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Self-Reliance in Defiance
Friday, July 18, 2014 - T.J. Burkett

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The Defiance County Fair in Hicksville, Ohio, races for two days in late August, but it takes a year’s worth of work to get the races to the gate.

 
Photos by Mark Hall
Crowds stay after dark at the Defiance County Fair for harness racing and giveaways, including a television.

The majority of that work is done by the Defiance County Area Horsemen Association, a group created three years ago to fend off threats from the local fair board to eliminate harness racing at the northwestern Ohio fair.

“We had to step forward,” said Bill Peters, who serves as race secretary and announcer at Hicksville, along with some 13 other fairs throughout Ohio and Indiana. “We got together a group of 65 people to say that we wanted to keep harness racing going here at the Defiance County Fair. We said we would form a new horsemen’s organization and pay for all the purses and the officials here at the fair. So we have fundraisers and very generous donors to sponsor the harness racing program in its entirety.”

That year-round effort, combined with a multi-faceted attack to get people in the grandstand for live racing, have earned the Defiance County Fair in Hicksville, Ohio, the 2014 Blue Ribbon Fair Award.

“The fair board said if it has an engine, or involves kids, they can fill the grandstand,” said Kevin Appel, president of the Defiance County Area Horsemen Association, a group that was formed in response to the threat of eliminating racing at the fair.

The horsemen sprang into action to fund the race meet, hosting matinees, gold outings and their most successful fundraiser, a reverse raffle dinner and stallion auction. At the reverse raffle, tickets are sold for $50 each, which includes dinner. At the dinner, all the tickets are drawn with donated prizes given out intermittently. Last year’s grand prize was $1,500, but the fundraiser brings in some $10,000 to run the fair, according to Christine Webb, secretary of the Defiance County Area Horsemen Association.

“Almost everybody goes home with something, and everybody has a good time,” said Webb.

Putting on a Show

 
Colorful tents line the Hicksville backstretch.

Hicksville holds two days of racing at the fairgrounds in late August. The village of Hicksville has a population hovering around 3,500 people, with the county seat, Defiance, lies more than 20 miles to the east, while the Indiana border lies just 1-1/2 miles to the west. Peters said that due to its geographic location—and due to the fact that no fairs in Indiana or Michigan host overnight harness racing that week, the fair draws fans and horsemen from a large area.

“It’s always been a tri-state fair, you might say,” said Peters.

Tuesday night is Senior Night, where the horsemen pay the admission fees for all senior citizens. Races include both harness and trottingbred, while the Bud Widmer Rube Band entertains fans between events.

Friday night is for the younger crowd. Every $2 admission buys an entry into a drawing for such prizes as televisions, rides in the starting gate and a harness racing tapestry donated by equine artist Ann Lufkin. There is a “DJ” to entertain the crowd between races, local radio personality Rick Small.

“He is excellent with the crowd,” said Webb. “Everyone knows him in the area because he does a ton of fundraisers and is involved in all the community projects.

“Bill basically does the facts of the races when he announces. We thought it would be better if we had a personality that could move around in the stands, talk to the people and interact with the crowd to make that connection between the track, the horsemen and the fans.”

 
Like most all Ohio fair tracks, pari-mutuel wagering is permitted at Hicksville.

The Defiance horsemen gather ideas from all over the sport to put on a good show for the fans. They got the idea for television giveaways from the Champaign County Fair in Urbana, Ohio, and the idea for a DJ from Brett Boyd, who used to emcee the races from among the fans in the grandstand at Michigan’s Jackson Harness Raceway.

(For a listing of marketing and entertainment ideas for your fair, visit fairs.ustrotting.com.)

This year the year-round effort hit some roadblocks. The golf outing was cancelled due to rain, and the matinee was cancelled due to an outbreak of strangles. But thanks to the money raised from the dinner and the money provided by the USTA Matching Funds Grant Program (see sidebar), the show will go on this August.

We haven’t done anything yet, so we’re saving it all for the fair,” said Webb. “We will be there with bells on.”

***

If You Go

The Defiance County Fair is located on State Route 111 in Hicksville, Ohio, which is 23 miles west of Defiance and 1.5 miles east of the Ohio-Indiana border. This year, live harness racing will be held Tuesday, Aug. 19, and Friday, Aug. 22. Senior citizens get free admission on Aug. 19.

***

How Hicksville Won

Want to know who will win next year’s Blue Ribbon Fair Award? The winner is chosen from those fairs that apply and receive money through the USTA Matching Funds Grant Program, which provides money to market and promote harness racing at the county fairs.

The recipients include:

  • Defiance County Area Horsemen Association (Hicksville, Ohio; 2014 BRF winner)
  • Erie County Fair (Wattsburg, Pa.; 2013 BRF winner)
  • Fowlerville Harness Horsemen (Fowlerville, Mich.; 2011 BRF winner)
  • Gogebic County Fair (Ironwood, Mich.)
  • Hancock County Fair (Findlay, Ohio)
  • Mahoning County Agricultural Society (Canfield, Ohio; 2010 BRF winner)
  • Meigs County Agricultural Society (Pomeroy, Ohio)
  • Menard County Fair (Petersburg, Ill.)
  • Mercer County Fair (Celina, Ohio; 2009 BRF winner)
  • Midland County Fair (Midland, Mich.)
  • Minnesota Harness Racing Inc. (all Minnesota fairs)
  • Richland County Fair (Richland Center, Wis.)
  • St. Joseph County Grange Fair (Centreville, Mich.)
  • Wisconsin Harness Horse Association (all Wisconsin fairs; 2012 BRF winner)
 
The T-shirt toss was a big hit among those in the grandstand.

Another 11 fairs and organizations were assisted through the Matching Funds Grant Program for purchasing promotional items to be given out in the grandstands or sold as fundraisers. Items such as T-shirts, can koozies, seat cushions and drawstring backpacks will be available at different fairs in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The Matching Funds Grant Program was started at the USTA for the 2006 racing season, with a budget of $10,000. The program’s funding has since doubled and provides assistance to those working to encourage attendance at, and participation in, county fair harness racing.

Visit fairs.ustrotting.com to see a complete list of recipients, along with marketing ideas for fairs. Blue Ribbon Fair Award finalists will be chosen by the Blue Ribbon Fair panel based on creativity and efficient use of Matching Funds Grant money to promote harness racing.


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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.