"Experiencing the Jug" is a personal essay by fieldworker Anthony Maggio, who documented the 2019 Little Brown Jug through an archival internship at the Folklore Archives in fall of that year. He was supervised by Dr. Cassie Rosita Patterson, Director of the Folklore Archives.
The Little Brown Jug is one of the premiere harness races in the country, and many people have shared in that experience in Delaware, Ohio, since 1946. The Jug race has been held for 74 years, with this coming race being the 75th anniversary. The current racetrack was built right next to the County Fair, and the two events have been celebrated side by side annually. The Jug is a world-wide event that showcases the hard work of all the people who make it possible, and I got to take a glimpse of what it looked like to be a part of that life.
I had never been to a horserace before, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When I arrived, alongside Cassie Patterson and Mariah Marsden, the smell was the first thing I noticed. It smelled like home. I had grown up in a small farm town in northeast Ohio, and oh man, did this place remind me of that. One of my first jobs was mucking horse stalls in exchange for some riding lessons. The familiarity of my surrounding immediately put me at ease. For the rest of the day, I was given the tour of the fairgrounds. I saw the Log Cabin, a place steeped in the historical excellence of the Jug. The walls were filled with past and current honorees. In the middle of the main room sat the two brown jugs, each covered with winning horses. I wasn’t just the things that I saw that gave me a sense of excellence, however. The people I briefly met bustling in and out showed me just how much people care about the preservation of tradition. The Little Brown Jug (or LBJ) attracted the best and the brightest people from all facets of life.
I met caretakers: people who never rode in the races, but without whom the horses would never be ready. I met breeders and owners: people who live and breathe horse racing. For them, the LBJ was the highlight of the year. I met spectators, some of whom have been coming to watch the races for decades. I met vendors, booth operators, press, security, managers, volunteers, and many, many other folks who all come together to make the LBJ something truly memorable.
The next stop on my tour was the backstretch. This was the area where the parties happened. Folks set up tents and chairs weeks—even months—ahead of time just so they can get good spots for the races. I met a lady who told me a story about how she and her husband started to chain their chairs to the fence so that rival fans wouldn’t take their spots. Depending on who you ask, the backstretch is the place to be during the race, with drinking, betting, and general cheer going around. A few days later, when I returned during the Jugette (the race of the younger horses) I got to experience this firsthand. Whoa! There was barely room for me to move! The crowd was at least 20-feet thick, and the excited chattering, hollering, and cheering made it seem like I was in the middle of a riot! Every few minutes I would hear the bugle call that signaled the beginning of the next race, and the crowd met that call with thunderous uproars. All eyes were on the horses, hands were clenching betting tickets, and cups were full of beer.
After I mingled with the backstretch, I was taken to the Grandstand. The atmosphere changed almost immediately. Where the backstretch held chaos, the Grandstand was orderly. Everyone was checked going in, there were seats and shade provided for everyone, and there were even automated betting booths. Ahhh! This was luxury for horse racing. Everyone had a perfect view of the track, and the announcer could be heard clearly over the speakers. While the people along the back came for the party, the people in the stands came for the event. Some sections had a ticket price of $100. The whole place felt akin to one of those movie theatres that put in reclining chairs.
Now, while both sections had their stark differences, they shared one thing: they loved horse racing. Every person loved sharing in the traditions, and I admit that I wish I could have stayed there all day and all night! There is something special about the Little Brown Jug. Maybe it’s providing a place where folks from all walks come to work on a shared dream. Maybe it’s the thrill of watching your favorite horse win or the devastation of losing. Maybe it’s all of the people who work like cogs in a grandfather clock, making everything run seamlessly. It could even be all of these things, but one thing I know for sure is that I can’t wait to go back.