“You better have some butterflies when you go out to the track. Because otherwise you’re going to end up hurt or dead,” Mike Magee says with a laugh. Magee is a fourth-generation competitor in the historic sport of harness race – horse racing where a rider is pulled in a two wheeled cart called a sulky.
Mike’s father, Gary, shares the passion, “You always go to the track feeling you’re going to win. There’s that much excitement. Just thinking about the competition. And you’ve got a chance to win. And everybody’s just wound up.”
It’s called America’s oldest sport, started by farmers just racing their best horses against each other. Before long, interest grew and crowds would turn out for organized competition.
“That’s why the county fair exists. Because they needed something for people who came to the races to do,” the younger Magee explains, “It is the reason for the rides and games and demolition derby.”
In Wisconsin, harness racing is mostly done at county fairs through the summer. Across the border in Illinois it’s big business that attracts bettors and larger purses. Gary Magee practically grew up at the track where his father eked out a living as a trainer.
“Mom and Dad did an awfully good job with us because there’s an environment there that could lead you astray,” he recalls.
Members of the extended Magee family are among the winningest riders on the pro circuit, but back home in Wisconsin it’s done just for love of the sport.
“The county fair is family,” says Gary Magee. He and wife Donna hold a special place among the select group of racing enthusiasts who keep the passion alive, “We’ve graduated to almost Mom and Pop of the fairs.”