Hawkinsville rebuilds; ready for annual festival

by Ken Weingartner, Harness Racing Communications

Ken Weingartner

Freehold, NJ — Having lived his entire life in a quiet, rural town, Dan Ater feels at home in Hawkinsville, Georgia. Ater, a USTA Director from Clarksburg, Ohio, has spent the last three winters training his harness racing horses in Hawkinsville, which is located 45 miles south of Macon.

“People say there’s nothing to do in Hawkinsville; I tell them you ought to live in Clarksburg,” Ater said with a laugh. “It works for me. It’s just a nice quiet place to be. I enjoy it there. I’ve met some good people there. It’s a good laid-back place.”

Hawkinsville was anything but quiet last June. Severe thunderstorms moved through the region one afternoon and a microburst, where air rushes down from clouds and fans out near the ground, caused extensive damage to the Lawrence Bennett Harness Horse Training Facility. Six stables had roofs blown away while two more barns were damaged by debris.

Fortunately, nobody was stabled at the center at the time and the facility, which is owned by the city and leased to Mac and Ann Lilley, was the only area in Hawkinsville to be damaged.

“When the Lilleys came in October, they spruced up and painted all the rest of (the stables),” said Jerry Murkerson, the city manager. “It looks really good this year.”

At the peak of activity this winter, the facility was home to 350 horses. The center, Murkerson estimated, brings $8 million to the local economy. On Saturday, April 18, the city and Hawkinsville-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce will hold the 36th annual Harness Festival.

“It’s very beneficial to the community,” said Murkerson, who started driving horses after becoming friends with the Lilleys and frequently spends Saturday mornings at the facility. “Some people own property here and pay taxes on it. Others that are temporary in the winter buy all their feed here; they buy all their food and supplies locally. We really do appreciate them being here. Our chamber of commerce and community does (the festival) in appreciation to these folks that come and are part of our community during this time while training the horses.”

The festival begins on Friday, April 17, with entertainment and a fireworks display. On Saturday, the harness racing begins at 1:00 p.m., following a parade and opening ceremonies. Following each race there will be drawings for $100 cash prizes. Following the final race, the drawing will be for $1,000.

In addition, fair-style food will be available as well as arts and crafts, a magician, children’s activities, a miniature horse demonstration, and a junior rodeo exhibition. The U.S. Trotting Association will have a booth at the event.

The festival attracts 3,000 to 4,000 visitors each year. If it rains on Saturday, the racing will be held Sunday.

“The fireworks are a really nice display; they do a great job,” said Kim Brown, the chamber of commerce’s executive director. “We have a lot of out-of-town folks come in. We try to make this an attractive event for everybody.”

Ater expects to have several horses competing in the races. Last year, he trained the winners of $485,923, including Cinderella winner Cruzin Inya Jammys.

“My luck has been better since I’ve been down there,” Ater said. “I think it’s done me better. They do a nice job. (Harness racing) is a big deal there. It’s nice to have a place where people are walking around with logos on their shirts with harness racing. It helps them out and it helps us out.”

Related Articles:

  • Repair work underway at Hawkinsville (Thursday, June 26, 2008)
    Repair work has already begun at the Hawkinsville, Ga., training facility that was damaged earlier this month by a severe thunderstorm.
  • USTA to be in Hawkinsville (Thursday, April 16, 2009)
    The USTA and the Harness Horse Youth Foundation will have representatives at the Hawkinsville Harness Festival in Georgia on Saturday, April 18.

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