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July 15, 2013

In an effort to boost attendance, the horses might be racing at night at this year’s Delaware County Fair

A sub-committee of the Delaware County Fair Board has held preliminary discussions on a proposal to run some of the horse races during the evening hours — specifically Monday and Tuesday, said Phil Terry, fair manager.

Attendance at the fair is lower on those days since many people are working. The crowds generally pick up on Wednesday and Thursday for the Jugette and Little Brown Jug day, Terry said. The thought is that people will come to the Monday and Tuesday evening races after getting off work, increasing gate admittance collections and betting, he said.

“We’re looking at the possibility of more attendance,” Terry said. “People take off the day for the Jugette and the Jug. We want to improve attendance for racing and in turn improve handle — what people bet.”

Running evening races would require a few improvements, including permanent lighting in the barn area and temporary lighting for the racetrack and grandstand. The board also needs to consider having the appropriate personnel for fair attendees and harness racers, Terry said.

“Our racing is basically a daytime operation,” Terry said. “With all the horses now moving at daytime, we would have to improve lighting in the barn area if races moved to night.”

The proposal comes from the fair board’s newly-formed “Out of the Box” committee, a group of board members who consider innovative ideas to keep the fair fun and interesting, fair board president Tim Wood said.

If the proposal is recommended by the committee, the fair board could vote on the matter as soon as April.

“It looks worth trying,” Wood said. “We would still keep the traditional Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday as daytime races. Monday and Tuesday make for a good night racing opportunity.”

If the proposal becomes reality, the evening races would start at about 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday during Delaware County Fair week, said Wood. The board estimates that the necessary lighting improvements would cost about $5,000.

The proposed change comes as Ohio’s harness racing experiences a decline.

Surrounding states have added casinos to their horse-racing tracks, hurting Ohio’s harness racing draw. In the early 2000s, Ohio was the No. 1 standardbred breeding state in the country, but it’s seen a serious drop over the past few years, Terry said.

“The primary reason is that surrounding states — Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York — all have alternative gaming with their tracks called ‘racinos,’ a combination of racing and casino,” Terry said.

With a “racino,” additional cash flows into the purse monies, so horses are able to race for larger amounts of money. In turn, owners, trainers, drivers, breeders and all aspects of the racing business are moving operations out of Ohio to states where there is more potential income, Terry said.

For the past 10 years, the fair has run races called the New Century series which are open only to Ohio-bred horses. With the decline in Ohio horse breeders, this year will be the first for the Delaware Open Series, which will be open to horses from all over, Terry said.

“We’ll continue to provide a very good program for racing,” said Terry, adding that the Jugette and Jug continue to be well-attended races since they are national. “Those numbers continue to be good because the general population of horse racing want to come here to race because of the history, fame and track.”

The committee has even discussed the possibility of completely eliminating Monday as a race day, but no decisions on that proposal will be made this year, Wood said.

“Harness racing in Ohio in general is kind of in trouble,” Wood said. “There’s just not a lot of horses being bred in Ohio to race, as in the past. The states around us have casinos attached to the tracks, so harness racing is in a little trouble at the moment. It could come to a day when there’s fewer days of racing.”

The Jugette and Little Brown Jug races, set for Sept. 21 and 22 this year, will remain as the community has come to know them, running in the morning until early evening, Terry said.

“We anticipate the best horses coming back again,” said Terry, adding that last year’s Jug winner, Rock N Roll Heaven, was recently named as horse of the year by the United States Harness Writers Association