HAMLER — Most people get involved in harness racing because they helped out with the horses when they were younger or their families raced. Art Erford’s reason for getting into harness racing is very unique, but that same reason is what has made him a successful owner.
“I was an athlete and I stayed with sports (after high school),” stated Erford. “I was on a minor league baseball team and after that I played fast-pitch softball in Napoleon. Then I got too old and it kind of fizzled out. I’m competitive and I wanted something to be competitive in. I don’t care if it’s a card game, fishing or what, I like to stay competitive. I wasn’t very good in golf, so I got into harness racing. I liked horses all my life and when I was a little kid, I drove work horses. Horses built the country, they built the railroads, did the farming, the transportation and everything. I have always admired horses. They are beautiful animals.”
Erford has been buying horses for 56 years. Although he started small, Erford began to learn what to look for quickly.
“I got started with cheap horses because that’s the only way you could go,” admitted Erford. “I learned to read pedigrees. They used to breed any ole mare (female horse) and try to get a race horse out of it, but that’s changed. It’s good breeding now and the better breeding are more expensive.”
Through years of trial and error, Erford used more than an eye test to pick out what horses he wanted to buy.
“I became interested in pedigree lists and started collecting them,” added Erford. “I look at the mother, the grandmother and the great grandmother. All three of them have a lot to do with them. I look over the horses for conformation. If they have a real good head and good feet, they are usually a good, smart horse. You can tell by the head if they’re smart. I know the horses are going to race. They know how to race and they’re smart.”
Another key element that is just as important as buying the right horse is picking the right trainer and driver.
“The trainer means an awful lot,” commented Erford. “They (owners) want the more expensive one because it’s better (chances to win). I’ve picked some out that have done really well.”
One of the most interesting facets of harness racing is the horses’ unique names. For Erford, the names are more than just a bunch of silly words put together.
“I name all my horses after my grandkids and kids,” remarked Erford. “Be-Bop Beth (named after Erford’s daughter) was a real good horse I had. She won the circuit down in Lima and Canton and she was a real good mare. I had one named Jaz and Jill, my daughter’s name is Jill. One was named Classy Carla, named after my daughter. My grandson Derek Vocke when he was nine-years-old came and looked at the horse. I told him it was named after him and called Bo Derek. He asked if it was a boy and I said ‘No it’s a girl.’ He turned around and walked away. I have 16 grandkids and haven’t named them all yet.”
Erford has owned several top horses that have won big money for the Hamler native.
In 1984, Thorpe’s Princess won 24 races for Erford and came close to winning the Little Brown Jug at the Delaware County Fair.
“The first horse I got out of Kentucky ran a 2:06 (mile),” recalled Erford. “It was the best in the circuit and she won 24 races for me. It made more (money) than the farm made that year, but that doesn’t happen very often. We went to Delaware and got edged out by the best in Ohio.”
Erford estimates he has won more than 70 races since he started buying horses and his top win was at the Ohio State Fair where Erford took home $64,000.
At one time, 14 different Hamler residents owned or shared horses.
“Ohio was the top of standardbred breeding then,” noted Erford. “Then no one started going to races and they started going to casinos. Racing went downhill and we dropped to 10th (in standardbred breeding). The casinos started kicking money back to fairs and races and that brought us back to No. 1. We have more standardbreds in Ohio than any other state.”
With the increase in cost for horses, Erford has gone into more partnerships when it comes to buying a horse, with multiple people owning a stake of the horse.
“It got so expensive to buy horses, it got up to $20,000 and $30,000,” concluded Erford. “It’s just as fun as owning one yourself. When I owned one myself, just my family came. Now my family and other families come and we have a cheering section. That’s what the horse people are trying to do, get people to buy a percentage. Jim Leyland (former Detroit Tigers manager and Perrysburg native), my good friend, owned two percent of a horse that won the Kentucky Derby. We’ve talked about going in on one, but we haven’t done it yet.”
Erford’s competitive nature keeps him involved in harness racing and he doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon.