CUMBERLAND – Eliot Rackliff of Jay said the secret to winning a steer pulling competition is simple: Just make sure your animals want to pull.

Rackliff was holding his 2-year-old steers, Charlie and Joe, fresh from competing in the 1,700-pound distance pull on opening day of the Cumberland County Fair on Sunday. The team had just pulled a load of concrete blocks more than 373 feet in three minutes, nearly 100 feet more than their closest competitor.

“They did very good,” said Rackliff.

The pulling events were drawing the big crowds on the first day of the 140-year-old annual agricultural event. By noontime, the fairgrounds were hopping. Cars were backed up at the parking lot. Lines of people waited to buy tickets at the gate. Fair officials were declaring an opening day success.

“Fantastic,” said Elliott Weed, who was helping out at the ticket booth.

The fair offered many distractions. The exhibition hall was filled with the results of thousands of hours of needlework and craft making. Dozens of handmade quilts hung from the rafters, and miles of yarn knit into socks, sweaters and hats filled the display cases.

While the Don Campbell Band belted out tunes on stage, the racetrack bustled with horses warming up for the harness event.

The odor of cooking oil, fried sausages and popcorn settled over the midway.

A small but enthusiastic crowd gathered to watch a polo demonstration, including Janet Alexander of Portland, who came to the fair Sunday expressly to watch the demonstration.

“It was very well done. I would absolutely go to a game,” said Alexander.

Players and horses alike were covered in sweat, working to convey the message that polo, typically associated with the blueblood set, was right at home at a country fair.

“This is beginner club polo, and right now is a great time to join,” said Gary Sturtevant of Cumberland, senior member of the Down East Polo Club.

The club has been around since the 1970s and in recent years has undergone a resurgence, said Sturtevant. The club has a field in Gray and a winter playing space in New Gloucester.

Sturtevant said members do not need to own a string of horses to play because they rotate players and horses during the seven-minute competition periods.

The club includes some high-powered players, including Adam Casey, formerly of the Audi Polo Team out of West Palm Beach, Fla., and David Zeliger of New Gloucester, former polo coach at the University of Louisville, Skidmore College and Cornell University.

Back at the pulling arena, the blue ribbon went to the steers Charlie and Joe, their ninth win this fair season. Rackliff, 69, has been entering steer pulling competitions most of his life.

Rackliff said the other factors in his winning formula included his nephew Marty Farrington, who did the driving, and making sure his steers get treated like family.

“These are just like my kids,” said Rackliff, patting Charlie.

At mid-afternoon, fair officials were predicting 15,000 people would pass through the gate by the end of the day. For the past few years, about 40,000 people have attended the weeklong event. Fair secretary Elizabeth Tarantino said that this year, the number could hit 50,000 if good weather continues.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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