Talk about getting a huge return on an investment.
What started out as a spur-of-the-moment $10 racing license at the Darke County Fairgrounds 69 years ago has turned into what very well could be a $20,000 standardbred race next Friday night. It would be the richest county fair race in Ohio outside of the extended Little Brown Jug festivities held each year at Delaware.
In the process, it’s proof that the tale of the late Gene Riegle, the Hall of Fame horseman from Greenville, has come full circle at this fabled, half-mile racing oval on the south end of town.
“Growing up in Greenville on this track, it was like being able to shag fly balls at Yankee Stadium,” said Tim Harless, who was raised in this Darke County town and now is the fairgrounds race manager.
“Gene lived right back there and stabled his best horses in that barn,” Harless said as he pointed to a barn along the fence on the track’s backstretch. “He kept his other horses in another barn here on the track and in his heyday, before he’d take some of his stock down to Florida, he’s keep them in some temporary stalls we had on the other side of the track, too.”
Riegle’s presence was everywhere here, but no place more than right out on the racing dirt.
“You could come out here and watch them break the young horses and some of those (son-of-a-guns) would be half crazy,” Harless said. “Three months later they’d be real nice. And then maybe four months after that, they were world champions.
“All his great horses — Three Diamonds, Arnie Almahurst, Leah Almahurst, Life Sign — were broken here. Western Hanover was out here, too, and so was Artspace. It was like being at Yankee Stadium if you were a baseball nut.”
Riegle was a national racing figure — one of the best drivers, trainers and especially a talent scout when it came to young horses — and yet he was very much one of Darke County’s homespun own.
When he died at age 83 in October 2011, the fairgrounds wanted to do something that would forever honor him.
The Great Darke County Fair — which begins today — has seven racing sessions, beginning with this evening’s card. While that’s already more than any other county fair in Ohio, Harless said, “just like Delaware has the Jug, we wanted to have a signature race.”
And they got a year ago with the inaugural Gene Riegle Memorial Open Pace.
A winner from the start
Back in the early 1940s, Gene’s dad Roy was an accomplished horseman here. Gene quit school in the ninth grade to work in his dad’s barns and run a milk route with his brother Dick.
By the time he was 16, Gene was showing a real affinity for horses that prompted a local owner to make a drastic move at a race one night in 1944 at the fairgrounds.
Roy was supposed to drive a three-year-old colt — Victory Dale — in a stakes race, but he had crashed with him earlier and after that had trouble controlling the animal.
That’s when the owner suggested Roy’s young son get in the sulky.
Gene recounted the story to me once and said his dad, who could get pretty hot headed, didn’t care for the idea at first. His father disappeared and when he finally did return to the barn, he shoved a $10 license in his boy’s hand and grumbled, “You’re driving the next heat.”
Although Gene was wearing overalls — not racing silks and certainly not the chartreuse and red colors that would become his trademark later on — it didn’t matter. He not only won the race, but beat legendary Hall of Fame driver Sanders Russell in the process.
That launched a career in which Riegle — who took over the family business when his parents were killed in an auto accident soon after — became one of the most respected drivers and trainers of trotters and pacers in the sport. He had a pair of $5 million winners in Artsplace (1990 freshman pacing champ and world record holder) and Life Sign, with whom he won the 1993 Little Brown Jug.
Western Hanover was a two-time pacing champion and Three Diamonds was a two-time filly champ. Jay Time won the The Adious; Arnie Almahurst, the Kentucky Futurity; and Troublemaker and Leah Almahurst both were Breeders Cup winners.
The list goes on and on and on, but it was Riegle’s ability to rate young horses that cemented his lifelong partnership with George Segal, the Chicago commodities broker and standardbred owner and breeder who owns Brittany Farm.
“They were great friends,” said Carl Wade, who worked more than two decades in Riegle’s barns, helping not only Gene, but his two sons, Alan and Bruce, both accomplished horsemen themselves. “George was always honest and caring and down to earth. Everybody all over the country respected him.”
When the fairgrounds folks decided to honor Riegle, they came to Wade — who was raised in nearby Arcanum — to help them raise money for the race. His first call then went to Art Zurod, the longtime manager of Brittany Farms, and the race instantly had half of its backing.
Brittany Farms agreed to match whatever both the Darke County and Ohio horsemen associations came up with and so last year’s race was worth $10,000.
This year, sponsors like Remington Steel of Springfield — whose owner Roy Kohl won last year’s race with Lucky Lime — and Horse Gold came on board, as well, Brittany Farms upped its donation and now the race will pay at least $15,000 and may well get up to $20,000 if the state agrees to add in some racino money next week.
Riegle race a harbinger of better times
A couple of days ago, race fans already were positioning their empty lawn chairs around the chain link fence that surrounds the track — similar to the way folks do at the Little Brown Jug — so they’d be sure to have prime viewing spots for the seven racing sessions, which culminate with the Riegle Memorial on Aug. 23.
The race, a one dash event, will take the top eight money earners who show up and that means some entrants are coming from out of state. And while it’s a chance to see top standarbreds, fans also come because the extra touches that surround the affair.
Six Friesians from Fairborn’s Dream Gait Farm — stunning Dutch horses with long black manes and tails, feathering on their lower legs and a reputation for being graceful despite their draft horse size — will lead the call to post and nationally acclaimed announcer Larry Lederman is coming in from New Jersey to call the race.
Last year, Gene Riegle bobbleheads were handed out. This year there will be collector’s mugs, similar to the souvenir mint julep glasses handed out every year at the Kentucky Derby.
Harless sees the Riegle race as harbinger of even better times ahead for the fairgrounds.
He said 200 to 250 horses already stable at the track during the year and with racing just 55 miles away in Indiana and the new racinos coming to Lebanon and Needmore Road in Dayton, he knows barn space and training tracks will be much sought after and Darke County has one of the best facilities in the state.
“After the economic situations we’ve all faced lately, our future looks bright as can be,” he said.
More and more people are going to take notice of the Darke Country Fairgrounds and Gene Riegle remains a face — sometimes now bobbling — of the place.
“Last year Matt Light (the retired NFL veteran from Greenville) was a commentator for ESPN and we gave him one of the Gene Riegle bobbleheads,” Harless said. “It ended up on the desk that Mike and Mike sit at for their TV show on ESPN every day.
“I watch it in morning and right there’s Gene, looking out at me and everybody else.”