Harness racers see numbers tumbling
If you go
What: Harness racing
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, June 18; noon Saturday, July 23; and Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 3 and 4.
Where: Walworth County Fairgrounds grandstand, 411 E. Court St., Elkhorn.
ELKHORN Fewer racehorses inhabit barns at the Walworth County Fairgrounds these days.
For trainer Bob McCabe, the downturn is bad news. It means fewer horses are competing in harness racing.
The 2011 harness racing season begins Saturday. A second warm-up race is scheduled for late July. The big money races happen Sept. 3 and 4 during the Walworth County Fair.
Harness racing is a Walworth County tradition that dates to the 19th century, when agriculture was the area's dominant economy and lifestyle.
In a harness race, two-wheeled carts, known as sulkies, are pulled around a mile-long oval. The Standardbred horses are trained to trot—they are not allowed to break into a canter or gallop—and a race generally lasts less than two minutes.
McCabe, 50, of Elkhorn was tending to his prized and spirited trotter, Coco Donut, on a breezy afternoon a week before the season's first race. The muscular 7-year-old gelding rippled with anticipation, sensing a practice run moments away. He was the only horse at the barn that day.
McCabe came to Walworth County as a young adult in 1982 from his home in New Jersey to groom horses and clean stalls for an Elkhorn man.
Horses became his life and his living. He met and married his wife, Dyan, here. She is superintendent of harness racing at the Walworth County Fair.
Bob McCabe recited a litany of owners who have left a racing sport that he fears is slowly dying in the Midwest. He cited three reasons:
-- Costs of horse maintenance and training.
-- Large prize purses at East Coast pari-mutuel betting tracks.
-- Little interest in the sport by youth.
Ed Sokolowski, president of the Walworth County Fair Board, said the fair once was renowned for harness racing.
"As a kid in 1950s and '60s, there were three days of racing during the county fair—on Saturday, Sunday and on Monday," Sokolowski said.
Now there are two.
"I wished we could give three days of fantastic harness racing," he said. "As harness racing has diminished throughout the state, it has been getting harder and harder to get a lineup of good horses."
Some county fairs have abandoned racing and converted horse barns into storage spaces.
Yet, a number of fairs will host harness events this summer, stitching the remnants of what once was a racing circuit.
Those fairs are in Iowa County at Mineral Point, in Barron County at Rice Lake, in Green County at Monroe, Waupaca County at Weyauwega, in Richland County at Richland Center, and in Vernon County at Viroqua.
The economics of horse racing also have changed. As expenses rise and prize money remains flat or drops in the Midwest, investors are less interested in horses.
Dyan McCabe said the purse for the two days of racing during Walworth County Fair will be $8,000.
When horse trainers make more money than owners, interest as an investment quickly wanes, McCabe said.
The local hub of professional harness racing is the Chicago area, which has tracks in Maywood, Cicero and Crete.
"The people that rent stalls from us train horses on the track all year round," Sokolowski said. "They basically go down to Illinois to races horses."
But Illinois harness racing is being hurt by East Coast tracks that offer larger purses and attract Midwestern owners who want to support themselves by horse racing, McCabe said.
A bill now before Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn would allow slot machines at Illinois horse tracks, giving them the nickname of racinos.
Slot machines would help racinos supplement dwindling harness racing revenue, McCabe said.
Meanwhile, fewer young people are entering the sport, McCabe said.
"It used to be passed parents to children, but youth have little interest these days," Sokolowski said. "As the older generation is leaving us, so is the tradition of racing."
Walworth County has converted one of its horse barns at the fairgrounds into an exhibit hall for 4-H and photography. The hall contains an exhibit of harness racing memorabilia and its history.
"We are going to try to keep it there as long as we can, so long as there are people training in our facility and putting on harness racing shows," Sokolowski said.