July 14, 2021–When an event has been going on for 133 years, closing the gates for a season is not an option.
So last summer, the directors of the Gillespie County Fair & Festival Association decided to hold the county fair and the horse races. Events were appropriately scaled back and adjusted to follow CDC guidelines, of course. But the horses still ran.
As they are running again this summer.
“Last year we didn’t hold the parade or public events like that,” said Lindsay Crenwelge-Pressler, a lifelong resident and long-time volunteer. “But we wanted to keep our Oldest Continuous County Fair in Texas title. So we did have all the exhibits and held the races as normal.”
Understandably, attendance was down, as people practiced social distancing. But after holding the first race weekend over July 4 this year, it’s clear that parimutuel racing is back to full speed at Gillespie Downs.
“Yes, it was one of our biggest weekends ever,” she said. “The whole weekend was wonderful, there were a lot of people, and they were spending money. I think people were just ready to get out.”
Among other duties, Crenwelge-Pressler volunteers at the souvenir booth, so she has a catbird seat on watching and speaking with visitors. This year she was happy to see the regulars return, alongside a lot of new faces.
“I personally had people come up to me saying we’re so glad y’all are racing,” she said. “You can tell they were having a good time. They were cheering; they were laughing; they were talking. People were just having a good time, which is nice. Very nice.”
Gillespie County hosts one of only five active horse racing tracks in Texas, with a history going back to the 1880s. Parimutuel betting was added in the early 1990s, and has proven popular at the local facility, which offers four racing weekends every summer. The next ones will be July 17-18, followed by the August 14-15 race meet, and the Gillespie County Fair meet on August 28-29.
While you can follow horse racing in any number of ways these days, there is nothing quite like standing at the rail while a dozen quarter horses or thoroughbreds fly past. You can feel the ground shake, smell their sweat, see the jockeys in their colorful silks, and hear their colorful language. That’s what makes it worth taking in, something Crenwelge-Pressler likes to point out to new visitors.
“If you’ve never been, it’s definitely an experience. I was talking to somebody who came to the races with their kids. I said, you need to take them over by the paddock and watch them saddle the horses. You’re right up with them–you can see them putting the saddle on and you can hear the guys talking and yelling and getting themselves pumped up. Then walk down to where they’re loading the horses. Watch the strength, the manpower it takes to to get them loaded. Watch them break out of the starting gate. I still like getting to the finish line and watching it from different angles. I think that’s all part of the experience.”
Not to mention the chance to win some money at the betting windows. Or, as now available, on a phone app.
It may be most amazing to realize the entire racing and fair operations are managed by volunteers, with the help of only a few paid staff. Volunteering was always a tradition for Crenwelge-Pressler, starting with her father, Marvin Crenwelge, who first volunteered and now serves on the board, as does her husband, Art Pressler.
“My dad made it a family thing. I would go out to help with the float, along with my mom. It was a lot of fun.”
It is also time-consuming. The committee starts working on the float as early as January, and by May they are hauling it across the state to show off the Fair Queen and Court in neighboring town parades. Preparation for the racing season begins in April.
It has become a year-round commitment. But Crenwelge-Pressler doesn’t mind. In fact, she’s proud of playing a part in it.
“Absolutely. I mean, absolutely. You figure this has been going on since 1881. How could you not be proud of something like that? Hey… we’re the oldest continuous county fair in the state of Texas. To me, that’s a really big deal.”
Remaining race dates at Gillespie Downs are:
Gates open at 11am and Post Time is at 1pm
General Admission is $10 per person
Children (6-12) are $5
Under 5 are free
Tickets may be purchased online at gillespiefair.com.