Wayne County Wanderings: Veteran fair driver thrills the crowd at Dyberry Oval
When you've been covering sporting events as long as I have, you develop a keen sense of the moment … an intuition as to when something special is about to happen.
From the moment I got out of the car Wednesday for harness racing at the Wayne County Fair, I had a feeling that I was about to witness something memorable.
And I was right.
It took nearly all of the afternoon to unfold, but when the moment finally came … well, it was definitely worth the wait.
The August sun was riding high in the sky when I unpacked my camera gear in front of the grandstand.
Drivers and their horses were already out warming up for the first race of what promised to be an exciting afternoon.
There were a total of 10 heats on the card for this particular day and several hundred fans were settling into their seats. Many perused their programs in search of winners. Some sipped cold drinks while others nibbled snacks.
Track announcer Jeff Firmstone welcomed fans to Day Three of the races at the 156th Annual Wayne County Fair as horses began to parade for the first heat.
PA Fair Circuit legend Roger Hammer rocketed to the win in this one, driving Blow Back to victory in the Precision Homes Trot.
Eight more races came and went with varying degrees of excitement before the man behind this week's column made his appearance on the venerable Dyberry Oval.
Arty Jones is 72-years-old. He's been training and driving horses for nearly a half-century now.
He's lived in Honesdale all his life, the vast majority of which has been spent in a farmhouse just off the Honesdale Turn.
Arty got his first taste of the business as a youngster working with his dad.
“I was just a little guy tagging along,” Arty said. “My Dad taught me so much. It all really started with him.”
Arty trained and drove for Ray Schweighofer for many years. Eventually, he set out on his own, filling his barn with as many as 20 horses at his peak.
The days are long. Most begin before dawn in the barn. On days when he isn't competing. Arty ambles on home early in the afternoon. However, if he's on the road, sometimes he isn't back until after midnight
Arty has traveled all over the country competing, as he says, “From Maine to Florida … probably every single track on the East Coast at one time or another.”
One of Arty's fondest memories is of a pacer called Punch Doctor. This was a rare horse, one that won 18 of its first 20 starts and even briefly held the track record at Pocono Downs.
Another pacer enshrined in Arty's personal Hall of Fame was named El Greco. This horse also excelled as a two-year-old, piling up more than $250,000 in winnings.
Indirectly, El Greco provided the impetus for Wednesday's excitement.
Arty came across another horse in his travels just two months ago, a pacer called Miricle Maverick.
“They said he was a problem horse,” Art recalls. “They didn't want him anymore. I took a look at him and he reminded me of El Greco. So, I bought him.”
As it turned out, this was one of those magical moments … the kind of thing that happens very rarely when all the stars align.
“I like him,” Arty said simply. “He hasn't been a problem for me at all.”
In fact, from a competitive standpoint, the six-year-old bay gelding has been nothing short of stellar since coming to Honesdale.
“He's finished no worse than third,” Arty said of Miricle Maverick. “We won at Monticello the other day, then took a second.”
On Wednesday, Arty brought his new best friend to the fair for the hometown fans to see … and they weren't disappointed.
Miricle Maverick went up against four other horses in the final race, a Free for All Pace. He jetted out to an early advantage and just seemed to get stronger.
Arty opened up a two-length lead at the midway point and appeared destined for an easy win. However, Eric Neal had other ideas.
Another veteran PA Fair Circuit driver, Neal and MBC Edna mounted a late charge. They drew even in the Dyberry Turn and came roaring down the home stretch neck and neck.
Fans scrambled to their feet and cheered as the two dueled all the way to the line … and even Jeff Firmstone in the booth couldn't say for sure who'd won. It was a photo finish.
Several agonizing minutes passed as Presiding Judge Tom Salerno made his way to the booth to see the picture and make his call. No one moved from their spot until Mr. Salerno emerged, smiled and gave a thumbs-up.
Miricle Maverick had won by a nose … and the crowd went wild!
Arty Jones may be 72, but he shows no signs of slowing down.
He's out in the barn taking care of his four horses every single day. And, while he doesn't travel nearly as much as he used to, Arty still loves getting out there and competing.
“I'll keep doing it as long as I can,” he said. “I still weigh about 150 pounds, which is what I weighed in high school. As long as my body lets me, I'll keep on racing.”
Being a horseman is Arty's passion and his profession. But, family remains the most important aspect of his life.
He is the proud father of four children: Art, Amy, Melissa and Cory. He also dotes on six grandchildren: Kelsey, Marissa, Matthew, Connelly, Grace and Athena.
The Joneses have also opened their hearts and homes to more than 40 foster children over the years.
“I'm so proud of him!” exclaimed daughter Amy when reached via text on Wednesday. “He lives what he loves. He's a great horseman, a wonderful and generous man.”