The half mile race track was laid out between the river and the grandstand. A ten-foot board fence separated the south end of the track from the rest of the fairgrounds–an impediment to anyone who wanted to watch an event for free and as a barrier on the first turn of the track when the stock cars raced. My grandfather and I were in the stands on a harness-racing night.
“There used to be more nights of harness racing,” Grandpa said. “There used to be a season, three fair nights and then weekends all of August.”
“What happened?” I asked as the hat Grandpa and his friends used for betting passed down the row to us. Grandpa dropped in a dollar and I pulled out a slip of paper with a number on it.
“Tastes change,” Grandpa said. “Most of us in my generation had experience with horses–harnessing them to a plow or to a carriage and keeping them to a trot when coming to town, but that’s something you and your father never did. People learn how to drive a car now and maybe to keep it running, and it’s natural they’re more interested in stock car races.”
The starting-gate vehicle had driven onto the track, opened its wings, and started past the grandstand. Eight sulkies, with their horses in harness and the driver in the seat slung low at the back, circled into position and brought their speed up to match the starting gate’s as it continued to accelerate. When the starting-gate vehicle reached the start line, it folded in the wings of the gate and sped away from the horses who headed for the first turn at a full trot.
If any of the drivers went to the whip, it wouldn’t be until the final turn, and the only sound at the start of the race was the hooves of eight horse as they paced along the dirt track.
“I can’t see which horse is ours,” I said as the horses rounded the first turn and started down the backstretch.
“Look for the blue silks. He’s riding third now but he’s in the death hole.”
“That sounds bad.”
“It’s not good. He’s pinned in behind the lead horse and with another horse on his outside, there’s nowhere for him to go.”
“We won’t win?”
“It’s early. They will circle the track twice, but it doesn’t look good.”
Grandpa was right. The horse in the blue silks had no place to go, either inside or outside, and finished third. All eight dollars in the hat went to Grandpa’s friend with the winning number, and we began to wait for the next race.
“Are there ever any accidents?” I asked.
“There are, especially with new drivers like tonight. But it’s not like stock cars that crash almost every race or are bumped off the track and into the river.”
“I like the way this racing is quiet and that it’s horses instead of cars.”
“There aren’t too many people who agree with you anymore. I think this may be the last year of racing at this fair.”
“Will you miss it?”
“I will, but everything changes.”
The next set of horses were coming onto the track, and I watched them circling as they warmed up. The betting hat was passing down the row, and my grandfather reached into his pocket for another dollar bill. I hoped our horse wouldn’t get caught in the death hole again.