ALEDO -- It wasn't quite Churchill Downs, but patrons of a free kickoff to the160th Mercer County Fair got the thrill Sunday of seeing colorful, helmet-clad "drivers" being pulled by galloping horses at the half-mile track during the annual harness races.
Drivers from across Illinois, Wisconsin and Mississippi competed in 10 races for prizes of more than $1,000 per race, and the pacer and trotter equine athletes sped by the grandstand at about 30 mph, according to the program.
"I think the animals are beautiful," said Bette Abbott, of Mendota, who's been driving the 90 minutes to Aledo for about 20 years just to see the races. "I used to breed horses, so I come to the races to see what's going on now that I'm retired. And I like running in to old friends once in a while, seeing people who bought my horses and had success. That's always good."
Ms. Abbott bet $1 on some horses on Sunday, for the chance to double her money. "So far, I'm doing pretty good," she said. "It's nice; the grounds are nice. There are good looking buildings. It's very well kept."
"I just like watching them," said Bus Johnson, of New Windsor, who was in the stands with his brother, William, "I used to go to Quad City Downs quite a bit."
Glenn Brown, 105, of Viola, who sported a White Sox cap, has come to see the harness races for 50 years -- the first time when he was a teenager.
"These races were the biggest event in the county," he said. "A lot of people went to the county fair. You'd see 10,000 people at one time."
Mr. Brown, who still lives on his own and drove himself to the fair on Sunday, was a professional horse trainer for many years, working in harness racing -- where the driver rides in a seat, between two large wheels, and maneuvers the horse with reins and a riding crop.
"I raced at Quad City Downs in the summer and Pompano Beach, Fla., in the winter time. It made a good deal," Mr. Brown said. Of the fair races, he said, "This has kind of deteriorated. There used to be more interest in it.It's a changing world, like everything else."
Driver Steve Halford II, from Springfield, has been harness racing since he was 15, and now is 33. He's a fourth-generation racer and said he loves doing it nearly every day, all over the U.S. and Canada.
"It depends on if I'm winning. It's the best feeling in the world," he said. "A lot of people sit in offices. This is my office. The hardest thing is pleasing the people you drive for, the owners and trainers."
Jackie Bowen, wife of driver Alan Bowen, came from Mount Sterling, to watch her 66-year-old husband race. He does about 12 events a year, and this is his full-time job, she said.
"We're just proud we're still here. It's really tough," fair board president Roger Grundstrom said of the six-day fair. "We couldn't do this without our corporate sponsors.
"Most of this stuff done out here is done by our board members. It takes our whole board to make this work," Mr. Grundstrom said of the 20-member volunteer board, on which he has served 30 years.
"We've kept the fair admission prices the same for at least four years. I'm very sensitive to people with families." Plus, Wednesday always is free day at the 54-acre fairgrounds.
"I like watching the kids, especially the 4-H kids, exhibit stuff. That's my favorite spot," he said of the fair. "I like especially young kids starting out. It's neat to see them bring their project in; they're so proud of it. Whether they win or not, they're just happy to show. I got two grandkids now that are showing. They're kind of in the same boat. They're showing hogs this year."
Hisgranddaughter, Kirsten, a fourth grader, showed a calf last year, and grandson, Cob, a first grader, will show for the first time this week. Mr. Grundstrom's four children all showed livestock at the fair.
"4-H gives them a chance to explore different avenues. I think it's a positive thing because you can have a kid who maybe hasn't considered a certain thing; he gets involved in it, in 4-H, and it can even become a career choice," he said.
The fair normally starts on a Tuesday, and last year harness racing was on Wednesday, Mr. Grundstrom said. A new science/entertainment act was booked this year that puts people inside a bubble (see bensbubbleshow.biz). It's scheduled for Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
The Mercer County Fair averages attendance of15,000 per year, in a county of about 16,000, Mr. Grundstrom said.
For a complete schedule and more information, visit mercercountyfair.org.
If you go
-- What: 160th annual Mercer County Fair -- When: Tuesday through Saturday; schedule highlights include beauty pageants starting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.; garden tractor pull and antique tractor pull Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.; Democrat Day, Senior Citizen Day and New Windsor Drill Team Thursday, with 4-H dog obedience at 6:15 p.m., and a draft horse pull at 6:30 p.m.; Republican Day Friday, and Illinois State truck and tractor pull at 6:30 p.m.; and Saturday baby contest at 1 p.m., talent contest at 2 p.m., and demolition derby at 6:30 p.m. -- Where: Mercer County Fairgrounds, 848 170th St., Aledo. -- Admission: Tuesday free before 4 p.m., then $6 for adults and $2 for children ages 7-12; Wednesday free, with same prices for adults and children Thursday through Saturday. For more information, visit mercercountyfair.org or call 309-582-2350.
Today is Friday, Dec. 13, the 347th day of 2013. There are 18 days left in the year. 1863 -- 150 years ago: Merry sleigh bells jingle in our streets in the wake of a driving northwest storm of snow and rain. 1888 -- 125 years ago: Thomas Campbell was elected commander of John Buford Post 243, Grand Army of the Republic. 1913 -- 100 years ago: Thomas B. Reidy was named consul of C.W. Hawes Camp No. 1550, and L.H. Eihl was named consul of Camp 29, Modern Woodmen of America. 1938 -- 75 years ago: Rock Island aldermen last night upheld the view of a petition signed by 150 businessmen that the city should not install parking meters. 1963 -- 50 years ago: Total volume during the Christmas mailing season may reach 12 million pieces in Rock Island, according to Rock Island Postmaster Carl J.L. Wessel. 1988 -- 25 years ago: The aromas filling the air at the Rock Island Lines depot in Rock Island soon will be prime rib and roast duck rather than sawdust and plaster. A tourist train will be offering dinner excursions in mid-February or early March, according to Dan Carmody, executive director of the Development Association of Rock Island.