Daily Reporter staff reports
INDIANAPOLIS — Driven by a passion that first took root while spending time at the Hancock County Fair as a child, Ralph Wilfong, a pioneering force in the sport of horse racing, is now one of its enshrined.
This fall at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis, Wilfong was inducted into the Indiana Horse Racing Association Inc. Hall of Fame during a special presentation.
The Hancock County native was honored along with the Honorable Dick Thompson, the former senator instrumental in developing and implementing the gaming and horse racing bill in Indiana.
Wilfong was best remembered for his tireless work during his life to ensure a future for horse racing in the state and for campaigning key wagering legislation in 1993. He passed away in 1997.
“These two people (Thompson and Wilfong) are very deserving of this award, and we wouldn’t be in this room today without their work for horse racing in the state of Indiana,” commented Rod Ratcliff, chairman and CEO of Centaur Gaming. “Over the past 20 years, we have all come a long way with many successes and propelled forward. Today, horse racing has a $1 billion economic impact on the state and employs over 10,000 Hoosiers. Senator Thompson and Ralph Wilfong have done their part to make this happen.”
Rick Moore, president of the Indiana Horse Racing Association and vice president and general manager of Hoosier Park, presented the introduction of Wilfong, whose honor was awarded posthumously.
Born and raised in northeast Hancock County, Wilfong was first introduced to harness racing by attending the races at the Hancock County Fair, which is now the site of Hancock Regional Hospital.
Following a short stint in pursuing a career as an actor in Hollywood, Wilfong eventually made his way back home and began in construction with Wilco Builders, which operated its own sawmill.
From there, he branched out in the area and built many structures still standing today, including a lot of the grandstands that sit on county fairgrounds in the state.
Wilfong created the successful breeding and racing operation Trotter Range on his family farm in Hancock County. During that time, he even reconnected with his love of movies, and many of his horses were featured in the movie “April Love,” starring Pat Boone and Shirley Jones in the late 1950s.
Trotter Range later relocated to the Carmel-Westfield area. By this time, Wilfong was a very successful land developer and underwrote the cost of racing related improvements at the Indiana State Fair Grounds.
As Moore pointed out at the presentation, Wilfong’s ability to “look into the future” made him very instrumental in the next step for horse racing in the state.
One of Wilfong’s biggest contributions to the sport occurred in 1993 when he successfully lobbied for the passage of the pari-mutuel horse wagering bill.
He was inducted into the Indiana Standardbred Hall of Fame in 1992 and later was a recipient of the Sagamore of the Wabash Award, presented by Gov. Robert D. Orr. He was also named one of the 100 most influential men in Indiana during that time.
Several members of the Wilfong family were in attendance for the event with his son, Beau, accepting the honor on his behalf.
“This is a great honor, and my Dad would be very happy,” said Beau Wilfong. “When you think of my father, he had the heart of a champion and the words tireless, fearless and ferocious come to mind. He worked tirelessly to get pari-mutuel racing passed in Indiana and knew it would affect the agricultural industry as well as those in racing.
“Every year when we attend the Indiana State Fair, we see new buildings on the property, and we know our Dad was part of the equation in getting funding for the State Fair to continue its improvements and developments. He would be very proud to know it is still ongoing.”