Honesdale Fair Photo Credit to Curtis Salonick

The thrill of harness racing on the Pennsylvania Fair Circuit is just around the corner! Summer weather and county fairs go hand-in-hand, and there are 20 harness racing events scheduled to take place starting June 24th at the Butler Fairgrounds in western Pennsylvania with a two-day event.

“With the 20 different event stops, 15 of them are what you consider the typical county fairs,” Lisa Dunn, President of the PA Fair Harness Horsemen’s Association (PFHHA) explained. “Then there are 5 two-day events, and they will actually take place at the county fairgrounds, but they’re not during the fairs.”
The fair season is exciting, showcasing numerous young horses on the eve of a promising career. “Most of the horsemen recognize it as the opportunity to expose these young horses to the racing. You used to think it was maybe the second-tier horses that went to the fairs, but any more that’s not the case. There are some really good horses all summer long at the fairs, and some of the horsemen bounce back and forth between the fairs and the pari-mutuel tracks, racing in either the Stallion Series or the Sire Stakes, and pick and choose and go back and forth.”
Bloomsburg Fair
Photo Credit to Curtis Salonick

“It’s definitely a good experience for the younger horses,” she emphasized, “typically because the tracks are smaller and you have smaller fields than you do at the pari-mutuel tracks, so there’s a little more give-and-take; the horses aren’t overwhelmed with eight, nine, ten horse fields. You can do a little more schooling.”

Racing at the fairs can expose the sport to a whole new legion of fans, with the horse’s hooves echoing past the midway thrill rides and skill games. “That’s one of the issues right now in the industry, trying to expose racing to a younger crowd,” Lisa said. “During the fairs, we’re lucky because a lot of the times, if we’re there when the fairs are going on, you have the younger kids that might be there showing cows or sheep, and they’re already predisposed to the agricultural type life, so they’re seeing our product at the same time. You’ve got that whole other dynamic democratic group of people that wouldn’t necessarily see you at the park-mutuel tracks.” Families attending the fairs also experience the excitement first-hand, catching a race or two in between enjoying the delicious fair food and the exhibits.
Fair racing is also very family-oriented, with generations working side by side with the horses day after day, season after season. “We have many generations of many different families out there!” Lisa laughed. “I believe at Clearfield a year or two ago, we had both Johnston brothers, Shawn and Aaron, driving in a race against both Schadel brothers, Todd and Tony! There are definitely healthy rivalries anyway between the families, but then when you get the sibling rivalries, it brings on a whole new dynamic.” Several years ago at Gratz Fair, three generations of Wiest men drove against each other; Don; his son, David; and his grandson, Justin.
“Once this business gets in your blood, it’s hard to walk away.”
The fairs each have well-maintained tracks, and have seen some impressive times cross the finish lines over the years, with funding to keep them in top-notch racing shape. “The Racing Commission is great to give operational expenses to each fair every year, and this year, we tried to encourage the two-day events to be at places that maybe haven’t had two-day events the last couple of years, because then that allows them to get additional operating expenses.”
Bloomsburg Fair Photo Credit to Curtis Salonick

Different fair tracks have different surfaces, too. “Bedford also has car racing, so it’s a clay track. Normally they have it set up for the horses and we have good luck, but if it rains, we have a rain-out. It’s a track that really can’t handle any rain. Other tracks that are limestone have the ability to take a little more rain. Tracks that have horsemen there year-round training have a leg-up because those tracks are being used twelve months a year; some of the tracks that only have one or two racing events don’t get the attention, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Crawford County just has the fair event, but I think it’s one of the better surfaces. And Gratz has some of the fastest times of the summer.”

From Butler to Bloomsburg, the fair racing season runs from June 24th through September 23rd, with the finals set for October 9th, and the horsemen are ready for a summer of exceptional racing action.
All the details on the busy fair racing season, including the 2023 Fair Harness Racing Guide, can be found at www.pafairsracing.org. The schedules; directions and information about each fair racing event; proofs; news stories; and the link for the live stream are all available at the site.
Cover Photo Credit to Curtis Salonick
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