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Budweiser Clydesdales are must-see attraction at the Fair

The final day 85th annual Lake County Fair featured parade
around ExpositiBuilding by Budweiser Clydesdales. | DAN MORAN~SUN-TIMES MEDIA

The final day of the 85th annual Lake County Fair featured a parade around the Exposition Building by the Budweiser Clydesdales. | DAN MORAN~SUN-TIMES MEDIA

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Updated: September 27, 2013 2:40AM

Visitors to the Lake County Fair swarmed like paparazzi and gathered with smartphones in hand on Sunday as eight celebrities prepared to take the stage.

Like Bono or Elvis, they’re known by a single name — Ace, Bud, Curly, Evan, King, Mick, Prince and Ringo. Like Justin Bieber, they’re not exactly long in the tooth, with all of them averaging around 10 years old.

The stars in this case were the Budweiser Clydesdales, capping off a weeklong visit to the Chicago area with an afternoon parade around the fairgrounds. Nick Dunham, one of the six handlers who travel with the St. Louis-based team, said the Lake County stop was one of literally hundreds the famed draft horses will make in a given year.

“We’re technically the Midwest hitch, and our hitch alone will make 300 appearances a year,” Dunham said as his team prepared for a 1 p.m. parade.

“We also have a hitch in Merrimack, N.H., which is the East Coast hitch, and the West Coast hitch is out of Fort Collins, Colo.”

While this week found the 2,000-pound horses and their entourage of three semi-tractor trucks headquartered in Grayslake, they roamed about for appearances in Arlington Heights and Antioch. Wherever they end up, getting them ready for their public is no small feat.

“There’s a total of five hours of prep time to get the horses ready for a show,” Dunham said. “We come in every morning at about 7 o’clock, feed them, water them, pick their stalls, and after that, we get the horses out for about an hour to exercise them.

“Once we get back from that, we’ll groom all the horses and wash their legs — we wash their legs every day we show them, (because) another signature of a Budweiser Clydesdale is the four white legs with the long feather.”

The next step is to braid the horses’ manes and tails, which takes a half hour by itself, and then the crew will start to process of walking the horses one by one from their stalls to a harnessing area. Even the brass and leather harnesses — which weigh 130 pounds — come with a checklist of their own, requiring more than four hours of polishing and maintenance prior to a show.

On Sunday, the handlers hitched the horses up on the northwest side of the fairgrounds as fans formed a five-deep circle around the team. All told, the horses, rigging and wagon have a reported weight of 12 tons.

According to Dunham, there is both science and showmanship in how the team is arranged. He noted that the smallest horses are the tandem up front.

“That’s why they’re the leaders. Traditionally, all the weight (from the wagon) would be in the back,” he said.

“We always refer to the (lead) guys as the receivers and quarterbacks, and the big guys are kind of your lineman. The ones in the front are your show horses with a higher step, and the ones in the back are pulling the weight.”

At the appointed hour, the team moved out and performed several circuits around the Exposition Building, pausing from time to time for more photo ops. But the end of the parade didn’t necessarily mean the end of the day for the horses and their handlers.

“When we’re done with the performance today,” Dunham said, “two guys will jump back in there and it will take us about another hour, hour-and-a-half to wipe down all the leather and get ‘em nice and clean for our show next week.”

The next stop on the circuit? “We’re heading to Sturgis, S.D.,” Dunham said, referring to a locale known more for its two-wheeled visitors than the four-legged variety. “I’ve been with the team for seven years, and this will be my first trip to see Sturgis.”

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