The harness races: A pioneering activity – Interview with Peter McHarg

When I asked Peter McHarg when he first stepped onto the Ayer’s Cliff Fairgrounds, a warm smile emerged and he answered: “I have vivid memories of sleeping in the cattle barns during the Fair when I was young… Those memories were when I was about 6 or 7.” The truth is Peter, now 76, has been around and involved at the Fair nearly all of his life as well as being a Director for the past 40+ years. “I’ve stopped counting, it’s been too long!” comments McHarg.

Peter is basically an encyclopedia when it comes to the Fairgrounds, but today, he wore his Director’s hat to talk about harness races: one of his deepest passions.

Harness racing is one of the oldest activities presented at the Fair: it’s been here since the first edition back in 1845 and at every Fair since: “I think that when they first started the Fair, they had horses racing here, and of course we also had cattle. It was sort of a farmers’s day activity back in 1845 and it grew from there to the Fair we know today.” adds Peter.

“The horses in the harness races are standardbred horses. They race on an octatrack – some tracks are half a mile, some are 5/8 of a mile and some are a mile. Here at the Fairgrounds, we have a half mile track. A race is 1 mile, so here, the driver and their horse have to do two laps in order to complete the mile.” 

McHarg is very proud of the track we have here in Ayer’s Cliff: “We use stone dust mixed with some sand on this track. We are very fortunate to have people like Brian Curtis and Fred Mosher who work on the track for us. They bring all their equipment to drag the track, get the track leveled and get the track at a certain depth before the Fair. The track can’t be too hard and it can’t be too soft either. The maintenance of the track is very important. It has been said to me that the track here is one of the best tracks for Circuit Regional because we keep it up to date.”

McHarg also shares that there are more people involved in harness races than we might think: “It’s a team: you have an owner, a trainer and a driver. The driver will come in and they will drive your horses. The owner pays the expenses and if the horse makes enough money – they make a profit. The trainer does a lot of the work: he is the one that gets up every morning, gets his horses out, feeds them, gets them out on the track, trains them and keeps them in top notch shape so when you put them in a race, they’re ready. The horses are like athletes and they have to train to go into a race, same as us when we succeed at a sport.”

If you’ve ever attended harness races presented by Circuit Régional on a Saturday afternoon during the Ayer’s Cliff Fair, you already know that the grandstand is packed during this time! The judges are sent to the races by an association and they’re also the ones with the best view from the top! “The gazebo that you see on the top of the Main Stage is for the judges. There are three judges and they watch the races from up there. They keep an eye open for interference mainly.  If someone is making a mistake: like trying to cut somebody off or run into somebody from the back, the driver can face repercussions. If it’s a serious offense, the judges will put the driver and the horse at the back and the driver may even get suspended.” 

As with other sports, harness races need special equipment, such as a Buxton (breastcollar), driving lines, harness, sulky (the racing cart or bike) and a lot more as we can see on the image below.

In Ayer’s Cliff, we love traditions! You might have noticed from past races that we put a different blanket on each of the winners. “With my committee, we get together every year and decide what sponsors to get. Usually we have 10 races, so we find 10 sponsors that donate to the Fair.” says Peter. Each of the sponsors have a blanket with their name or logo on it. After the race, they bring back the winning horse in front of the Grand Stand, put the blanket on the horse and take a picture with the horse and the sponsor. Most of the blankets are for sponsors, but the Fair also has families who were – and still are – very important in the Fair history that sponsor a blanket in the name of one of their loved ones. “We’re one of the few tracks that continues to do that. I started that decades ago, and we’ve carried it on ever since. It’s a beautiful tradition!” adds McHarg.

During the races, it’s also possible to bet on your favorite horses. “We have a betting booth here. The minimum bet is 2$. It’s a pool, so it’s spread across all the winners.” Two hours before the beginning of the races, the drivers and the horses come out. For Peter, this is the best time to look at the horses and drivers and make his predictions for the races.

Peter is not only a race fan, he also used to race. “I drove my first horse when I was 6 or 7 years old. I’m 76 now, I haven’t driven in the last few years as I’m getting older. When I used to race, we would race all over Quebec and Ontario.” Ayer’s Cliff is also very special for Peter as he even trained horses on the Fairgrounds’ track. 

During our time chatting, Peter shared a fun story that didn’t take place in Ayer’s Cliff, but shows how this sport goes way beyond words or languages: “One time, I arrived at the races and got a call saying that the driver couldn’t make it. I had no driver for my horses, so I asked the owner of the place of the event if he knew a driver that could drive them. He said yeah, and he pointed to a guy. I looked, it was an 18 year old kid who just had his license. I went up to him and asked him: “Do you wanna drive my horses tonight?” He looked at me and answered: “Je ne parle pas anglais.” So I looked at him and spoke very slowly while making gestures: “You. Drive. My horse? I have 2.” He said yes. That night, we won one of the races! He became my driver and we became friends after that. He now lives in New York and speaks better English.” Peter adds, laughing.

I could have spent all day listening to all the horse races stories Peter has – and trust me, there were many! I made this comment to Peter, “You know Peter, I, a 32 year old French woman who didn’t know much about horses races, and you, a 76 year old man who could talk about horses races for hours and hours, just bonded and talked for around two hours over this wonderful passion of yours. I’m honestly looking forward to the harness races this year!” That’s when Peter, smiling, added the final words of this interview: “That’s what I love about Ayer’s Cliff, we live in the best place ever! You speak French, I speak English, I understand French, you understand English… we make it work!” 

So don’t look for me on August 27th at 1PM, I will definitely be watching the harness races with Peter… and will also be betting on the same horses as him!

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