The H Gene

[As a born and bred Vermonter, Silverbelle Margaret knows the significance of the Tunbridge World’s Fair. This is an event that celebrates the harvest, while simultaneously mourning the passing of summer and anticipating with dread the long, cold slog until next spring. Live it up Vermonters, for tomorrow … and tomorrow ,,, and tomorrow … SB SM]

by Margaret Osha

Lifelong passions that emerge early in childhood and carry forward into adulthood are intrinsically extra special. This is oftentimes true for those who carry the H gene. On page 82 of The Tunbridge World’s Fair written by Euclid Farnham—historian and president of The Tunbridge Fair for 30 years—there’s a picture of a sulky driver and his Standardbred horse. The driver is sitting on his bike, formally called a racing sulky, with a little blonde-headed girl on his lap. Just imagine the thrill that little girl must have felt. What little girl wouldn’t want to hold onto that magical moment for a lifetime? 

For many years Euclid Farnham was the “face of the fair”

This is exactly what Beth Dawley did. She has been on the racetrack determining who has the fastest horse for well-over half a century. Beth not only received the H (horse) gene, but the H-R (horse racing) gene is also part of her DNA. The sound of horses breathing, the hoofbeats, and the excitement of the drivers’ voices encouraging the horses are just part of the thrill that has fueled her lifelong passion with harness racing. Beth grew up in Brookfield, Vermont, during the days when the Green Trails Inn at Pond Village was operating in full swing as a guest destination and an active riding facility. Riding horses at Green Trails and harness racing have been a part of her life since her early days. 

It’s a beautiful autumn day as we sit shaded under a line of trees next to her modest home that sits along route 107 in Stockbridge. The house was originally built by her parents as a retirement home and is also the home of the Trotting Horse Library that her father Russell and she created together. For many years, I have traveled this route always wondering what the library might contain, but usually on a mission, I never stopped until today. Today, I am here to hear Beth’s story and her lifelong connection to harness racing at the Tunbridge World’s Fair and beyond. 

Russell Dawley, 1918–1990, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. Beth commented that “the H gene is nowhere to be found in Dad’s DNA.” His parents were both musicians, far removed from the horse world; his father an organist, and his mother an opera singer. Beth told me, “Dad was young, and his mother insisted on him singing in choirs. He would sneak out of the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford and go over to Charter Oak Park to watch the horses. It was a Grand Circuit track.” 

After being turned away from World War II due to being legally blind, he bought a farm in Greensboro. He had done some horseback riding out west and had an affinity for horse racing. Within one year of buying the farm, Russell contracted Polio at the age of 28. From that point on, his life was confined to a wheelchair. Things fell apart, and his wife at the time left him, and the farm was sold within 2–3 years. Russell started over in Brookfield, where he fell in love and married his physical therapist, Beth’s mother. Life in a wheelchair was not easy to get used to—Beth said that he never did fully get used to it—Russell was a big man standing 6’ 4” and weighing 250 pounds. He was an athlete playing basketball, football, and some wrestling until his life abruptly changed with the onset of polio.

His condition overshadowed their family times, but Beth said she and her father always had the horses to bring them together. And then there was the creation of the Trotting Horse Library. Contributing to the Library, in the late 1950s and early 60s, a number of older horsemen passed away and families were clearing out barns and garages of old magazines and books. “Thinking that someday, somebody might just want this historical material Dad started collecting. Families started calling saying ‘come and get it or it’s going to the dump,’ so I remember, as a kid, going to places and picking up stacks and stacks of magazines and books. Sometimes, we would end up with duplicates but it didn’t matter. We would keep the publication that was in the best of shape.” Beth added that as the library expanded, there were opportunities for trading and selling to collectors, and she spent a lot of time cataloging books and publications on harness racing as a teenager.

Beth commented that they’ve lost a lot of national magazines in the last few years. The only publication still available now is Hoof Beats, the official publication of the U.S. Trotting Association. On a table beside where we are sitting, there are several publications, one of them called the American Sportsman published in Cleveland, Ohio in 1894. There is a Trotter and Pacer magazine dated the year 1925 along with volumes of thickly-bound books on rules, regulations, sires, and dams. Beth doesn’t know what she will do with the library; who will want it when she is gone? The library takes up a good 200 square feet of her house. When the storm Irene passed through, she lost several publications but considers herself very fortunate not to have suffered a greater loss. Beth pointed out the sign in front of her house “The Trotting Horse Library” is suffering a bit of damage while saying that, every so often, she thinks about getting some paint and fixing it up but being afraid that she’ll mess it up, so she leaves it as it is.

Nancy Bascom Howe is the director of racing at The Fair, and Beth is her “number two”. Beth tells me, “I’m the one who holds the USTA (United States Trotting Association) licenses to be the clerk of the course; a person who does all the official recording data for the fairgrounds racing.” There was a time when Beth covered four or five fairs in addition to Tunbridge. She worked at several fairs in New York state at various times. Beth doesn’t tell me it’s a dying industry, instead she tells, “I want to say that it’s a contracting industry. It’s getting harder and harder for any fair. We are still fortunate that we have Barton, Vermont (Orleans County Fair) as well. It used to be that there were five to six fairs promoting racing, and they kind of all disappeared quickly. For a number of years, there was racing in Manchester. The Vermont Breeders Stake took place there as well. Vermont Breeders Stake’s was a victim of the loss of pari-mutuel racing at both the Rutland State Fairgrounds and Green Mountain Park.”

