MALONE -- The National Anthem echoes across the racetrack and the grandstand comes alive with people standing to honor our country’s sacred music.
The day is sunny and warm. The announcer welcomes the crowd, while a much appreciated gentle breeze blows from the west.
It’s time for harness racing and before long the “First Call” bugle rings out from the announcer’s tape recorder. That’s the way it’s done at the Franklin County Fair, closing its 162nd year today.
Just as the drivers and horses have readied themselves with years of training, the harness racing staff at the fair also has decades of training making sure each heat is run properly and times are recorded accurately.
In the race barn, Larry Stewart says he’s been assistant race secretary for about 40 years. He is proud of the sport but says it isn’t like it used to be.
“There are fewer horses and therefore the purse (prize money) isn’t as large,” he said, “But the horses are better, faster, because of breeding, equipment and the great condition of this track.”
With music wafting from a radio and a coffee maker close by, Stewart takes entries and fees, his main duties, but he also has to keep track of horses that are scratched from the race and make sure the right people know about the changes.
“I just had a call from an owner who said his horse hurt his leg so he has pulled the horse from the race,” said Stewart, who will be 83 next week, “but the upside of that is the Amish bought the horse to pull their buggy. They like the trotters.”
Meanwhile, Maureen Faubert, clerk of the course, has taken her place in the judges tower on the race track, ready for her 35th year of recording stats. After the starter truck pulls away and the horses hit full stride, Faubert watches their progress around the track, marking the seconds and minutes of time when they reach the quarter turn, and other significant points around the track.
“39:3, 1:15:2, 1:51:3”
She reports the results to the announcer, who, in turn, lets the grandstand crowd know how their favorite driver and horse are doing.
At the end of the race, Faubert records the times, making sure everyone who needs the information has accurate details, just one aspect of her job.
“I’ve been up here (judges tower) for hundreds of races and it’s always thrilling to watch,” she said. “There have been some surprises, though. You have to expect surprises.”
Out-of-towner Bill Ellis, who lives in Dedham, Mass., feels like Malone is his second home. He’s been coming to the Franklin County Fair to announce the harness racing since 1980.
“After all these years I guess you could say I like coming to Malone,” he said, while waiting for the next heat to start. “Sometimes we know what we’re doing and sometimes they throw a curve ball at us.”
Wednesday’s curve ball
was the harness saddle demonstration event. Ellis wasn’t aware of the exhibition of saddle horses, showing how they are still versatile animals even after retiring from harness racing. Promoters of the idea say that too many of these beautiful animals are sold for buggy horses or sent to glue factories when they still have a lot of life left in them.
“I don’t have a problem with surprises,” Ellis said. “Just give me the information and we’ll let the races begin.”
Also in the judges tower that day were Presiding Judge Scott Campbell and Timer Jack McCarthy, who, at 87, has been in that capacity “longer than I can remember.”
Rounding out the longevity of the staff is Race Secretary Don Dumont, 91, who owned race horses until six years ago. He doesn’t climb the judges tower anymore so he parks his golf cart in the shade and watches the excitement from the sidelines.
“I guess I’m still here because I never wanted to see it (harness racing) quit,” he said teary eyed. “It’s not as personal as it used to be in the old days, too commercial now. It takes a lot of money today to buy a horse. I could buy one years ago for $300 and you can’t buy a horse blanket for that now.”
Dumont said there doesn’t seem to be the interest in harness racing. When he was racing his own horses, the grandstands were full for every event.
Each veteran staff member has seen generations come and go in the harness racing events at the Franklin County Fair. They share the same goal -- to see the races continue.
“The most enjoyable part is watching the races. Seems like I’ve been a fan forever and that won’t soon change,” Stewart said.
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