Longtime participant Cliff O’Beirne said the races remain a popular fair attraction, although attendance isn’t near what it once was.
“There’s always been a good turnout at the Walworth County Fair,” said O’Beirne, a Milton resident and 40-year harness racing participant. “It’s not as good as in the past. People used to line up around the track to see the races, but still a lot of people attend the fair to watch harness racing.”
The harness races will be held at noon Saturday, Sept. 5. The fair kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 2, and runs through Labor Day, Sept. 7, in Elkhorn.
The harness racing will feature about eight races, with five to six horses in each race.
There are two types of harness racing -- pacing and trotting.
“The pacers have a faster gait. The trotters are designed to move slower and to be more precise,” said Gabe Wand, president of the Wisconsin Harness Horse Association. “The pacers are more popular. If you go to the fair, you will probably see three times more pacing races than trotting races.”
The Walworth County Fair is one of the most popular events for harness racing in Wisconsin, Wand said.
“We get a very good crowd,” he said. “I’m not sure of exact numbers because the grandstand is all spread out.”
The harness races attract competitors from throughout Wisconsin and surrounding states.
“Most of the racers are from Wisconsin,” Wand said. “However, some are from Illinois and possibly we might have some racers from Minnesota.”
Even though officials report that harness racing sees a good attendance during the fair, Larry Gaffey, general manager for the Walworth County Fair, said only about 60 people attended a harness racing event in July at the fairgrounds.
“Sixty people in a grandstand that holds 4,000 people, it doesn’t look like much,” he said.
Gaffey said he is encouraging fair employees to promote the harness races to encourage more people to attend during the fair. Good attendance is needed to help pay maintenance costs for the horse track, he said.
“It costs quite a bit of money to keep the track up for (the racers), and I think we’ve got three stalls that have horses in them right now,” Gaffey said. “There’s just not enough stall revenue to cover the expenses of it. In the wintertime, there’s snow removal and then there’s just grading and maintaining the track. It’s got to be graded all the time.
“They drag the track almost daily, but once in awhile loads of lime need to be brought in. We haul away all the manure and bedding.”
But enthusiasts like O’Beirne believe the effort is worth it.
“It’s a good place to board your horses. It’s clean. It’s one of the best racing spots in Wisconsin,” O’Beirne said. “We go out in the morning and jog them and clean them. If you love horses and you love competition, harness racing is a good way to do it.”
Besides the Walworth County Fair, Gaffey said he participates in harness races throughout Wisconsin and the Chicago area.
“Harness races are scattered throughout Wisconsin during the summer,” O’Beirne said. “Most folks race the Wisconsin fair circuit ... “
Sarah Neubauer, marketing intern at the Walworth County Fairgrounds, recently went on a practice ride with O’Beirne on the fairgrounds track.
“Not being a horse person, I was a little nervous at first, but it was fun,” Neubauer said. “It’s definitely a lot different than when you’re watching a race.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was fun to steer the horse. As a child, I grew up with the (Nintendo) Wii so it was like controlling a video game only doing it in real life. The first couple of laps, we took it slow, then by the last lap we were going pretty fast. I was holding on to Cliff. ... It was a fun experience.”
Wand said he is optimistic about the future of harness racing as a family-friendly spectacle.
“I think people enjoy the excitement and the speed of the horses,” Wand said. “They get to see the horses up close as they go by. It’s a good, family attraction. After the races, (people) can see the horses in the barn and meet the racers. It’s a good time for the family to come together.”