Harness racing was once one of the exciting attractions at the State Fair of West Virginia for nearly 100 years.
Both box holders and other spectators would flock to the Grandstand on afternoons to watch and cheer on some of the best trotters and pacers in the East. It was special time for me in many ways, one, that my granddad Alex W. Arbuckle along with Julian Arbuckle, Howard Arbuckle, Bright Farrier, John Sydenstricker, Ed Sydenstricker, Tuckwiller Brothers and Wilson Brothers all furnished teams of horses to grade and build the one-half mile oval racetrack in 1921, and two, for me personally, it was the best attraction at the State Fair.
I remember going to harness racing with my family in the old wooden grandstand, and the judge’s booth was under a big umbrella across the track, and beside the old wooden stage.
I remember when all the sulkies had spoke wheels. I remember when each race had an out rider to parade the horses for the introduction. I remember when there were always two heats of racing, and I remember when races were Monday through Saturday, and all Saturdays concluded with a farmer’s and mule race.
I remember when the classical York Spring Garden Band from York, Pa., performed tunes like Cabaret, Mack the Knife and other classy tunes between and before races, which also accompanied stage and high wire acts between races. I remember in the mid ’60s when brothers Zack and David Ford from New Oxford, Pa., would race Ford Patch, a white/gray gelding that was a crowd favorite, and also a horse that won for many years at the State Fair track.
I can remember when Blackie Hayes broke the track record in 1990 with his horse, Happen A Long.
I remember when horses like Wolf Creek Levi, Sharp Karema and Crysta’s Exchange seemed to race and win forever in the 1980s and early ’90s. And we all remember the dozens of races won by George Aide’s many horses over all of these great years.
Many people have sponsored races for this great event year after year. Some that come to mind of late were the Joe Black Hayes family, the George Aide family, the Carl Smith family, the Frank McClung family, the Jack Arbuckle family, Simms Exxon, the Col. N.S. Arbuckle family, the David E. Tuckwiller family, the Frank Wilson family, and the Clemons family.
People who kept the harness racing running of late were superintendents Joe Hayes Jr. and Glen Ford, along with Chuck Smith, Mike Quick, the race judges and many others.
“And down the stretch they come,” were Mike Kidd’s words during each day and every race over WRON radio.
I have kept race programs for the past forty years, and here are some results from decades ago.
Forty years ago in 1982, Sharp Karema and Kiss it Goodbye won the most races with four. The fastest pace that year was Mr. V Shoes of Pomeroy, OH at 205 1/5.
Thirty years ago in 1992, Better to be Lucky won the most races with four, and the fastest pace was Blackie Hayes and Happen A Long from Lewisburg, WV at 201 flat.
Twenty years ago in 2002, Crysta’s Exchange and I Am Sexy won the most races with two, and the fastest pace that week was Pocket Vance from Orient, OH at 155 3/5, the track record.
And ten years ago in 2012, Go Easy on Me, Final Scorpion, and Vertigo Hanover won the most races with three, and the fastest pace that year was Vertigo Hanover and Go Easy on Me, both from Loris, S.C., and both with times of 159 flat.
And with the 2022 State Fair, the racetrack without harness racing will be quiet and sad for a second straight year. Many that I have talked to are still upset that harness racing will no longer be on the weekly afternoon schedule, but there are other harness racing attractions all over the east coast, the closet in Woodstock in Virginia, and The Meadows, south of Pittsburgh. While some local race fans may travel to these racetracks, I will remain at home and watch afternoon harness racing live streaming on my computer.
I hope that other State Fair harness racing fans will share their memories of this great event, which touched so many lives for nearly a century.
The State Fair may go on, but it will never be the same without harness racing.
I cannot emphasize enough of Joe B. Hayes and Glen Ford on a job well done. And on a final note, the final horse to win a race at the State Fair of WV was Percy Z Tam, a 5-year-old from Lancaster, Texas, who paced the mile in 201.1 on August 15, 2019 to end a splendid time for family and friends to enjoy this sport at the grandstand, and also an end to a wonderful era.