I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that agricultural fairs are in my DNA. After all, my parents were introduced at the 1939 Sutton Fair (where my dad was racing his horse Gold Heels). As an eight-year-old, I learned that I had allergies on a school trip to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. Throughout my teenage years my father raced a collection of exceptionally well-fed but underachieving horses for $300 purses at fairs throughout Southern Ontario – Markham, Orono, Orillia, Simcoe, Binbrook, Coldwater, Beaverton, Lindsay, Brooklin, Port Perry to name a few.
As a 15-year-old, one of my first jobs in horse racing was as a placing judge, assisting Butch Hillis at the Markham Fair. Butch was a very fair judge, but with failing eyesight and a severe speech impediment, he struggled to call out the order of finish as the horses crossed the line. This would not have been an issue had the photo finish operator been made aware the races were on Saturday, not Sunday.
Incidentally, the announcer that day was a 17-year-old from Toronto who was the epitome of cool, largely because he was the first person I knew who used hair gel. I knew him as ‘Spike’ but you may know him as Ken Warkentin, now the pre-eminent harness racing announcer in the US, working to this day at The Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Earlier that summer I had been to the Sutton Fair, standing a few feet from where my parents were introduced so many years earlier, when another 15-year-old boy handed me an ice cold beer. He seemed pretty cool, too, and I didn’t want to say no even though my father was standing a few feet away. My dad didn’t drink, and I had never had a beer in his presence, but he didn’t say a thing. He just turned his back and carried on his conversation with an old-time horseman who had recently “traded” his adulterous wife for the other man’s $2000 claimer.
And the boy who handed me my first beer? Mike Hales went on to race one of the grittiest horses in the history of the sport – the $2.1 million winner Admirals Express.
While working at Woodbine Racetrack my broadcast colleagues and I made annual trips to the Delaware County Fair in Ohio. We’d leave Woodbine after the races on a Tuesday and land in Ohio around 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday – just in time for breakfast at Bob Evans’.
If you’ve never dined at a Bob Evans’ or any American pancake house for that matter, let me warn you that you’ll incur the wrath of the waitress if you don’t finish the three pounds of eggs, bacon, fried potato, biscuits and white gravy that is served in a skillet, and as soon as you do finish it, the waitress will return to ask, “Y’all want pie?” That’s really not a question, either; it’s just an opening for you to specify banana cream, strawberry custard, or harvest apple with ice cream. The fact that the sun isn’t quite up yet means nothing to the waitress or judging by appearances, very few of the other pie-scarfing diners. Having said that, a 4000 calorie skillet breakfast isn’t the worst thing you’ll consume if you spend a day on the midway.
So, yes, I love fairs. I love the sounds, the smells, and some of the food. I love the racehorses, draft horses, roadsters, and the hunters and jumpers. I love the washed and blow-dried cattle and the 4H kids who show them with pride. I love the tractor pulls, the grandstand shows, the tattooed and often toothless carnies and the fast talking Veg-O-Matic and Swiffer demonstrators.
I even love the games of chance even though I haven’t won a damn thing since 1979 when I found a “rigged” horse racing game at the Port Perry Fair. The girl running the game was filling in for the operator while he took a dinner break and she didn’t realize that Swaps or Swale won virtually every time she spun the arms clockwise and Alydar or Affirmed won when the arms were spun counter-clockwise. Unlike the regular operator, she would allow us to place bets while the arms were still spinning. It was a good run while it lasted.
Whether it has been the rodeo in Cloverdale, BC, the Calgary Stampede or Old Home Week in Charlottetown, the fair in Pilot Mound, Manitoba or Klondike Days in Edmonton, I’ve never regretted going out of my way to take in a fair. So a few months ago when I realized I’d be in India in November, I knew there was one more fair that I simply had to attend. The Pushkar Mela – commonly known as Pushkar Camel Fair – is held every year in mid November in Rajasthan.
As I mentioned in my last post, there isn’t a rural Indian farmer, gypsy, nomad, artisan, welder, camel jockey, blacksmith, carpet dealer, spice merchant, carnival barker, pickpocket, beggar, aging hippy, wandering Bohemian or crusty backpacker within 500 miles who doesn’t find his way to Pushkar, not to mention about 5000 horses and 50,000 camels.
The town of Pushkar may be 11,625 km from Delaware, Ohio, and in many respects it is a half a world away, yet the atmosphere at the two fairs is remarkably similar. There are a few less good ol’ boys and a few more saris and turbans in Pushkar, the music isn’t quite the same, and you won’t find 100 types of deep-fried food on the midway, but other than that, a fair is a fair!