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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Speed week: 150 years of harness racing

A jockey guides his horse down the backstretch of the track at the Walworth County Fair last year. Harness racing has been a part of the Walworth County Fair since they ran the first race in 1898. File photo Dan Plutchak

Contributing writer Herb Moering was poking around the race horse barns at the Walworth County Fair recently while working on a story about the history of harness racing on the track.

Since that first race 150 years ago, Moering says the track has been home to some memorable finishes and even more memorable owners and drivers.

Moering's story from this week's Weekender begins on the jump:

For 150 years, race fans have flocked to the track at the Walworth County Fair

By Herb Moering/For Weekender

In the late 1920s, Fair Board Secretary Chet Phillips was so proud of how they ran the harness races at the Walworth County Fair, he came up with the slogan, "The fair that always makes good."

They've been making good on those races now for 150 years. The first races, held in 1858, drew more than 12,000 visitors, according to fair records.

The half-mile track has seen its share of top pacers and trotters over the years, producing some memorable moments.

One outstanding example was pacer He's All That, who Jay Garrel of Clinton drove to victory in the record-setting time of 1:58 in 2003. He's All That is the only horse in history to break the 2-minute barrier.

The top trotter at the track was Red Oaks Alex, who was driven to victory in 1995 by John Kokinos of Madison, establishing the best time at 2:02 for the half-mile.

Other top horses include 2-year-old trotter, Holly's Hot to Trot, with a time of 2:07 in 1996; 2-year-old pacer, The Long Goodbye, with a time of 2:04 set in 2004; 3-year-old trotter, Primarose Hotspur, with a time of 2:05 set in 2004 and 3-year-old pacer, Forty Something, with a time of 2:01 set in 1994.

As late as the 1970s, there were 75 horses training at the track.

The late Willard Olson had a passion for horses, including show horses, and was a regular at the track, according to his daughter, Gail Folkers, of Elkhorn.

Olson, who at one time in the 1940s operated four riding stables, won his first Walworth County Fair race in 1929. He earned a trophy, first-place ribbon and the winner's purse, Folkers said.

Olson had a farm on County Highway P in the town of Sugar Creek, where he kept some of his horses while training them on a quarter-mile track that he built, according to Gordon Folkers.

"He broke the horses and trained them at his track," said Folkers, who lived nearby on Dam Road.

Olson remained a driver until the early 1940s, then had others train and drive his horses. Eventually he moved them fairgrounds track.

Ned Livingston was the fair's superintendent of speed for many years, starting in 1965. He drove and trained Olson's horses in the '60s and '70s.

Like other local owners, Olson occasionally would take a horse to race at Maywood Park in Chicago. Olson was active in the harness and horse business into the 1970s, his daughter said.

To recognize the history of harness racing at the fair, there will be a large display in the Arts and Crafts department at its new location in the renovated horse barn behind North Hall.

Visitors can also have their picture taken on a harness racing sulky.

The Second Annual Celebrity Harness Race event will be Saturday, Aug. 30 at 1:45 p.m.

A children's peddle harness race will take place in front of the grandstand on both Aug. 30 and 31.

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