There are many byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic that are affecting all walks of life, and Harness Racing has had no immunity to the disruptions of normal life.
Almost every racetrack in North America was shut down for the better part of three months, and Harness tracks in particular fared worse in terms of shutdowns than other breeds. New health and safety protocols have been put in place at all tracks, and in most cases that has led to new limits on capacities, and distancing requirements of both horses and horsemen on the backstretch at most tracks.
Running Aces is no different, and when you factor in the idea that the north-metro Minnesota track already had an under-abundance of stall space to meet yearly demand and interest of trainers seeking to race here, the COVID-19 challenges of 2020 was making it tougher than ever to meet that demand for stalls at the track.
Many trainers have found a solution in a quaint little town about 80 miles away from Running Aces and across the Wisconsin border where you can find a great half-mile fair track at the Barron County Fairgrounds in the town of Rice Lake, which has a population of about 9,000 and a rich history in Harness Racing that dates back to the 1800's.
In fact, the main racehorse barn was built late in that century, and is currently listed as the oldest standing building in Barron County. And while that historic barn, and the fairgrounds have played host to many famed Wisconsin harness racing stables, it has not been as busy as it is this summer since the very early 2000's.
Many of the locals in Rice Lake enjoy walking on the fairgrounds property and love to see all of the racehorses on the track and on the grounds, and many have expressed their delight in seeing so much activity at the barns this summer.
The operation of the racetrack and barns at Rice Lake is looked after by Patty Strand, along with Dave Hofacker and Kenny Kolzow. They also operate the Harness Racing meet during the Barron County Fair which typically runs for 5 days in mid-July but will not take place this year due to the pandemic. Patty is also in her second year as Executive Secretary of MHRI, which is the organization that represents harness horsemen in Minnesota.
Despite the cancellation of the 2020 fair, Strand and her colleagues at Rice Lake were able to bring some official Harness Racing action to their highly-praised track surface when they hosted the Minnesota early race meets over two weekends from May 30 to June 6, helping Minnesota bred and based trotters and pacers as well as some Wisconsin hopefuls and others to get ready for the Running Aces meet.
Harness racing action at the Barron County Fairgrounds in the town of Rice Lake
It was a successful undertaking, and the card on Saturday (June 6) saw a new trotting track and state record set when 4 year old trotting stallion Bordogna (Rick Magee) glided across the racetrack with a 1:59.1 victory for owners Cathy Dessert of Minnesota and Badger State native Ken Stauffer. Bordogna also holds a track record at Running Aces, and the Rice Lake track also has the state pacing record of 1:56.3, set on July 20, 2017 by another Running Aces star PV Miracle Mary (Rick Magee) for owner Joe Casagranda, of Michigan. She was 4 at the time of that record mile.
This season, there are 70 racehorses that are making their homes at Rice Lake, from about 9 or 10 different trainers. The roster includes Quentin & Kimberley Schneider, Richard Schneider, Melinda Smith & Darryl & Jacob Cutting, Chris Scicluna & Pat Berry, Jenna Cornelison, Greig Watson, Chris Frenzel & Amy Wetzel, Gary & Michael Magee and Tony Succarotte.
Most of the 70 standardbreds stabled at Rice Lake this summer will be racing at Running Aces, and making the 80-mile trip on race days, which many would say can be a tedious routine when you factor in the idea that you have to be checked into the grounds at Running Aces by 8:00 am to race. But the overwhelming sentiment this summer is that the advantages and amenities at Rice Lake far out-weigh any disadvantages of the 1 hour and 40 minute commute to the track. Horses at Rice Lake get to enjoy lots of wide open space, with turnouts, paddocks and plenty of green grass, and the track surface has always been considered top-notch.
When you visit Rice Lake for the fair, on any given year – you can always feel the excitement in the air for the Harness Racing, and while the pandemic may have taken away the fair this year, nothing can take away the excitement for Harness Racing, certainly not this year, certainly not at this little track. Rice Lake is teeming with Running Aces hopefuls and Harness Racing is alive and strong at the historic Barron County Fairgrounds.
By Darin Gagne, for Running Aces