Before there were fast cars there were fast horses. To own a horse that trotted fast in harness was once a mark of pride for a man that lasted beyond the advent of the automobile. The opportunity to race horses was one of the driving forces in the establishment of the Ashland County Fair.
In the late 19th century harness racing was held at the old fairgrounds off Sandusky Street until the barn at that location burned. In 1924, an annual fair began at the new fairgrounds on the corner of Baney Road and Claremont Avenue, with racing a feature attraction. The original track was located on what is now parking area on the corner of Claremont, with the backstretch running parallel to Baney.
In 1939, the New Deal footed 45 percent of the cost of a new track and grandstand. The grandstand, which cost $10,948.17, was 133 feet long and seated 1,800 people. It was built at a slight angle to the homestretch so that spectators would not have to crane their necks to see the exciting finishes.
The new racetrack was dedicated on Sept. 19, 1939. There were official speeches, but the high point of the ceremonies was an exhibition race featuring one of Ashland’s favorite equine sons, Peter-at-Law.
Born in 1927, Peter-at-Law was a Standardbred, a breed known for speed in harness at either the pace or the trot. His grandsire was Peter the Great, a nationally famous sire. David Reed and Clifton Gongwer, local businessmen who also owned the Ashland Sanitary Dairy, bought Peter-at-Law after seeing the four year-old go a mile in 2:06 at the fairgrounds in Greenville, Ohio.
Peter’s career was spent on the Grand Circuit. He peaked as a 10-year-old, and was officially clocked in 1:59 ¾ at Indianapolis. Breaking a two-minute mile was quite significant, and Peter was one of only two horses who made that record while also winning more than 50 races. In nine years of racing, he collected 51 wins and 29 seconds, and was never out of the money. He never officially raced in Ashland.
By 1939, Peter-at-Law was retired from racing. Reed and Gongwer brought the old man out for the exhibition race so that local fans could see him in action at the dedication of the new track. His opponent was his son, Peter-at-Last. Old Peter was driven by his caretaker, Charley Adams, while Jess Brinkerhoff drove the youngster. William "Billy" Priest, president of the Polk State Bank and a major figure in local horse racing, was honorary starter for the race.
The first three quarters of the race were slow, out of respect for the old timer, but the drivers turned them loose on the final quarter-mile, and they flew to the finish in an exciting dead heat.
Peter stood at stud at the Ashland fairgrounds, siring many excellent Standardbreds, and when he died he was buried on the fairgrounds. According to Ashlanders who remember visiting the old horse, Peter was a grumpy old man, mean and difficult to handle. Some may remember a photograph of him that was proudly displayed on the wall at the Sanitary Dairy on Center Street. Regardless, Peter-at-Law was a notable Ashland character.
Sarah Kearns, who writes the Ashland Memories column for every other Saturday, works at the Ashland Public Library. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.