The fair is off, but the race is on

Herald FileDrivers ready their horses and harnesses at the Stoneboro fairgrounds during the 2019 harness races at the fairground track.

STONEBORO – While The Great Stoneboro Fair has been canceled, it looks like the fairgrounds will still host harness racing over part of the extended Labor Day weekend, said a member of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission.

“The Stoneboro fairgrounds will have horse racing,’’ said Robert Lark. Lark, a West Middlesex councilman, sits on the state Horse Racing Commission.

On June 6, the Stoneboro Fair board canceled the event, which was scheduled to be held over the Labor Day weekend. Like nearly all fairs in Pennsylvania, the local event was nixed amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, the commission planned to hold harness races at 21 fairs throughout Pennsylvania. Lark said there will be harness races at 17 fairgrounds this year.

Races will be held at the Stoneboro fairgrounds at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 3, and Friday, Sept. 4, Lark said. He was unable to say how many races will be held each day.

It’s unlikely races will be held at fairs that were canceled earlier in the season,  including the Big Butler Fair in Butler County, he said. Each fair board must approve renting its grounds to the commission in order for the races to be held, Lark said.

Stoneboro Fair’s board gave that approval, Scott Patton, a board, said Thursday. 

“They are responsible for observing all of the state’s guidelines in holding the event,’’ Patton said.

Races could also be held at the Crawford County Fair’s fairgrounds in Mead Township, Lark said.

That fair, set for Aug. 21 through 28, was canceled. However, the fair’s board was scheduled to hold its regular board meeting Thursday night. It wasn’t immediately known if it had approved allowing the races to be held.

There was a legal obstacle to overcome in holding the races.

“The state provides some funding reimbursements for these races,’’ Lark said. “But the way the law is worded the reimbursements can only be made is if the actual fair was being held. We got a waiver from the state that since so many fairs have been canceled they will honor their reimbursements.’’

Harness races at the fairs serves another purpose than just entertainment, Lark noted. Like Major League baseball has pre-season games to get players ready for the real season, horsemen want their horses in fair races to train them to run at tracks where parimutuel betting is allowed.

Pennsylvania law currently doesn’t allow betting at fair races.

“That’s something I would like to change,’’ Lark said. “I want to see betting allowed at these fair races because it generates more money and excitement for everybody.’’

Lark didn’t know the total purse amount for the Stoneboro races. But he said each race will divvied up based on finishing order -- 50 percent for first place, 25 percent for second place, 13 percent for third place, 7 percent for fourth place and 5 percent for fifth place.

“It’s important to have purses,’’ Lark said. “There’s a lot of expense in maintaining horses and having to travel to each fair.’’

Lark said he didn’t know how many spectators would be allowed at the Stoneboro Fair track. Under state guidelines, all sporting events must have no greater than 250 people in attendance, which includes those behind the scenes such as maintenance staff and food vendors. Also, spectators will have to observe social distancing guidelines.

For horse races, the count would also include jockeys, stable crews and veterinarians -- all necessary to hold a harness racing event.

“I do know that we want to have people watching the races, but if we do we have to figure out how we’re going to do it,’’ Lark said.

Further, the state Racing Commission has developed its own protocols, such as having hand washing or hand sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas and allowing only one attendant per horse.

But Lark said those rules will be followed and the horses will run this year at Stoneboro.

“The races are on,’’ he said.

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