Green Mountain Park, opened in l963 in the town of Pownal, holds a colorful history with having the ambition to recreate the ambiance of the Saratoga race track. It died as a dog track, finally closing its doors in 1992. In 2020, a fire of suspicious origin destroyed the structure. Beth commented, “Nothing has happened since. People locally wish it could be knocked down and cleaned up.”

The track at the Tunbridge Fair grounds is short compared to new tracks being half a mile in length. The horses race twice around the track to make the mile. The cost of hiring security to ensure the safety of spectators, and public track crossing, is especially high these days with the volume of fair goers. In a solemn moment Beth comments, “As an official I always hope and pray the race will be completely safe.” Having seen her share of wrecks over the years there’s no doubt about harness racing being a dangerous sport. There has never been any pari-mutuel betting at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds. There is a purse that is portioned out to the winning five horses of five-to-six hundred dollars.

“In most states, the fairs have some support through the State Sire Stakes program which is based on stallions, mares, and their offspring. People pay nominating and sustaining fees. A certain part of the money comes from pari-mutuel betting at various tracks in the state. A substantial amount of the money goes toward the cost of officials. Having a starter car and a starter is no inexpensive proposition.

Tunbridge does not have a starter car because the track is too narrow. Unlike thoroughbred racing which have a standing start, harness racing has a mobile start. The starter sits up in a little cubby called the Starter Car. At Tunbridge, the gentleman who is the starter does a hand start, which has been done historically until the ‘30s and ‘40s before the Starter Car came about. 

The horsemen have to line up on what is called the Pole Horse in the number one position going all together until the starter says ‘go’ and then they are off like you’re buying a car; the race is on! The pole position and all starting positions are determined by random draw. Post position is the luck of the draw.”

So, who are these risk taking harness racers? According to Beth, “We’ve always said that harness racing was more family-oriented, and I guess you come by that because, in the harness racing industry, someone can own, train, and drive their own horse which is not really possible in the Thoroughbred racing industry.” A lot of folks keep their horses on their own land. A few have private tracks, while some might have a stretch of road that they can jog and work their horse. 

The track at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds used to be available to bring your horse, jog, and train during the off season, but times have changed and to bring in extra income, the Fairground hosts a number of different events these days. I was surprised when Beth said that harness racers were historically farmers and many still have farming connections. I am struck by Beth’s fondness for these drivers. She gives me the sense that they are truly special people. 

I was curious if there were any women harness racers. The number of women drivers is on the rise, but when I asked Beth if she had ever raced she told me that she had not. Her mother was a physical therapist and had seen too many injuries associated with such activities, including downhill skiing. Beth enjoyed working her father’s racehorse in the jog cart on the home turf and riding her horse.

Like all breeds, the Standardbred horse has evolved over the years. In the 1800s, a horse that could trot or pace a mile within the limits of a set standard time qualified to race. This resulted in the foundation lineage of the Standardbred breed. Today’s good-natured Standardbred athletes with solid bones and long, lean muscles can be traced back to those original ancestors. Standardbreds can be trotters or pacers depending on their lineage. A trotter’s legs move in diagonal pairs and a pacer moves laterally. Pacers tend to be faster than trotters, but whether you’re watching a trotter or a pacer, these horses appear to fly around the track barely touching ground.

Some tracks run separate races but at Tunbridge; both trotters and pacers compete together. Last year, my husband and I stopped by the office before the race to say hello to Beth. Excited, I exclaimed that I was anxious to watch the horses run. Beth abruptly corrected me for using the term “run”. When a horse runs, it means that he has broken the trotting or pacing gait into a canter or gallop that disqualifies the horse in the race. Wrong choice of wording on my behalf! I have learned so much from my conversation with Beth about the Standardbred racehorse industry. At the harness races this year, I feel I’ll have a better connection to the horses and the drivers from having a more rounded understanding of the sport. 

Unfortunately, this all comes about late. I am solemnly sitting here rereading a letter that Beth shared with me from Ms. Howe, addressed to the “Dear Friends of Tunbridge Harness Racing” and goes on to read, “It is with regret that I inform you that 2022 will be the final year of harness racing.”

“It is my hope that we can gather together, race, reminisce and go out in true Tunbridge-style. Wishing you good racing until we meet again.”

Nancy Bascom Howe

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the fairs held here. Time changes all things including the Tunbridge Fair. The programs and the fairgoers themselves have changed. Since 1867, harness racing has provided entertainment at the Fair, being the featured event in the early years. Ms. Howe cited increased security labor costs coupled with difficulty finding people interested in working security has resulted in fewer experienced gatekeepers and safety concerns. We’ve all seen how the Fair has expanded in the inside area of the track. The racing stables take up valuable space that is not being used on Saturdays and Sundays. And the reality being, there is not as much racing going on as there once was and not as many horsemen and horsewomen participating. As Beth told me earlier, the industry is contracting. In closing Ms. Howe writes, “It is my hope that we can gather together, race, reminisce and go out in true Tunbridge-style. Wishing you good racing until we meet again.”

I hope you can find the time to attend at least one of these momentous end-of-an-era harness races being held at the Tunbridge Fair. Come and experience it for yourself; the breath of the horses, the sound of the hooves, and the drivers encouraging their horses down the final stretch of the last races at Tunbridge Fair. Racing times are scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 15 at 2 pm and Friday, Sept. 16 at noon. In closing Beth says, “Let’s fill the Grandstand!”

This isn’t Tunbridge, but it will give you a sense of harness racing excitement.

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