Annual harness racing brings life to Franklin Fairgrounds

Here Comes Mario, right, owned by Laurier A. Sauve of North Bangor, leads the pack around the first turn on the final lap of the day, trailed by Bay Storm, left, and Steuben Warlock, center, who ends up winning a close race. Rock On Jo Jo trails the pack. Aidan Pollard/Malone Telegram

MALONE — Horses and drivers went the social distance at the Franklin County Fairgrounds on Friday.

The fairgrounds hosted annual Sire Stakes harness races, which are usually held on the Thursday of fair week. But this year’s Sire Stakes were pushed up a few weeks after the fair itself was canceled because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sire Stakes are sponsored by the Agriculture and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund, which was created in 1965 “to promote agriculture through the breeding of standardbred horses and the conduct of equine research within the State,” according to the Sire Stakes website.

Due to state regulations and social distancing guidelines, the event was not open to the public and drivers and their crews were required to have their temperatures taken before entering the fairgrounds.

“As you can see, we can’t have spectators,” said Mayor Andrea Dumas, gesturing to the stands, which were nearly empty.

Drivers and crews were also required to social distance within the stables and wear masks.

“It’s been a team effort to get this organized,” Dumas said.

The village had to get the fairgrounds set up for the socially distanced event and provided signs and markers within the stables to ensure that drivers and crews remained in their own designated areas and maintained social distance from each other.

“This is something that a lot of people who love horses love to come watch,” Dumas said.

The 14-mile-long races saw competition between 74 different horses from as far away as Utica, Saratoga and Vernon Downs, according to fairgrounds official Barry White,

Even though each race had a prize purse of $2,000 or more, the village will end up seeing little to none of that money.

“We host it and New York state puts up all the money, so we’re basically just hosting it,” White said.

“For free,” Dumas added.

The drivers competing in the races ranged from their 20s to their 80s, according to Dumas, with the oldest driver being 85-year-old Harold Smith of Malone.

The races at the fairgrounds were only the third such event held in New York amid the coronavirus pandemic, with many other venues having to cancel their race days due to inability to meet social distancing requirements.

“There were like six fairs that cancelled,” White said.

The fate of racers’ paid entrees was on the line until New York decided to continue to host the Sire Stakes, as racers had already paid their dues in February and April to be able to race in the circuit, according to local trainer Todd LaPage.

“I don’t know what they would’ve done,” said LaPage, who indicated that he and others were nervous the state might cancel the races.

Due to the nature of the circuit, only two- and three-year-old horses are eligible to compete in the Sire Stakes, which would’ve meant a potential loss of revenue if the circuit did not forge ahead.

“You just lose all that earning pot,” LaPage said of the consequences of the races not being able to go on because of coronavirus regulations.

But LaPage said that horse racing was one of the few sports that remained feasible while following social distancing guidelines.

“It’s a great revenue source for the state,” said LaPage, adding that would-be spectators were still able to bet from home, and be somewhat involved in the action.

Not only was the event good for the local drivers and horse owners, but the horses benefitted from being able to race, too.

“Their horses still have to run,” Dumas said.

Both Dumas and LaPage indicated that horses can get antsy if they’re unable to race as consistently as they’re used to.

“They’re meant to race,” Dumas said. “They’re meant to run.”

Highlighting the day with a win in the fastest time overall, was Stueben Warlock, who crossed the line in 2:03.4, beating out three other racers in the final race of the afternoon.

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