A new $250,000 stable at the Champaign County Fairgrounds is already filled to capacity, as fair officials gear up for a harness racing industry they expect to be booming for the next decade.
County leaders want to capitalize on the increasing popularity of harness racing, an industry that adds about $900 million a year to the state’s economy, according to information from the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association.
Fair officials will hold an open house at 4 p.m. today for the new 30-stall barn, the first horse barn built at the fairgrounds since 1973, said Randy Leopard, who has managed harness races at the fair for about two decades.
Revenue from video lottery terminals at regional tracks has boosted purses, drawing more breeders and bettors back into the state. The industry has seen a turnaround already due to the terminals, and Champaign County is within an hour’s drive of Scioto Downs in Columbus, Miami Valley Gaming in Lebanon and Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway.
“We’re going to go from the darkest days of our sport to probably more than we’ve seen, even in our heyday in the 1970s and ’80s,” Leonard said.
Local trainer Bill Dailey has leased all 30 stalls in the barn, and the 10-year rental agreement covers the cost of the facility, Leonard said. Overall, Dailey trains more than 40 horses for races in Ohio and Indiana.
“That way the fair board doesn’t take any money from the general fund,” Leopard said. “We couldn’t have it any other way.”
The horses will be trained year-round at the Champaign County Fairgrounds, and the new 8,000 square-foot barn means a lot of money caring for the animals will stay in the county, Leonard said. Dailey has about 10 employees, and will also buy feed, hay, trailers and other equipment, Leonard said.
Ohio is also one of the few states that allows betting at its county fairs, which most of the state’s neighbors do not.
“It’s a small business is what it is,” Leonard said.
The industry was on life support just a few years ago, but began to turn around once Ohio permitted the video terminals, Dailey said. The business has its ups and downs but should be in good shape for at least a decade, he said.
“Right now what we’re doing is booming and it will for 10 to 12 years,” said Dailey, who also rents another barn at the fairgrounds.
It wasn’t long ago that stalls at county fairgrounds were often vacant, but the demand is growing quickly, Dailey said. He raced horses in Indiana for close to two decades in order to stay in the industry he grew up in. During that time, he continued to breed and raise horses in Ohio on the side, but the purses from races were so poor most trainers raced in Indiana or other neighboring states instead.
“It’s not a job so much as a way of life,” Dailey said.
The new barn includes office space for Dailey and his staff, as well as laundry facilities. Eventually, its possible other counties could follow with their own facilities as harness racing continues to grow in Ohio, Leopard said. He said he is unaware of any other neighboring counties that have built a new barn for harness racing in years.
“This barn is nicer than any they would have at a commercial race track,” Leopard said.
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