Indiana’s Biggest “Little” Fair

NEWTON COUNTY FAIR CELEBRATES ITS 100TH ANNIVERSARY, AND CONTINUES THE HISTORIC EXCITEMENT OF INDIANA HARNESS RACING

story by CATHY SHOUSE

The epic chariot race scene in the 1959 movie “Ben Hur,” based on Indiana Author Lew Wallace’s book, captured the excitement of horse racing, which takes many forms. This summer is a must-see chance to see horse racing up close, in all its hoof—and heart—pounding glory. On Saturday, July 13 at the Newton County Pun’kin Vine Fair in Kentland, the multi-layer thrills of a Hoosier mainstay will be on display: harness racing, and it’s all part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the fair.

Barbara Wilfong and her husband Lynn, who announces the races, have been steeped in the traditions of harness racing for decades. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she seems to savor introducing newbies to the proper terms. After all, that’s all part of the fun.

“They’re not called ‘jockeys,’” Barbara said. “They’re drivers and they sit on a sulky, a two-wheeled cart.”

More than just horse owners, the Wilfongs are also horse breeders and own about 35 Standardbred horses, down from as many as 70. The definition of Standardbred horses? Any of a breed of trotting and pacing horses developed in the U.S., noted for speed and stamina, and used especially in harness racing.

“It gets in your blood,” Barbara said. “It gets under your skin. We’re four generations deep. I think the really neat thing is that it involves so many families.”

Her family wanted to scale back, but can’t follow through, like many others. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re never going to buy another horse. Then they do,” Barbara said with a laugh.

The rewards of winning are high in pride of ownership and sense of accomplishment. The most recent Wilfong accomplishment occurred late 2018, when their 3-year-old homebred filly, It’s Time For Fun, won an Indiana Sire Stakes championship at Anderson’s Hoosier Park Casino and Racing, the pari-mutuel harness racing track in Indiana. It truly was a family affair. “My husband bred her, our son trained her and our grandson, Kyle, drove her,” Barbara said. “She wasn’t a favorite—she was at 11 to 1 odds. So, that made it even sweeter.”

The Wilfong farm bred 13 foals in 2018, and they expect a similar number this year. Caring for racehorses requires a big investment, not only in money but also in time. Horse racing employs more than just the breeders, trainers and drivers, but there’s also the veterinarian and technicians, farriers (plus the blacksmiths that make the shoes), grooms, farmers who grow the hay and grain for the horses… “I think what many people don’t realize is, this is a huge agricultural business. It’s a big part of Indiana’s economy,” Barbara said.

The pursuit of the perfect horse, from a breeding standpoint, is part of the attraction. “It’s so much of a challenge for the breeder and the owner, trying to figure out what combination of a sire (male) and a dam (female),” Barbara said. Like other breeders in the state, the Wilfongs breed not only to race their own, but to sell at some of the harness racing industry’s largest and most prestigious sales in the region. “The sales happen in the fall, when people buy yearlings.”

Jessica Barnes, Director of Racing and Breed Development for the Indiana Horse Racing Commission said county fair tracks get financial help. Kentland’s current harness racing barn dates from 2013 and they’re hoping to spiff up the track for the 100th fair using one of the grants available to the fair.

“We have seen upgrades to the facilities, specifically made available through a grant program administered by the Indiana State Fair Commission,” Barnes said. “This program allocates
a portion of the adjusted gross receipts from slot machine wagering at Indiana’s casinos and earmarks the money for grants to be used at Indiana’s fairs which host harness racing programs.”

The Kentland crowd averages about 100 to 150 people, a relatively small, yet devoted following.

“There were 13 races held in 2018 with 70 horses competing in those races in one day at Kentland,” Jessica said. “A total of $39,000 in purses were awarded to owners competing in those races. During 2017, there were nine races, with 48 horses competing, paying out $27,000 in purses. The amount really depends on the schedule of the races, how close it is to other fairs, etc.

“The Newton County Fair has always been extremely welcoming to horsemen coming to participate in their racing program,” Barnes continued. “They have provided breakfast for horsemen, and create a welcoming and fun environment. The Fair Board puts in a lot of hard work to ensure that the races happen smoothly and we are thankful to their longstanding dedication to the harness racing program in Indiana.”

Known as “the biggest little fair in Indiana,” this year’s fair goes from July 15-20 and the final touches are being finalized. There’s an Oak Ridge Boys concert on the 20th, hopefully followed by fireworks, weather permitting. Appearances by the RE/MAX Hot Air Balloon, the Indiana State Fair Calliope and sky divers at the grand opening are in the works. They’re counting on good weather, unlike in some years, such as in 1926, when continuous rains contributed to the carnival wagons and trucks getting mired in the mud until the following spring.

Cory Groover, Newton County Fair’s director of media, volunteers partly for her 10-year-old daughter Cora. “The fair was the highlight of my summer,” Groover said. “I was a 10-year 4H member, and I feel that my fair experiences helped shape me into the person I am today. I am passionate about continuing on the Newton County Fair for the next generation.”

Barbara Wilfong agrees, pulling out the stops to engage the harness race visitors. “We’ve given out gift bags from Hoosier Park,” she said. “We’ve had a pick-the-winner contest where people draw names from a bucket.

It adds more excitement because they’re actually rooting for a horse. We’ve given winners a T-shirt that has harness racing on it.”

You can tell she’s hoping that harness racing will get into more peoples’ veins. It’s one bet she’s willing to make. For more information: www.in.gov/hrc