With the cancellation of the Effingham County Fair Thursday, leaving the county without a fair since its inaugural year in 1945, it will also be the first time harness racing will not be featured at the fairgrounds since the same year.
“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 Effingham County Fair public address and harness race announcer Kurt Becker. “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.
Another problem that was presented was that racers and horsemen had to know what to expect for the entirety of its season. The Illinois Department of Agriculture back in mid-June, had made the decision to run the races at the State Fairgrounds, meaning the fair would’ve been without harness racing even if the Fair Board had found a way to still have a fair.
“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, 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 cancelled 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.”
There’s also quite the personal tie for Becker, as he will not get to call the races this year when he took over for his father Carl in 1986, after his father had called races since 1965.
“The thing that I will miss is the social aspect. It’s a wonderful county-wide event,” Becker said. “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.”
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.
“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 races are still being held at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, its limited to 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 cancelled 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 that 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.