DELAWARE COUNTY, Ohio– Famed race announcer Roger Huston says to him. there’s something special about harness racing.
“It’s much different than any sporting event there is,” said Huston, who has announced races for around 60 years. “There is a love affair between humans and horses.”
And he says there’s no other horse racing event like the Little Brown Jug — an event that’s home for many, like professional harness racing driver Chris Page.
It’s just kind of meditation for me,” said Page. “Because you can say anything you want, they just listen, and they don’t answer back.”
He says his love of horses began with the Jug.
“It was the one day of the year I could miss school,” said Page. “My mother would let me play hooky, and I haven’t missed one since 1994.”
It was a decision that would pay off for Page. He’s earned millions in purses as a driver, but that wasn’t always the dream.
“I was going to the race track, and I was getting intrigued with it, I bought a horse,” said Page. “And started kind of dabbling training, jogging it, and I thought maybe I’m the right size, and I could start driving horses.”
Page says the harness racing community is tight-knit, made up of generations of people who love horses.
“It’s the same jug maybe different people every year, obviously different horses, but you get to see old friends, make new friends,” said Page. “It’s just a week on the calendar you’re not missing.”
And at events like the Jug, they come together to celebrate their industry and connect with friends and family.
“Very close, we’re all buds we race on a night to night basis here in Ohio, but then we get to meet friends from other states,” said Page.
The Ohio Harness Horseman’s Association says horse racing is a multibillion dollar industry in Ohio. In 2018, the industry generated an estimated economic impact of $2.8 billion and 21,000 direct jobs making $900 million in income.
“Obviously the horses will need hay, they’ll need oats, they’ll need water, they’ll need vets,” said Wolf.
He also says that impact goes beyond agriculture. Trainers and grooms for the horses, auto industry that makes the trucks and trailers, and the infrastructure for shipping are all businesses supporting the horse racing industry. And one Ohio business has a very special role in racing statewide.
“I pop the wings, and the race is on,” said Mike Woebkenberg. He’s the man behind the gate. The Ohio native and his family build and operate the motorized truck gates that kick off each horse race. It’s business that he says keeps him in the race in a sport he loves.
“I am a third-generation horseman,” said Woebkenberg. “I am bred and raised in this business. The year I started driving I was the youngest driver in the nation. I’ve driven these horses, I’ve trained these horses, But this allows me to be actively involved in my industry.”
Woebkenburg says that horse racing is Ohio’s best-kept secret, and the Jug is its signature event.
“We have more county fair racing in the state of Ohio than anywhere else in the world,” said Woebkenberg, who starts races at many county fairs across the state. “We are literally a world-class event that nobody knows about.”
But more people are learning. Betting on the Jug from places outside Ohio is growing, and Delaware County is growing too, with its population nearly doubling since 2000.
“Delaware County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state of Ohio,” said Wolf. “So, our challenges are now educating those folks who might not know about the Little Brown Jug, but if you if you were born and raised in Delaware, you know, you know where you should be at the third week in September.”
And the Jug’s famous voice adds, “The Jug is it, there’s no question about it. It’s the greatest thing the state of Ohio has.”
*Note - This story was first published in February, 2020.