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2013 Blue Ribbon Fair: Wattsburg, Pa.
Thursday, July 18, 2013 - by T. J. Burkett

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The Erie County Fair in Wattsburg, Pa., is certainly a fair that makes racing fans—and horsemen—feel welcome.

But that welcome mat was pulled out just seven years ago.

The fair, just south of Lake Erie in northern Pennsylvania, was a regular stop on the Keystone State fair circuit for more than 100 years—a photo in the 2012 racing program showed an overflow crowd for the 1915 meeting—but the fair board decided not to host racing in 2006.

A small team of dedicated horsemen and horsewomen, led by Cheryl Bender, brought racing back to the fair through hard work and dedication. Now Bender is working harder than ever to ensure that locals come out to the fair—and are treated to a good time. In recognition of the efforts of Bender and her team, the Erie County Fair in Wattsburg, Pa., has been named the winner of the 2013 USTA Blue Ribbon Fair Award.

 
Photo by Mark Hall
Wattsburg hosts Pennsylvania Sire Stakes action with two, two-day meets in June and August.

Bender, who said she has been coming to the races since she was a girl, credited Walter “Boots” Dunn and Sue Brickell with helping her find the strength to fight to bring racing back to Wattsburg, as well as continue to run the racing office and promote the two annual meets—a two-day “show meet” in late June and two more days of racing during the fair in late August.

“It’s been a long road bringing everything back to where it should be,” she said. “We’re not where we should yet, but we are on a good road. Getting the Blue Ribbon Fair Award just boosts the way we feel already about the fair.

“We all put our heart and soul into this because we all have roots here. We’ve had good times and we’ve had bad times and we’re on the way up again.”

The folks at Wattsburg have intensified their marketing efforts thanks to a Matching Fund Grant from the USTA. In the spring of 2012, Bender submitted a plan consisting of several marketing items including television and radio advertising, T-shirts emblazoned with the Erie County Fair logo, gift cards to give away to fans, double-sided yard signs and flyers for race day. They also rented use of the LED message board in front of the City of Erie School District to advertise the upcoming meet, as well as set up a mailing list so that interested fans would receive a postcard reminding them of the next racing dates.

“We’re the only fair in Erie County that hosts live harness racing so it’s important to let everybody know that they can come out and see it first-hand,” said Bender, who has been the race secretary each year since racing was reinstated.

 

The Erie County Fair in Wattsburg, Pa., runs from Aug. 26-31, with live harness racing on Wednesday, Aug. 28 and Thursday, Aug. 29. First post is scheduled for 11 a.m. The fairgrounds is located north of Wattsburg on Rte. 8/89, 20 miles southeast of Erie. For more information, visit the fair website at www.wattsburgeriecounty fair.com.

Horsemen at Wattsburg also go into the stands to toss T-shirts into the crowd.

“Many have said they love to collect them, and many fans have them for every year we have done this,” Bender wrote in her 2012 grant proposal.

Horsemen also said they enjoyed racing at the fair. Some admired the hard work put in by the track maintenance crew of Laurie Law, Charlie Tanner, Blaine Yost and Dale Biletnikoff. Others appreciate how Bender does what she can to make them feel welcome when they come to northwestern Pennsylvania.

“They treat you good here at this fair,” said Hammer. “She always makes sure that we all have stalls here. And she’s polite when she takes our entries. She’s always asking ‘Is there anything we can do?’

Racing is back in force at Wattsburg in 2013. At the show meet earlier this year, She’salilfireball set the all-age track record when she paced in 2:00.3 for driver Aaron Johnston. With this kind of speed on the track and excitement in the stands, <I>Hoof Beats<I> and the USTA congratulates the Erie County Fair on their hard work.

I’d like for them to leave the fair with a little bit of knowledge about what harness racing is all about; a little bit of the history here at the Erie County Fair,” she said. “I’d like them to walk away and say, ‘Wow, they put on a nice program.’”


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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.