, drawing racers attracted by the larger purses.
The number of entries per race at the Ottawa County Fair has dropped significantly in the past several years, Overmyer said, followed by a drop in wagering.
“Ottawa County used to be one of the highest wagering fairs in northwest Ohio,” he said.
The fair board, facing a Nov. 1 deadline, has applied to the state racing commission for funding to help meet expenses for racing at next year’s fair but has until Jan. 1 to declare a race program for 2012. Overmyer said funding from the state had been as high as $17,000 in years past but has dropped to less than half that more recently.
Prior to the formation of the association, harness racing at the fair was overseen by Gordon Witty, who introduced it to the fair in the late 1960s.
“He welcomed us with open arms,” Sherman said.
Once the association was up and running, it was able to secure pari-mutuel wagering and draw better horses to compete at the fair.
“Later we were able to sponsor the Gordon Witty Trot and Portage River Pace as well as Signature Series races that brought the best horses to the fair,” Sherman said. “Our association bought all its own equipment. Nothing was bought with fair board funds.”
In 2007, the fair received the Blue Ribbon Fair award from the U.S. Trotting Association.
Sherman said the association also supported the 4-H horse program and held special events such as celebrity races and prize give-aways to promote racing at the fair.
The association, with about 40 members, includes racers from Sandusky County and Toledo as well as Ottawa County.