By STEVEN NALLEY
Harness horse racers from the Starkville area will be competing in a series of races at the Neshoba County Fair July 24-29 at the fairgrounds’ race track.
Both the harness and running horse races start at 2 p.m. each day except Friday, when the featured races of the week begin at 1:30 p.m. These include the Jim Dance Memorial Race for running racers and the Morris Therrell Memorial Invitational Race for harness racers.
Bud Dees, organizer for the harness races at the fair, said the fastest times are more important than the finishing positions in determining which racers are invited to Morris Therrell. He said the horses with the best times across all races get into Morris Therrell.
“If you’ve got a horse that ran second but didn’t win, he can get in based on times,” Dees said. “We time the top three horses in every race.”
Dees said he tries to give every racer two chances to compete. With large numbers of entrants and six horses in each race, he said, it’s difficult to say for certain how many races will happen each day.
“We usually average seven races a day,” Dees said. “Every race is always full.”
In harness racing, horses are harnessed to two-wheel carts called sulkies, in which they carry their drivers. Harness horses are divided by gait, competing as pacers, with lateral gaits, or trotters, with diagonal gaits.
Roger Williams, a harness racer from Starkville, said the skills needed to succeed at harness races are completely different from those required for running races. Unlike running horses, he said, harness horses have a rhythm they must not break.
“It’s more complicated than getting on the horse’s back,” Williams said. “You’ve got a technique there that you’ve got to go by. The horses, you’ve got to train them too and drive them every day.”
Williams also said running horse racing is rare in the Starkville area and more common in states further north, such as Illinois. He said he was part of a group that trains regularly at the Mississippi Horse Park, but he might not make it to the Neshoba County Fair because his horse has been injured.
Kevin Jones Cane, another harness racer from Starkville, said he definitely plans to compete at the fair. He has been harness racing for 15-20 years, he said, because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.
“It’s kind of like driving a race car,” Cane said. “You’re sitting behind the horse, driving the horse, weaving in and out of traffic. It’s all about your position and movement. It’s kind of like NASCAR.”
The other reason he enjoys races, he said, is because of venues like the Neshoba County Fair that accompany them.
“I have two sons, and it’s a time for us to bond,” Cane said. “You go to these fairs, it takes you back into the ‘60s. I like to make the money, but it’s really not about the money. It’s really about the fellowship with other horsemen from around the country.”