- By Steve Byrne, Photos by Mike Newnan
SMALL TOWN, BIG RACING DREAMS. HAWKINSVILLE, HARNESS HORSE CAPITAL OF GEORGIA
It is the first Saturday in April in Hawkinsville, Ga. The action is, as it has been for almost 40 years in this town of 4,600 along the Ocmulgee River, on the grounds of the Lawrence Bennett Harness Horse Facility.
It's Harness Horse Festival weekend. The sweet smell of barbecued meat mixes with the pungent aroma of horses. Golf carts shoot around the grounds, slowing occasionally to avoid the children running this way and that while adults check their programs for the 14 races scheduled to run on the facility's rich, red dirt track.
A festivalgoer can even make the races interesting. Spectators can enter a lottery, and race results determine who wins. It is, of course, only a lottery. No one can actually bet on an individual horse. "This is Georgia, remember," one festival worker handling lottery duties reminded someone using the word "wager."
Yes, it's Georgia and it always will be, but if the legislators in Atlanta approve a bill to allow pari-mutuel wagering in the state (a vote is targeted for the 2015 legislative secession), a completely new sporting scene will open for horseracing enthusiasts from Georgia and other Southeastern states where betting on horses is not legal.
And maybe no place in Georgia, other than the home city of a racetrack, would benefit more than Hawkinsville if playing the horses were permitted.
Hawkinsville bills itself as the Harness Horse Capital of Georgia. The Lawrence Bennett Facility opened 94 years ago. The Pulaski County Fair has hosted harness racing since 1894. Each winter the trainers arrive with their standardbreds from stables in the North to take advantage of the mild weather and good grazing land.
Imagine what it would be like for Hawkinsville if the visiting trainers could run their pupils in the months they spend at Lawrence Bennett, instead of just training them.
"This place would explode," said Fred Drouillard, a trainer out of Dutton, Ont. "They'd be turning people away. So many more people would want to come here. Now, some guys just stay in the North (over the winter)."
According to Jerry Murkerson, Hawkinsville city manager and a harness driver, "If (trainers) had some place to race we'd have more folks down here (using the facility)." There is some winter harness racing in the cold climate. It's mostly at the larger and better-known tracks around New York City and in Ontario. That's a long haul from Georgia. The Northern states closer the Hawkinsville – Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania – have a few tracks that race during winter months. Most, however, don't.
"Definitely, more people would move South," Lennon, Mich., trainer Bob Barella said. "People in Michigan are running out of options." Barella's home state had only 20 days of harness racing, from March 7 to May 3 at two racetracks, in 2014. "It would be a very strong shot in the arm for a community," Hawkinsville Chamber of Commerce president Lee Slade said. "I know there are people against it, but I would stick my neck out and say it would be good for Hawkinsville and good for the state."
Harness racing is already good for Hawkinsville. A study conducted by the Chamber of Commerce eight years ago determined the town adds almost $2 million dollars to its coffers in the months the horse people are there. That figure could balloon if legal pari-mutuel wagering were only a couple of hours away, rather than a day's drive up Interstate 75.
Slade said Hawkinsville is "holding up as well as any small town" as far as its economic standing, while adding that it’s the Chamber's job to try to make things better.
"The best thing for standardbreds would be winter racing," said Clarence Martin Jr., a Honesdale, Pa., who has been coming to Hawkinsville off and on since 1994.
It might even make other small towns in Georgia, with similar mild winters and plentiful grazing land, consider setting up stables for visiting (and perhaps permanent) standardbred trainers. That, added Martin, would have a side benefit for the visitors.
"More people, more money," Martin said. "I spend $6,000 on grain alone. If more people came it would drive down the cost of grain and other expenses. The suppliers would buy in greater bulk."
"So many people would benefit from horse racing in Georgia," track manager Jim Valante said. "It would help the horse industry, the tourism industry, agriculture. It would bring new jobs and more tax revenue. It would help not just Hawkinsville."