With the cancellation of the Effingham County Fair, it will be the first time harness racing will not be featured at the fairgrounds since 1945.
“Even in years where we might have caused some rain-outs and cancellations of particular racing programs, there were still days where we had racing,” said Kurt Becker, the fair's long-time public address and harness race announcer. “Harness racing is an event that was important to the founders of the fair. A number of the fair founders actually owned race horses, which is why they were determined to make it a feature of the fair on an annual basis.
"It will be a strange feeling not to have the fair this year, especially for those of us who grew up in the horse racing business.”
Becker remembers his first glimpse of a race at the fair.
“My first memory of harness racing at the fair was Monday, Aug. 6, 1973 – when I was 4 years old,” Becker said. “I can recall that my mother drove me out to the fairgrounds and we were arriving as the first race was starting. I still recall my mother lifting me up so I could see over the old picket fence and watch the horses coming down the home stretch.
“I remember being enamored with the sights and sounds and the bright colors of the drivers' uniforms, the sounds of them whistling and chirping at their horses, the sound of the hooves hitting the racetrack.
"I remember I was hooked. As it turned out, my dad owned a filly that won that day and beat the colts, which made for quite the memorable afternoon. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten.”
That same year, Becker also saw the demolition derby. Those early experiences of both events are what helped him develop an interest in horse and motor racing, and would lead to a career as an announcer for the Motor Racing Network and the Horse Racing Network.
“At that time, my dad was also the announcer for the demolition derby,” Becker said. “Since he was on the fair board, my family had box seats, so as a 4-year-old kid, I got to sit in a wooden chair in the front row of the grandstand, where you could almost reach out and touch the derby cars as they went by. To a child, especially, the sound of the engines and the brightly painted cars crashing into each other was sensory overload.
“It was sheer theater, drama, competition, all the above. I remember the feature event that night came down to two guys that were from the area. Both were from Fayette County. One of them had the door fly open on his car and would flap in the breeze every time he went to make contact, and the crowd got a kick out of it.
"It’s strange what sticks in your mind after 47 years," he added. "To me it was like watching (Indy car racers) A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.”
The fair with all of its luster still has the power to captivate the imagination of children, such as it did Becker all those years ago.
“I think that’s one of the great roles that the fair fulfills to this day. It’s a fantastic way for a child to get his or her first experience watching competitive events,” Becker said. “Frankly, I found it inspirational. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, whatever this is that goes on, these events, I don’t know how people go home at the end of fair week and go back to their regular life. I want more of this.’ It really made an impression on me.”
While Becker has announced the biggest horse races in the world, he says there’s just nothing like the Effingham County Fair harness racing.
It saddens him that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected everyone's lives in so many ways, has also taken away this rite of summer.
“The thing that I will miss is the social aspect," Becker said. "It’s a wonderful countywide event. It’s the one time of year I get to see a number of folks from across the county. But I think the fair is going to come back in 2021 better than ever.”
Harness racing has always been a staple at the fairgrounds, even before the fair as it’s known now. It dates back to 1906, during what was then called the Altamont Agricultural Fair until 1918, laying the groundwork for the track that’s there today.
“There was a half-mile racetrack and they did have harness racing,” Becker said. “But when that fair disbanded, that racetrack lay dormant for 27 years.
"In 1945, when the ECF was formed, they bought those grounds and carved out the modern day racetrack by using the outline of the former track. It had gone up in weeds, but it was still visible. There had been a lot of rain that year in 1945 and on the Fourth of July, the fair board literally had to take horses with plows behind them. There was so much water, they couldn’t use vehicles or tractors to plow the track, they used horses to carve the new racetrack where the old racetrack sat.
“The only reason stories like that have been preserved is because one of the charter members of the fair board in 1945, a man by the name of Ernest Ballard, took time to write these memories in book form and really took the lead on the Effingham County Fair history book that was published in 1995. He was the first superintendent of the racing program. If not for his account of that story, that story would probably be lost to history.”
Even if the Effingham County Fair Board had found a way to hold the fair this year, harness racing would not have been a part of it. Because racers and horsemen must know what to expect for the season, the Illinois Department of Agriculture decided in mid-June to run the county fair races at the state fairgrounds this year.
“There are horsemen that need to be able to plan and have a general idea from the Illinois Department of Agriculture, what to expect with the summer racing schedule,” Becker said. “One of the challenges for the local fair board was what to do with the fact that the IDA, around mid-June, said that they would be contesting all of the Illinois-bred stakes races that had been scheduled for county fairs.
