The County Fair circuit is one that travels a bit under the radar. It is an aspect of harness racing that stays a bit unknown to the casual fan but is one that offers competition throughout the summertime for two and three year olds. A division of the New York Sire Stakes, the County Fair circuit is a series of non pari-mutuel harness races, open to eligible two and three year old New York breds. It provides young horses the opportunity to earn as they learn. Horses are separated into eight divisions based on age, gender and gait. There were two months of racing held among twenty county fairs throughout the state. The series began at the Orange County Fair in Goshen on July 4th and concluded at Tioga Downs on August 22nd.
The County Fair horses and horsepersons become their own little click throughout the summer. A group of trainers bring their horses throughout the state, often traveling several hours to small tracks that are almost exclusively used only for the summer fairs. Many of these tracks are very small and only go three or four wide. Therefore, most of the fields are reduced to three, four or five participants. Most often, there is a trailing horse or even multiple trailers in a given race that start from the second tier. The miles don’t go anywhere as fast as they do in a regular betting card in an “overnight” race at a pari-mutuel track. Yes, the quality of horse is usually a bit lesser than you would see competing in the New York Sire Stakes or the Excelsior Series though many of the horses that race at the fairs do double duty and race in Excelsior competition as well. Many of the competitors are those that maybe couldn’t quite make it to the level of the top flight pacers and trotters that take part in the New York Sire Stakes. The fairs offer these horses a nice opportunity to learn and improve while competing for decent purses along the way. No, horses that win five or six times in the summer at the fairs are not going to tally the kind of bankroll that those would in the NY Sire Stakes or Excelsiors but they could put together a nice little season with some success at the fairs.
In addition to the purse money earned, the horses that race at the fairs battle for points. With every win, second place finish, third place finish, etc, the fair participants earn points towards a final where the top eight point getters in each category compete for a purse of $10,000 per division. Those finals took place on Friday night at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Driver Jimmy Devaux, who has been one of New York’s hottest drivers in the past several weeks, was at it again on Friday night. Following a Thursday matinee card on which in the 50 year old reinsman piloted four winners, Devaux made five trips to the winner’s circle on Friday night. Four of his wins came in the fair finals as he drove a variety of different horses to scores. The night began with a non-betting race at 6 o’clock and Devaux got his night off to a good start by piloting Buckys Brat to victory in the two year old colt pace final. The red-hot reinsman kept it rolling with Bonita Island as he secured his second victory in a fair final on the evening. When it was all said and done, Devaux drove four of the eight winners in the $10,000 County Fair Finals and scored five total victories on the night. While a few favorites thrived, there were some longshot winners among the Fair Finals as a 12-1 shot and a 17-1 each overcame post position seven to secure a victory to wrap-up the fair racing season. Some of the participants are likely to compete in the NYSS Excelsior Finals in the next few weeks as well. The trips as far north at Malone, as far west as Batavia and as far south as Goshen proved to be fruitful for the connections of the participants in Friday night’s County Fair Finals.
While the County Fair Finals were the highlight of last weekend’s racing, next weekend will feature a Saturday extravaganza at the Spa. This Saturday, our All-Star Sports Festival will take place with an afternoon featuring a group of sports Hall of Famers and several other big names from the world of sports. There is a celebrity softball game during the day followed by meet and greets with autograph sessions from many of the top names who will be on hand. Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith and Lawrence Taylor highlight the star-studded cast that will be here. At night, there will be a Celebrity Jockey Event taking place in between races two and three on the nighttime card. Triple Crown winners Jean Cruguet and Steve Cauthen will join the “King of Saratoga” Angel Cordero to compete in an exhibition harness race. Fans can enter to win to have photos taken with these legendary jockeys. Entry forms will be in the race programs all week long. Come out and join us for a big day and night on Saturday as Saratoga Casino Hotel features the All-Star Sports Festival.
On a more somber note, I want to acknowledge the passing of a couple of our own. Trainer Ray Sharpe came to Saratoga last decade and the New Zealand native found a home here. Sharpe managed a small stable at the track and made so many friends in his time here. The extremely likeable Sharpe battled kidney cancer and returned to his native New Zealand in June. Ray lost his valiant fight last month at the age of 48. Just last week, longtime harness owner Ken Clairmont passed away at age 67. Kenny was a fixture in the grandstand for decades. He owned hundreds of horses with several different partners as well as on his own. A native of Massachusetts, Clairmont simply loved harness racing. To say it was his passion would be a gross understatement. Most recently, Kenny raced in Maine and throughout the New England circuit as his horses were with trainer Ron Cushing. Kenny had horses with several local trainers, most namely Scott Mongeon and Paul Zabielski over the many, many years he spent in this business. Kenny battled health problems for as long as I’ve known him which is roughly two decades. Kenny Clairmont was a big personality, always good for a laugh. He will be sorely missed both personally and within the scope of the business of harness racing. RIP buddy, we will miss you.
Live racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon with 12:15pm first posts with evening racing starting at 6:45pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!