FRYEBURG – Within the hour, horses would be speeding around the curve, their drivers snapping crops and the audience screaming. But by early Thursday afternoon in the barns before the first race at the Fryeburg Fair, things were mostly quiet.

Drivers ate their last piece of candy and owners harnessed their horses as they prepared for the sometimes high-stakes game of fairground horse racing.

Don Bishop of New Brunswick was in a barn next to the track with his horse Ohyoulittlething. She has been winning races steadily since last year, her first in racing, Bishop said.

“It’s quite a thing for something that small,” he said of his horse, which looked tiny and small-boned for an animal that can run a mile in about two minutes. “She wasn’t ever supposed to be a racer,” he said, recalling how he laughed at her when he first saw her.

And then she made him $16,000 last year, Bishop said.

Harness racing is a hobby for some, a career for others. Ernest Mathieu, a machinist in North Berwick who races horses on the side, said on Thursday that he does it because he loves the animals and the thrill of the racetrack.

But Lisa Saindon, 44, of Bridgton said as she tightened belts on a horse that she cannot imagine doing anything but training horses, and has made a lifelong job of it. Last year a horse she bought for $3,000 earned her more than $12,000, she said.

And Jason Bartlett of Windsor, Maine’s No. 1 harness driver at 24 years old, said he bought a house last year on his winnings.

Yet, it is a dicey pursuit. For instance, Bishop’s winning streak with his horse appears to be finished. Ohyoulittlething has had a mysterious injury for the past three to four weeks that has prevented her from racing, Bishop said. No vet has been able to diagnosis what is slowing her down.

“If she’s just half herself,” he said, “she’ll beat all these other horses.”

Because Ohyoulittlething was likely not to win Thursday, Bishop said he would drive her himself that day.

But most owners hire professional drivers who might give their horses an additional edge in the tight races. If the driver wins the race, he will receive a cut of the earnings.

The most popular of all drivers in Maine is Bartlett, who has been racing since he was 16.

Bartlett, who was slated to race nine horses on Thursday, finished off a Coke and some candy minutes before racing, and said he is ranked first in the state and fifth in the nation for harness drivers.

Hank Burns, a horse owner and former racing columnist, said a driver has to be multi-dimensional and be able to lead a horse out in front right away, or win from behind.

“Is it weight, is it height, is it lightness?” he said. “It usually is something in the hands.”

And it has a lot to do with family connections, and the grandfathers, fathers and mothers who own and train horses who pass down to their children a passion for racing. Like many other traditions at the fair – from frying up sausages to judging draft horses to training horses to even watching horse races from the grandstands – families are responsible for keeping these customs alive.

“So much of it is family dictated,” Burns said.

And harness racing is part of Maine’s heritage, he said.


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