LEXINGTON, Ky. — Harness racing’s county fairs are a colorful component of the standardbred industry’s past, but they also are an integral part of Kentucky’s present.
The Kentucky Proud Series was created around harness racing at the state’s county fairs, with the Corbin at The Red Mile meet hosting Tuesday’s eight $25,000 series finals. Those follow seven weeks of fair meets that serve as qualifying legs, with the highest point-earners making the divisional finals.
This is where Kentucky’s young standardbred horses get started. Currently, all the racing for 2- and 3-year-old trotters and pacers is on the state’s fair circuit (which includes the Mercer County racing staged last week at The Red Mile) until this week when overnight races and the Kentucky Sires Stakes series preps begin.
“That’s the start of our foundation with our 2- and 3-year-olds,” said trainer Marna Shehan of Hopkinsville, Ky. “They don’t have to go as fast in the beginning. They get their gate schooling, they learn how to sit in a hole and about passing and getting beat. It’s the same thing as kids playing sports - competitiveness. They learn to get better. They learn to try harder.
“When you raised the horse, it’s like sending a kid off to first grade. That’s our pride. Yes, we don’t have million-dollar horses. For us, it’s OK to race at the fairs and actually make a living at it…. Back in the day, we’d split $4,000 three ways and go for $1,300. Now we split and still go for $4,000 or $5,000” for each race.
In addition to Tuesday's Kentucky Proud finals, $15,000 prep races were carded Monday for the Kentucky Sire Stakes Championship and Commonwealth Series that are part of The Red Mile’s regular meet in August and September. Horses targeting the Grand Circuit — the industry’s prestigious series of big-money stakes — should start showing up.
To be eligible for the fair and the sire stakes series, a horse must have been sired by a stallion that stood in Kentucky in the year of conception or whose dam resided at least 180 days in the commonwealth in the offspring’s year of conception. Those looser requirements have brought horses back to the state and made it more desirable to board or keep a standardbred mare in the state for at least half of the year.
“For 2- and 3-year-olds, that’s all I do,” trainer-driver Randy Jerrell of Kevil, Ky., said at The Red Mile. “They get a chance to learn how to race around the fairs at the half-mile track. Then it’s always great to get to come here. A lot of these Grand Circuit horses, they’re on farm tracks and put on their toes. I look at it as we’re doing the same thing.”
Purses for Kentucky’s fair racing used to be funded by uncashed pari-mutuel tickets, which have dramatically declined with the advent on online wagering. Now it’s funded in part by revenue from play on historical horse racing. That has resulted in substantial increase to the fair purses, including more than $780,000 this year.
One of the fair finals’ heaviest favorites figures to be the Jerrell-trained and driven 3-year-old pacing filly Single Girl, who is 7 for 7 this season after her 4 1/2-length victory last week and 15 for 21 for her career.
Though by the Indiana stallion Always A Virgin, Single Girl is the epitome of Kentucky Proud. The filly was bred by and born at owner Missy Robertson’s Copper Cap Farm in Paris, Ky., where in addition to her one standardbred mare (My Best Girl), she also has three thoroughbred and two warm-blood mares. Single Girl is leased for racing to Janet Banks of Lexington.
“She’s an unbelievable filly,” Banks said. “We had no idea we’d do this good this year as a 3-year-old. We love the fair racing. It’s more of a family atmosphere. We look for Kentucky horses that can race at the fair.”
Normally Robertson sells her babies but wanted to keep a daughter of My Best Girl for eventually breeding, hence the leasing arrangement. She remains very much a part of the pacer.
“Kentucky has taken a hit in harness racing, so this is kind of pumping it back up and making local breeders have something to shoot for,” Robertson said. “We spend so much energy and money raising these things here in this state. And it’s a darn shame to have to send them to New York, New Jersey and all these other places to make a living. It’s great to be able to get them started off well here. We like to watch our horses races. We’re breeders and sportsmen and we love the game.”
Jerrell also won last week with 4-for-5 Senor Sharpsburg, a 2-year-old pacer bred by Red Mile track announcer Gabe Prewitt, and with the 3-year-old trotter Timo Kemp, who paid $55.60 to win. Timo Kemp is owned by Jerrell and his sister, Joni Jordan.
“I think we’re getting a lot more interest back,” Jordan said of the Kentucky Proud Series. “I’ve had people ask me about getting into the business. It’s good for the state, and I’m glad they’re building a track at Corbin. I’m really excited about it.”
The fairs also give Kentucky harness horsemen eight weeks of racing that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
“This is very much ‘Kentucky proud’ racing,” said trainer Jackie Gray of Lebanon, Ky. “We’re proud of it.”
Also Tuesday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is honoring staff members who died in recent years. They are: former executive directors Lisa Underwood and John Ward, licensing administrator Allen Slayback, state veterinarians Dr. John Taormina and Dr. Jennifer Kaak, enforcement investigator Don Kolioutas, detention barn assistant John Asbury and veterinary technician Burnis Caudill.
The Corbin at The Red Mile meet runs Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays in July and is part of the collaboration between Kentucky Downs' ownership and Keeneland to build a harness track in Corbin, Ky., and a historical horse racing track extension in nearby Williamsburg. First post is 1 p.m. ET.