09/16/2013 11:31AM

Jay Bergman: Little Brown Jug remains a special event

Derick Giwner
The crowd packs the Delaware County Fairgrounds every September.

Harness racing is lucky to have Delaware, Ohio.

The modifications and shifts in the racing landscape over the last quarter century have been extreme. The trend towards slot-fueled purses has moved horsemen and horses where the money is.

Breeding, once a mainstay in Kentucky, is now more powerful in the north.

Ohio, well, it’s always been Ohio, rich in culture, rich with horsemen, until recently poor with purses. Yet all along, no matter how dire or bleak the state had become, Delaware was still its capital and Jug week still the most recognized racing holiday north of Columbus.

For those in the east, the Little Brown Jug represented an oasis far removed from the normal racetrack or Off Track Betting site. At a time when there were no simulcast or Internet locales to watch the races, there was only one way to witness the charm of Delaware, Ohio. Quite simply, you had to be there.

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There will be plenty of simulcast action and a fine simulcast program to bolster the programs this Wednesday and Thursday from Delaware. But to be honest, pictures and words, even a thousand of them cannot help to capture the feeling one gets walking through the Delaware County Fair on raceday.

Yes, the County Fair is what sets the event apart from so many other harness venues. It’s the Fair from early morning until twilight that gives this race the aura it has maintained over the years. It’s the rides, the games and most definitively the food spaced far enough apart that there’s actually a chance to burn calories between the days many “lunch” breaks.

Proximity is key to the atmosphere and Delaware allows young and old to be a major part of the scene. The barn areas are pretty much out in the open for all to see. The horses are in their natural environment and caretakers, trainers and drivers share moments and memories with passersby under awnings.

If big racetracks were set up to separate bettors from horsemen, Delaware was created to break down all barriers. It is the luxury of a long afternoon spent watching races while getting to know the faces of those who put on the show.

Yet despite all of what goes on behind the scenes in plain view, The Little Brown Jug, the actual leg of the Triple Crown that has stayed in place while other legs have roamed, remains a constant.

There’s nowhere else on the harness canvas that so much attention could be made based on the decision whether the best horse was actually going to race in the Jug. Captaintreacherous will be racing at Hoosier Park on Saturday in a race that will obviously lack the stress or determination he would need if in attendance at Delaware. That “business” decision can’t be debated from a horseflesh valuation scenario, but it can be argued in years to come on where Captaintreacherous actually fits when compared against the champions who didn’t mind the fresh air of a few heats racing at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on the third Thursday in September.

It’s almost illogical to understand how some of the same people that brought favored Western Hanover to Delaware in 1992 and suffered the consequences of a pocket trip and a second place finish, were invigorated enough to return a year later with Life Sign in what stands out as the race’s most signature edition, could somehow want to avoid Delaware with a horse of Captaintreacherous’ allure.

The chills of Life Sign’s epic performance live within the fabric of Delaware and suggest that this half-mile track speedway doesn’t always play to front runners.

Life Sign, for those too young to remember, was not only battling the bias, but had an imposing group of horses working to make his trip that much more painful. The fact that he could live outside in a race of such magnitude and persevere, enhanced his value going forward.

Captaintreacherous will not be able to solidify his claim by racing at Hoosier Park or Lexington, or anywhere else this year while skipping Delaware.

It’s doubtful the defection of one horse will dampen the spirits of anyone in attendance at Delaware this week. The people here don’t get caught up in what ifs. They understand the history behind the race and they celebrate those who are nice enough to show up and compete, without fear that the post positions will be too far outside and the trips will be too arduous.

In fact, Delaware is a celebration of harness racing’s past and an exclamation point to its present. A large live audience once a year may be all we can muster during this generation, but it’s a group of people that are emotionally attached to the standardbred performer and those humans connected with it.

You see it’s the live audience that allows those involved in the sport to see that it’s not all about business. Much the way professional sports figures are visibly moved by a large crowd cheering them on, our horsemen and women get the support of those who truly appreciate the hard work that goes into each and every horse in each and every race. It is an essential piece of the daily grind that we all know takes place. To be appreciated for the effort, the pain, the difficulty and most definitely the roller coaster ride of developing a racehorse.

It’s my belief that those horsemen who experience Delaware in September are given the morale boost necessary to live through the dark days ahead. It offers the sustenance needed to do it all over again this fall. Horsemen go out looking for yearlings with the hope of having something to race at Delaware the following summer.

That’s why harness racing is lucky to have Delaware, Ohio. Without it our performers, both human and equine, would not know just how much they are truly appreciated.

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