BY DOUG GRAVES
GREENVILLE, Ohio — The 200 year old sport of harness racing has long been dominated by men. But a group of women from west central Ohio are working to change that perception.
Mandy Jones, Kacey Burns, Mary Bickhold and Emily Hay are just four of many women in Ohio who have taken to the track to compete in harness racing.
“There’s roughly 28 girls across Ohio who have had at least one competitive race under their belt,” Hay said. “Most of them own and train their own horses, but some race horses of other owners.”
“Harness racing is a blast, and we’re lucky we even have this because there’s always been limited opportunities,” said Birkhold, who began competing in 2008. “I drove my own horses as other people rarely let me drive their horses. I want to think it was because I was new at it but honestly it’s because I’m a woman. That’s the reality. And for so many years we didn’t have any role models to lead the way.”
All four recall attending county fairs and sitting in the grandstand, watching races with their grandparents.
“Back then I never saw a lady driver,” Birkhold said. “I would see the ladies warming up their horses on the track and that planted the idea in my head that I could do that. If it wasn’t for those ladies in the 1970s I may never have thought I could do it, too. Hopefully, we’re now laying the groundwork for other women to follow.”
Hay fell into the sport by chance.
“A while back someone left a note on my door that read ‘free horse.’At the time I didn’t know the difference between a trotter or a pacer. I borrowed pieces and parts of the equipment I needed to get it going. Today I have three race horses in my barn.”
Kacey Burns’ family was well entrenched in the sport so driving has been a natural for her. Ditto for Mandy Jones.
“My grandfather owned horses and when my dad started driving horses he was 18,” Jones said. “He’s been driving 50 years now. I found a passion for it and I also used 4H and FFA to get to where I’m at as well.”
Jones took the races as her Supervised Agricultural Experience in FFA. Jones performs in stakes races now and drives her own trotters to various county fairs.
Nine years ago at the Darke County Fair, women harness drivers got their own race for the very first time in Ohio. Hay was one of the five women in that race.
“It was really hard to find people to drive and get that girls who had their fair license,” Hay said. “Just not that many were into it and they always just thought of it as a guy’s sport and we’ll let the guys do it.”
With the sport of harness racing in Ohio on a small decline (it was the top state in breeding of Standardbreds but is No. 4 today) the industry was hurting financially with low attendance at race tracks.
Tim Harless, a harness racing organizer for the Darke County Fair, contacted Emily Hay about having a ladies-only race. Hay took that and ran with it, turning that race into an annual series on the Ohio county fair circuit.
“The first couple of years we struggled to get horses and drivers, but this year we had 21 different girl drivers,” Hay said.
Regardless how they ended up on the track, their aim now is to get more women involved in the sport.
This past June, Spring Haven Farm sponsored a Ladies Driving Series at Paulding County Fair in Paulding. The Darke County Fair was host to the Annie Oakley Shoot-out. For the past four years female drivers have participated in the Ohio Ladies Pace Series at fairs across the Buckeye State.
“We are lucky the fairs have supported us because when I look at the industry overall I wonder where our next group of participants will come from,” Birkhold said. “We’re beginning to see young people coming in and that’s key, meaning new ownership and more ladies getting into the sport.”
In 2017, 16 country fairs in Ohio held harness races just for women drivers. In 2018, 28 fairs highlighted the women drivers.
Certain pari-mutuel racetracks are lending a hand as well by highlighting the ladies in races with large purses. MGM Northfield Park near Cleveland, for instance, hosted the “Pace for the Cure” last month. The event was for female drivers and the goal was to raise funds and awareness to fight breast cancer That evening two one-mile dashes each carried a purse of $7,000.
Birkhold competed in the first series, going up against Jazmin Arnold, perhaps the highest percentage driver in the races, sporting a .492 average. Arnold was also victorious in this year’s Ohio Lady Driver Series Championship at the Delaware County Fair. Others in that first series included Renee Bouslaugh, Lauren Harmon, Rachel Kaneoka, Monica Banca, Alisha Binkley and Sabrina Shaw.
Hay, who won this event last year, competed in the second series event, going up against the likes of Devan Miller, Kiara Morgan and Jayne Weller. The latter has registered 200 victories on the track and is the daughter of June Weller, the only female to ever drive in harness racing’s crown jewel, the Little Brown Jug.
The future of women in harness racing appears bright, thanks to a few women from west central Ohio.
“We’re attracting a new crowd to the county fairs with our races,” Hay said. “We now see young women and little girls lining the fences to watch the races. And a lot of the lady racers are moms and their kids look up to them.”