Back in the mid-1980s, when I lived a while in Boston, I had the chance to visit the Northampton fairgrounds a few times. Back then, the cheapest horses from Suffolk would race on the half-mile track against a few backyard runners who were readied each year specifically for the fair races by the locals in the region. I still remember a beautiful gray stallion 6 or 7 and bred by the Aga Khan or another top breeder, with a stakes resume and a brilliant pedigree, who once raced there after dropping through the claiming ranks in New York and Boston. What a journey he’d had, from the green fields of his birthplace in the Emerald Isle to the Bois de Boulogne and then to Saratoga and Belmont, where he’d bowed a tendon, to East Boston, and, finally, to quaint Northampton, where he was known as the “Irish Gray” by fans in the grandstand. These fans enjoyed betting the races as much as the agricultural shows and the food on offer—which included such fare as clam chowder in a bread bowl, golombki, pierogi, and kielbasa on rye. As evident from the fare, Northampton boasts a significant Polish heritage. Less pleasant than the food, the fair was also the last stop down the ranks for many low-level claimers, who sold dirt cheap to the killers who’d come around the barns to take away the cripples who couldn’t race anymore.
The town is located off routes 91 and 9 (or 90 from Boston) in the beautiful Berkshire region of Massachusetts, in the western part of the state where time seems to have stood still. I’d just dropped off my youngest son at a boarding school a few towns north and was heading back to New York Saturday when I saw the sign for Northampton and decided to stop by for a look-see and a stroll through the years.
The annual fair, officially called the Three-County Fair, had just been held over the Labor Day weekend, but racing was the ghost of years past; instead, the fair is now replete with Monster Truck pulls and a Demolition Derby, and tire tracks now scream over the surface that horses once pounded. Northampton hosts the longest continually held fair in the country—182 years in 2010!—and was the last of the New England fairs to hold a race meet, in 2005, so the vestiges of its past life are evident everywhere, from the rock-hard track and cement-seating grandstand to the small, dilapidated wooden barns on the backside now being utilized on weekends by teenage girls and ponies in 4-H horse shows.
The following slideshow consists of photos taken from my iPhone Saturday and depicts the track as a racing version of a shipwreck or a ghost town. For me, though, the memories from years ago fill in the images, and I can remember the horses peering out of the empty, small stalls, while others raced around the oval. And I can still vividly remember “Irish Gray,” a majestic specimen with a tell-tale bow that I’d always hoped had escaped a fate others in his boat hadn’t.