Friday, July 11, 2014

A day at the races, county fair style.

Horses break at the 2013 Martinsville Agricultural Fair.
The aroma of corn dogs and funnel cakes wafts through the air as the horses are loaded into the gate. A tall, oversized man in overalls approaches from behind and takes a rope between his hands. As the horses settle into silent coils, the man suddenly jerks on the rope, bringing it down between his knees, and the gates spring open with a bang. All at once, the horses leap into the air. There are only four or five of them, and none of them could give California Chrome a run for his money, but we are a long way from the Kentucky Derby here.

Schwarzkoph leads the field the first time by. Martinsville Agricultural Fair, 2013.
The ground is hard, like packed concrete, and it leaves a dust cloud trailing behind the field as they thunder past the carousel and the open-air grandstand to the whoops and hollers of a small afternoon crowd. There is no room for fickle competition, no place for plodders or tender feet. The track is a bull ring, and the pace is surely erring on suicidal, though no one is keeping time. There are no odds, no wagering, either. People only come to watch, and perhaps claim a t-shirt if their winning pick is pulled out of a Styrofoam cup.  

Horses round the clubhouse turn at the Cumberland County Fair in Greenup.
The leader is tiring now, his legs wobbling after Quarter Horsing to the first turn, and he gives up his advantage to his challengers on the turn for home. By this point, the rest of the horses are more or less cooked in different degrees. Now it’s a jock’s race. Two of them hook up in the lane, one of them wearing the traditional jockey’s garb of white pants and black silks; the other is wearing blue jeans and a motorcycle helmet. You would be able to hear them yelling if the crowd wasn’t on their feet, calling for their charge to come home first. It’s close, and tough to call—the finish line is painted on the concrete stage in the infield—but the man at the microphone consults with the race caller in the bird’s nest at the top of the grandstand, and they come to an agreement. The winner is decreed, and the horse gallops back to have his picture taken with the fair queen.

Bushler and Paddle Wheel Mary hook up at the 2013 Effingham County Fair in Altamont, IL.

All of this makes for quite an exciting day in Martinsville, Illinois. The Illinois County Fair Circuit makes six stops over the course of the summer, beginning in June at McLeansboro and ending in August at Pana. The meet is mainly for state-bred Thoroughbreds, though there’s usually one Quarter Horse race on the card, as well as an all-breed “pony” race, and if you’re lucky, one for mules. The Thoroughbreds can compete in the Old National Road Derby, a tournament of three races, like a county fair Triple Crown. The first leg is at the Martinsville Agricultural Fair, the second at the Clark County Fair in Marshall, and the third is in Greenup at the Cumberland County Fair. The winner of two legs gets a bonus of $600, and if the same horse should win all three, he gets $1,200.

Schwarzkoph, with Carl Dodd up, and Extrella Royal Rap and Noah Cruz round the final turn at the Effingham Co Fair.

If you’re only interested in top-class Thoroughbred racing, this is not the place for you. These horses will never see Churchill Downs, Saratoga, or Santa Anita. Most of the horses are home-bred and home-trained. A couple might be ridden by both. But the fair circuit isn’t about knocking heads with the country’s best horses. It’s about enjoying a small-town summer fair and simply watching the races. (And, God willing, sipping on a lemon shake-up.) There are prizes for the winners, even trophies, but it boils down to the most fundamental, age-old adage:

“My horse is faster than yours.”
“Oh really? Prove it.”

Scenic farms provide the backdrop at the Martinsville Agricultural Fair.
The Martinsville Agricultural Fair races run today, July 11th starting at 1pm. For more dates and times, click on the link below.


  1. Love it! The energy really comes through in these photos, top-class horses or no. Excitement is still excitement, after all. I must say, though, that I especially like the shots that include glimpses of the festival, too. Two fun traditions in one package. :)

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