Fair harness racing continues to lose numbers locally, statewide

Harness racing returned to the Mecosta County Fairgrounds Tuesday and again today, and there’s always likely to be one comment shared among spectators in the grandstand.

“It’s not like it once was.”

Harness racing at the Mecosta County Fairgrounds is similar to that across the state: Down from what it once was.

It wasn’t that long ago that anywhere from four to five programs were at the grandstand during the Mecosta County Agricultural Free Fair. Colt stakes programs highlighting 2-year-old and 3-year-old colts and fillies would bring horses from all across the state. Overnighters, which focus on aged horses, would be a popular program also.

This year, there is racing Tuesday and Wednesday at the fair.

In the past, Mecosta County Fairgrounds would typically have programs Sunday afternoon and evenings, following by shows on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening. The barn area would be populated with horses, trainers, drivers, owners and spectators every night.

But over the years, purses have fallen dramatically. Pari-mutuel tracks across the state that funded the fair racing have declined dramatically with the competition with gambling casinos.

In early 2015, Michigan went down to just two horse racing pari-mutuel tracks when Sports Creek Raceway at Swartz Creek outside of Flint officially closed for good after several money-losing seasons.

The closure left just two pari-mutuel horse tracks in Michigan for the 2015 racing season: Hazel Park Raceway and Northville Downs. Only Northville has harness racing.

The Michigan Gaming Control Board reported wagering and tax revenue associated with horse racing has been in continuous decline in the state since 1998. There were still eight Michigan horse tracks in operation in 2000.

The decline has had a trickle-down effect to the fairs, including Mecosta County.

“With the casinos the way they are, that just bled the (gambling) dollar,” said Pat Currie, of Big Rapids, a long-time area horseman who announces the celebrity race, which has been going strong for 17 years. “People aren’t going to the race track. They can go to the slot machine quicker.

“Some of the best horsemen in the United States lived in Michigan. They’re in Ontario, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania because harness race programs are going big time. They’ve all left our state. The other states are doing well because of legislation.”

Tim Woodard, who now lives in Reed City, grew up driving the race starting car owned by his grandfather Grant Watson. Woodard would drive the car while his grandfather would close the gate to start the race. Woodard drove for his grandpa nine years and picked up driving spots for other starters. He’s been doing it 35 years and will work at Mecosta County’s fair next week.

“I started when I was 15 and I’ve driven every year since,” he said. “Horse racing isn’t like it used to be. It is a shame. It employs a lot of different people, not only for the horse business, but also the feed stores. It hurts everybody with it decreasing.”

Past memories

Matt Currie, who has been involved in the sport as a driver, trainer and owner, currently is the county fair’s speed superintendent.

His dad, Pat, and uncle, John Currie, of Big Rapids, have been involved in harness racing a long time.

“I’ve always really enjoyed it, since it’s been a passion of mine,” Matt said. “I can remember way back in my middle-school days when they’d have three or four circuits across the state and a lot of horses would come to Big Rapids. They would fill the grandstand. It was exciting to see. We were one of the best states in the nation for a long time. Obviously in the last decade, it’s really dwindled. There’s still quite a few good horses to come out of here.

“But if the money’s not there to race for, it really cuts a lot of people out. A lot of people can’t afford it.”

The county fairgrounds barn area was filled with horses years ago.

“I don’t even know if there’s 10 horses down there now,” Matt said. “It’s changed a lot.”

While some horsemen could make a year-round living in the sport many years ago, that’s hardly the case now.

“If they are, they’re downstate and traveling out of state (to compete),” Matt said.

The celebrity race was Tuesday night. Prior to Tuesday, Matt predicted there would probably be eight races each of the two nights, although the race drawings are Monday. Back in the peak of fair harness racing, a single night could see as many as 20 races or more with the final heat ending around 11 p.m.

There were pacer and trotter divisions, such as Green, Gold, Blue and Standardbred. Horse owners had a chance to determine how competitive their entry would be and classify it in the proper division.

“But the money isn’t there to have more than one division now,” Matt said.

“Ohio went through this and they did bounce back,” Woodard said. “But they didn’t get as bad as we did.”

“There were 200 head of horses here at one time,” Bob Dyksterhouse, who still trains horses at the fairgrounds, said. “We’re down to nine now. Nobody’s here year-round anymore.”

He goes south in the winter. He’s been working with horses for 50 years.

“Things have changed,” Dyksterhouse said. “Almost everybody moved down to Indiana.”

Harness racing in Osceola County

At one time, there were more than 20 fairs across the state with full racing programs, including Marion, in northeastern Osceola County. Larry Julian, general manager of the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association, said there will be 11 Michigan fairs, including Mecosta County, with harness racing programs.

“It’s the same number as last year,” he said. “It’s either overnight or stakes races.”

The MHHA has been trying to work with the Michigan Legislature to increase available dollars for revenues but hasn’t been able to turn the industry’s fortunes around in this state.

Marion traditionally for many years kicked off the county fair racing program across the state.

“That used to be our very first fair, but they don’t race there anymore,” Woodard said.

Julian said it would be difficult for fairs that had racing programs and lost them to get them back because they no longer have the proper facilities.

Daryl Bode, president of the Marion Fair Board, said he was not on the board while the Marion Fair had harness races. He said racing ended about 10 years ago.

“The track is still there, but it’s not fit for harness racing anymore,” Bode said.

Bode recalls a few area horsemen had their own ranches in the area.

“Those are all gone, too,” he said. “A lot of those older gentlemen have passed on.”

Without harness racing, Bode indicated the county fair overall has been able to remain successful.

The future

The sport has been declining, but there are some horsemen with optimistic hopes.

“A lot of people are pessimistic, but I think it has gone as low as it’s going to go,” Matt said. “It used to be there were four circuits of racing. Now there’s one. But the colt stakes on Wednesday will go for $5,600 per division. That’s pretty good money.”

The sport’s long-term future “remains to be seen,” Julian said. “It’s a vicious circle. The money has to be there. The more people we can get at the track, the more money it generates.”

Woodard wouldn’t mind seeing a return to what fair racing was in its hey-day.

“It used to be people would come and bring horses and stay the week,” Woodard said. “It was like a family thing. I used to have a lot of fun. We used to go do things, especially in Big Rapids, like a get together and go tubing or go golfing. But that’s gone now.”