Thanks for the memories

The Massachusetts fair circuit is no more. Officials at the Three County Fair in Northampton, Massachusetts announced earlier this week that the fair, which has featured racing of one kind or another since 1856, will not hold a meet in 2006. All that's left now are memories of the fairs, the most colorful, crooked, strange, remarkable and down right fun racing circuit there has ever been or ever will be.

There was a time when the Mass. fairs were big business. Northampton was part of a circuit that included Marshfield Fair, Great Barrington Fair, Weymouth Fair, Brockton Fair and Berkshire Downs. The races were cheap (mostly $1,500 claimers) and the horses were slow and broken-down, but the fans flocked to them anyway. The Great Barrington Fair once had a crowd of 27,048. The record handle there was $987,306.

They all had a charm that modern-day racing at major tracks so desperately lacks. Part of that was the outside attractions. There were the tractors pulls and 4-H shows, the cotton candy and caramel apple stands, the Ferris wheels and tilt-a-whirl rides. Part of it was the racing. Watching bottom-level claimers whip around a half-mile track might not be for everybody, but there were those of us who thought that brand of racing to be every bit as entertaining and as fascinating as Saratoga. To say, the least, the fairs were never dull.

There was the time an 18-year-old named Golden Arrow ran at Great Barrington in 1979. Zippy Chippy came within a 1 ? lengths of breaking his notorious losing streak, which eventually reached 100, when he finished second in 2003 at Northampton. In 1963, trainer Carlos "King of the Fairs" Figueroa ran a horse named Shannon's Hope five time in eight days and won all five of his starts. It was during the streak that the Massachusetts SPCA went to him and complained about how he was overworking the horse.

"They said I was running him too much," Figueroa recalled. "I told them that Paul Revere rode his horse from Boston to South Carolina (huh?) And he weighed 190 pounds, carried a whip and was screaming the whole way. They didn't say anything to Paul Revere. They made him a hero. I told them they should have made me a hero. Paul Revere never won five races in eight days."

But it was the runaway larceny that gave the fairs most of their notoriety. The trainers largely struggled to make a living at the larger tracks, where their horses weren't good enough to win. The same held true for the jockeys, who only came to the fairs because they couldn't get live mounts at places like Suffolk Downs and Rockingham. Fair season was their time to clean up and they couldn't do that winning races with minuscule purses. So they formed cabals, fixed the races and fleeced the unknowing bettors who were dumb enough to bet horses based on such factors as class and speed. Because the handles at these tracks were relatively large, there was plenty of money to be made.

There were legendary tales of chicanery, of jockeys jumping off horses who weren't supposed to win, of horses being bet down from 10-1 to 3-5 in the closing minutes before a race and then winning by dozens of lengths, of exactas combining a 6-1 shot and a 9-2 shot that paid $9.40. They're all true.

In 1983, I was on hand to witness how shamelessly crooked racing at the fairs could be. Right out of college and working my first job in racing, I was assigned to the fairs by the Daily Racing Form to work as a chart taker and was not too thrilled to learn that I would be making less than $200 a week. What I didn't count on was that my stint at Marshfield was going to present me with the greatest betting opportunity of my life.

Because there was no press box there, we had to work from a card table behind a bay of mutuel windows. I sat in front of a mechanical board that showed how much had been bet on each exacta combination, information that was not made available to the public. By watching what exacta combinations were taking an inordinate amount of money, I was, essentially, in on the fix. I cleaned up, once cashing, I kid you not, after standing in the same line as a jockey.

Even that didn't prepare me for what I'd see in an Aug. 20 race at Marshfield. There was a horse named Mr. Mallory who was coming in from the Meadowlands, where he had been running a year earlier in $5,000 claimers. Based on his class, he should have been 4-5. Instead, he was something like 12-1, an obvious sign that today was not supposed to be the day.

But Mr. Mallory had other ideas. He was so much better than his rivals that his jockey was having a terrible time restraining him. Finally, he stood straight up in the saddle and started pulling back with all his might on the reins. It was something right out of a Rodney Dangerfield movie. Somehow, the jockey managed to get the horse to finish third.

Mr. Mallory made one more start at Marshfield and, with more subtle stiffing by a new rider, finished fifth. Nine days later, he showed up in the entries at Suffolk Downs, where horses from the fairs were typically overlooked in the wagering because they were so badly outclassed. This, obviously, was the race his connections had been waiting for. Mr. Mallory galloped at 12-1, and I made the biggest score of my life to that point.

After 1983, authorities from the Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts Racing Commission, finally cracked down and put an end to the cheating. The fairs were never again the same and a lot of people actually missed the larceny. You didn't pick a race by trying to find the best horse but by trying to figure out who the fixers were betting on. When you were right, you got an immense amount of satisfaction, a feeling that you were every bit as smart as the cheats.

By the early eighties, the circuit was down to just three fairs, Marshfield, Great Barrington and Northampton. Facing myriad problems, including racing's general decline in popularity, Marshfield last raced in 1991 and Great Barrington lasted only until 1998. Brockton Fair came back and raced in 2001, but it never made it to 2002.

With just Northampton left, the fair circuit became a sad reminder of the glory days. The crowds and betting handle were anemic. Northampton averaged just a little more than $225,000 a day in handle last year for a seven-day meet.

"It's the same thing that's hurt all the other tracks," general manager Bruce Shallcross told the Associated Press. "The live racing handle has gone down dramatically everywhere."

There was nothing colorful or charming about Northampton over these last several years. It became an empty racetrack with pitiful racing. All that vitality that was once made the fairs so special was long gone.

Now, the fair circuit is no more. Thanks for the memories. They were something else.