Regardless of your knowledge about harness racing, the historic Little Brown Jug race is an exciting and fun-filled event, providing an insight into the sport that is an important part of America’s heritage. One of the most important pacing events in the country is the Little Brown Jug, a $500,000 race that is considered the most prestigious event of the year – the second leg of the Pacing Triple Crown. This year’s event runs from September 17 through September 21.
Plan to arrive early to snag a good spot on the rail – that’s where you’ll see the best action. Even at 9:30 a.m. trackside seating can already at a premium. The crowds have a good time watching the preliminary heats, and the pungent aroma of barbecue and burgers drifted on the mild September air. The barns buzzes with activity as horses are groomed, exercised, harnessed, and taken to the track to warm up.
During the morning, the Jug Barn is open to the public until the official start of the races. This barn stables the colts and geldings who will compete. It’s a great place to see the horses up close, and talk to owners and drivers. The Jugette Barn is next door and holds the racing fillies.
A charming octagonal visitor’s center in this structure houses the Hall of Fame, with photographs and portraits of many famous drivers. The Grand Stand and Pavilion are on the opposite side of the track, and there you’ll find dozens of betting windows.
Behind the stands, the midway is ablaze with lights and the happy laughter of children. On Jug Day, many Delaware schools and businesses close to support this traditional event.
Harness racing is one of America’s most historic sports, dating back to about 1825 when farmers brought their best horses to the agricultural fairs to see who had the fastest racer. By the mid-1800’s, harness racing tracks began to appear and, by the late nineteenth century, harness racing had become America’s most popular sport. Today it is a multi-billion dollar international sport.
The Delaware County Fair has been home to the Jug since 1946, and the race is held at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on the third Thursday after Labor Day. Crowds of 50,000-plus come for a day of sunshine, friendship, food, and the excitement of watching some of the top Standardbred horses strut their stuff. The Little Brown Jug has the distinction of being one of the few races that require horses to finish first in two heats to be declared the winner.
Joseph A. Neville, a Delaware native, joined the Delaware County Agricultural Society in the mid-thirties and began a push to move the county fair from Powell, where it had been held since before the first world war. In 1938, Neville and several businessmen convinced the fair board that the move would be an economic boon. In 1939, Neville and his friend Henry C. “Hank” Thomson embarked on the construction of a half-mile racetrack at the new location for the fair.
Many world records were made on the wide, steeply-banked Delaware track, quickly spotlighting it as the country’s fastest half-mile track. In 1940, the popular track was awarded Grand Circuit dates and Delaware, Ohio was on the racing map. During those war years, there were no rich stakes offered for three-year-old pacers, so Neville and Thomson put their heads together and decided to plan a Grand Circuit meet that would outshine any event ever held at Delaware. They wanted a new event with a purse comparable to that of the famous Hambletonian, and began making plans for the first event to be held in 1946.
But what would they call this race? A contest was posted with a prize of $100 for the winning name; entries would be judged by representatives of the United States Trotting Association and several racing magazine publishers. The contest generated 4,000 name suggestions, but the choice was unanimous. “Little Brown Jug” had been a champion pacer in the post Civil War years, and the song of the same name was well-known.
The inaugural Little Brown Jug was viewed by an estimated 27,000 racing fans. The weather was perfect and a field of top pacers put on a spectacular show through four punishing heats. “Ensign Hanover” became the first Little Brown Jug champion, and history moved forward.
What to Know
Harness racing features the athletic Standardbred, an easy-tempered horse with stamina to spare. Every Standardbred has lineage back to Hambletonian 10 (1849-1876), an American trotter that profoundly influenced the sport. Bay and brown are the most common colors, and the animal can weigh between 800 and 1,200 pounds. Their bodies are built for speed and today’s racers routinely clock a mile at 1:50 or better. Watching these horses fairly fly over the track is an exciting spectacle.
Harness racers are of two types: pacers and trotters. It is quite easy to see the difference when the horse is in motion. A trotter moves with a diagonal gait; in other words, the right front and left rear legs move in unison, then the left front and right rear legs do the same. A pacer’s legs move in tandem laterally; i.e., the right front and hind leg move forward at the same time, then the left front and hind leg move forward together.
Some of the terms used in harness racing include “dead-heat” – when the judges cannot make a determination from a photograph as to which horse won the race; “garden spot” – second place directly behind the leader, which blocks wind resistance; “handicap”—post positions are assigned, giving the best horses the outside position; “qualifier”—a race in which the horse must go a mile in an established time to prove capable of competing in pari-mutuel races; “sulky” – the cart; and, “colors” – the driver’s racing uniform.
The Little Brown Jug Race is an event that continues to make history. Try it, you’ll like it.