“They would be contested on a weekly basis throughout the summer at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The horsemen were thrilled, because the state could’ve just canceled all races for the summer. The only difficulty for a fair like Effingham County, when they sat down and tried to figure out if they could still have a fair, that obviously would’ve taken away a significant portion of their afternoon entertainment.”
Without the county fair, Becker will not get to call the races this year. He'd taken over that job in 1986 from his father, Carl, who had been calling them since 1965.
In the summer of 1985, Becker approached his father and expressed an interest in calling races. The request took Carl Becker by surprise.
“He had had a weather situation where weather had caused a rain-out in a set of races in one fair and carried over 24 hours later,” Becker said. “The races had rained out at the Edwards County Fair at Albion. They were to race July 31, but was carried over to Aug. 1. But he was already booked to be at the Coles County Fair that day and could not find a substitute.
“I finally spoke up and said ‘If you can’t find anybody, I’d be happy to give it a shot.’ I was 16 and had volunteered to help. To this day, he will say he had no idea that I was interested in giving horse race announcing a try.”
That turned out to be Becker’s first experience calling a horse race, something that since has turned into much more than a hobby for him.
“The one thing I do remember is that when he and I had both arrived home that day and he had asked how it had gone, my mother answered the question,” Becker said. “At that time, the Charleston races were broadcast on AM radio and she said I had done fine.
“I remember my dad telling me that if this was something I wanted to do, he would find me more work, but specifically cautioned me about the Effingham County Fair, which was set to open three days after I made my debut," Becker said. "My father was concerned that if the nerves got to me announcing at home in front of the home crowd, if I got stage fright or misidentified a horse, he wanted to help me avoid trying to tackle too much too soon, which is why I didn’t call a race at the Effingham County Fair until the next year in 1986.”
Becker said his father inspired him to get into the business. After all, he accompanied his father to many of the races at the fair since he was 9.
“He knew I had an interest in the sport, and that had given me a lot of days in the summer to sit in the grandstand and listen to him and make mental notes about how he approached the craft,” Becker said.
“My mother was the one who had some concern. As she put it, ‘What if Kurt is not like his dad in terms of being able to handle the job?’ I always appreciated that. That to me is a mom-type of concern, something a mom would think about more than a dad.
“I’ve always remembered that. But she was literally the first person to tell me, ‘You have the ability to do this. If you want to pursue it for a career, I believe you can do it.'
"Despite her concern, she was also very good about offering encouragement at the end of that first day. My mom will often say that when she was pregnant with me and was a clerk at the fairgrounds with my dad announcing that perhaps there was something about a whole summer of my dad announcing that might’ve taken root with me.”
In all of his years being around the fair, Becker says it’s the people of Effingham County who make racing and everything else about the annual gathering in Altamont so great.
“When you see folks who don’t have a dime invested in the sport, but are willing to take a vacation week and volunteer to jump on a tractor or drive a water truck and condition the racetrack, it is a fantastic thing to witness,” Becker said. “If not for the efforts of those folks, we would have lost many racing programs due to weather. It speaks to their appreciation of the fair.”
While the harness racing at the Effingham County Fair has been a big part of Becker’s summers going all the way back to his childhood, he hopes the citizens of the county understand canceling the fair this year.
“A lot of us tend to be linear in our thinking, I’m a horse-racing guy, so I tend to focus on that. Somebody else might be a tractor puller, another might show livestock,” Becker said. “The fair board has spent months looking at all of those factors; the whole panoramic view and everything the fair entails. I think the fair board did everything they possibly could and it just was a year where it wasn’t meant to happen.”
While the county fair races are still being held at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, no spectators are allowed – only the required personnel.
“The only folks allowed on the grounds are racing officials, the race horse trainers, drivers and caretakers,” Becker said. “If you’re an owner and you own a horse that is racing on a weekly basis at the fairgrounds this year, you are not allowed to attend the races. Given the fact the fairgrounds are a state-owned property and the Illinois Department of Agriculture offices are right there on the grounds, they do have officials from the state who have been patrolling the situation closely to enforce those restrictions.”
For a short time, the idea of the Effingham County Fairgrounds hosting some of the races canceled in other parts of the state was thrown around.
“My understanding is that there were officials with the Effingham County Fair that spoke with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the fair board informally offered if they wanted to switch and get away from the 1-mile track and come down and race at a new venue and add a different factor to those races,” Becker said. “But the Department of Agriculture decided it was ultimately better to keep the races at one central location with staff already in place.
“These are such extraordinary times. When you’re dealing with a pandemic that can be lethal, this is a matter that does require everyone to acknowledge the realities and science involved. I commend both parties. It was a huge decision for the Department of Agriculture when they decided to have the races on a weekly basis. I think it’s fantastic that the fair board explored every possible avenue to try and make this happen."