It’s all about the pace… the Pacing Boards are a fun way to teach teamwork. (Photos submitted)
It’s all about the pace… the Pacing Boards are a fun way to teach teamwork. (Photos submitted)

BY THOM PYE

Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association

VAN WERT - When the Harness Horse Youth Foundation/Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association’s Ohio Grand Tour 2019 arrived at the Van Wert, Ohio Fairgrounds they were greeted by a roadside sign announcing their classroom date of June 7. It was only the first of many amenities that the fine folk of Van Wert bestowed upon HHYF’s Ellen Taylor’s entourage and their participants.

Speed Committee members Roger Wilkin and Aaron Knittle made the five-pony ensemble comfortable with donated straw and hay from the Chad Williamson and Dennis Putnam Stables and set the HHYF up in one of the “new” barns.

Actually Van Wert had hosted a smaller group on Thursday, June 6 while Friday was definitely a full house so much so that the youngsters had to be grouped and assigned a name of a famous harness horse from the past five years: Champions such as Wiggle It Jiggleit, the 2015 Little Brown Jug winner with over $3.9 million earned lifetime; Always B Miki, the fastest Standardbred of all time with a mark of 1:46 for the mile and earnings of over $2.7 million and What The Hill, a multiple stakes winning trotter with over $1.2 million amassed. "Hill” is currently a stallion at Hickory Lane Farms in Findlay, Ohio and the creative youngsters had a good time when they would all say in unison with wide grins “What the Hill!?!” to cheer their stable on.

It was a morning of workshops as the kids got to know basic horsemanship, equipment, and were treated to a fine question and answer seminars with Delphos, Ohio veterinarian Dr. Amanda Durand and Van Wert Blacksmith of 40 plus years, Mike Smith.

A lunch break with numerous types of pizza – you can never go wrong with pizza – was followed by all of the well-behaved juveniles jogging the horses as trainers Ben Thatcher, Rex Davis, and Dennis Putnam volunteered their time to ride along with them.

An added bonus for the kids was when Van Wert's prodigal son Brandon Bates came in from Indiana just for the program and to help out. The 44-year-old Bates, a driver with over 860 career wins and $6.8 million in earnings, had his breakout years in 2017 and 2018 when his mounts tallied over $1.6 million in each of the racing seasons.

Bates spoke to the attentive group at the end of a fun day and fielded their questions like a pro. When asked about his family he proudly told the youngsters that he “had three in college” and laughed that he was “going to soon be an empty-nester.” Then he paused as he recollected over the years and pointed at Harness Barn #2 just across the way.

“I grew up in that barn right over there,” he humbly noted, “and I won my first race here too.”

And that’s why Van Wert will always make you feel at home.