Injuries to driver show risk in harness racing

As spectators started to pile into the grandstand of the Seneca County Fair to see the first day of harness racing, little did they know they’d see something pretty rare and partly horrifying.

When a crowd of people all in unison goes ‘OOH,’ you know something happened.

As I walked into the stands to see some harness racing Monday evening, during the third race of the day, I heard the reaction of the crowd, but I had my back turned, so I immediately turned around to see what happened. All I saw were people running onto the track and an ambulance ready for transport.

In any sport, there are risks of injury, but one involving a horse and a rider at a county fair, that doesn’t happen a lot, but it is possible all the same.

John “Duke” Sugg, who has been racing for decades at fairs and surrounding events, went down with the horse. The horse was able to get up after a bit of a delay, but Sugg wasn’t so lucky.

With the help of the volunteers nearby and the EMS, Sugg went to the hospital and was then life-flighted to Toledo Hospital.

According to his Facebook page, his wife Lisa said he suffered some small contusions and bleeding on his brain. He was sedated and comfortable. He also fractured a wrist, which needs surgery and dislocated a finger, which was put back into place.

Bill Peters, who is the regional coordinator of the Ohio Fair Racing Conference, said an accident like that has happened, but rarely. In all of the places they race during a year, Peters said maybe one or less of that type of accident has occurred.

“The horse just kind of got mixed up and stumbled and fell,” he said. “It happens occasionally and we may go through a whole year of these fairs and not have anything like that happens, but sometimes you may have a couple in a night. You never know in a sport like this. As far as those type of injuries, we haven’t had anyone hurt that bad for a few years.

“Duke is from Deshler and has probably been racing horses for about 30 years. He’s one of our top drivers at the fairs. I think going into this fair, he had the most wins of any driver in our Ohio Fair Racing Conference. Three years ago he was the top driver with the most wins in this conference, so he’s a top-notch driver.”

While we watch the races, gamble on who we think has the best odds to win or the one with the coolest/weirdest name, the drivers are putting on a show for the spectators and put their bodies on the line. The sport deals with the heavy equipment of the sulky and a horse and the risk of being thrown from a sulky going 35 mph.

“It was a terrible, sad situation. He’s a friend of mine and his brother is a real good friend of mine who I race with every night in Cleveland,” Republic native and fellow harness racer Ryan Stahl said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s someone you’re acquainted with or not, you never want to see that happen. No matter how good of a night you have, it really puts a damper on things. I do wish him a speedy recovery and hopefully he can get back at it when he can.”

Just like with other sports, fellow competitors never want to see an opponent get hurt, but it’s part of sports to some degree. Even in harness racing, it’s a community that knows each other and a lot of the same competitors race together in different events.

“Harness racing is a tight-knit family,” Stahl said. “I’ve been in that situation before, but knock on wood, I haven’t been injured to that extent. I’ve separated some shoulders, broken a few smaller bones where I just missed a few weeks here and there, but when you get the head injuries like that, it’s really scary and tough to see.

“We had a couple people come back here after last night and I don’t think they’ve ever seen a race bike before. They think we’re tied in there. We are just thrown in there with lines and you’re going up to 35 MPH and it’s a game of inches out there. It only takes one horse to miss-step or you can’t clear his wheel and the horse goes up over his wheel … when you are up to 35 MPH and you have to come to a sudden stop, it’s not going to be good. Either you get ejected from the seat or you go straight down and have the horse trample you. I’ve probably been in 15-20 wrecks over the years, but I’ve been fortunate.”

Stahl said the equipment has changed over the years since he’s started, but now with aerodynamics and technology advancing, the racers go faster, which creates more danger.

“Just with any sport, they change equipment every year to try to get more speed on the track, but it does heighten the danger a little bit getting up to those speeds,” Stahl said.

In the end, when I watch harness racing again, eat something fried and bet on which horse I think has the weirdest name or hopefully in the future, which one my daughter will choose, I will appreciate what I’m watching. The entertainment they provide spectators knowing the risk of one step or one wrong move can change their lives and of loved ones.