What Is Harness Racing?

Harness racing is a form of horseracing in which the horses race in a specified gait - either the trot or the pace. They also usually pull two - wheeled carts called sulkies, although races to saddle are still occasionally conducted. In most jurisdictions harness races are restricted to Standardbreds although cold - blooded horses are raced in northern Europe - mostly in Scandinavia. Standardbreds are so called because in the early years of the Standardbred stud book only horses who could trot or pace a mile in a standard time, or whose progeny could do so, were entered into the book.

In continental Europe all harness races are conducted between trotters. A trotter's forelegs move in tandem with the opposite hind legs - when the right foreleg moves forward so does the left hind leg, and vice versa.

In North America, Australia, New Zealand and Macau races are held for pacers. Pacers' forelegs move in tandem with the hind legs on the same side. Pacing races constitute 80% to 90% of the harness races conducted in North America. The horses are faster and, most important to the bettor, less likely to break stride: a horse which starts to gallop must be slowed down and taken to the outside until it regains stride.

One of the reasons pacers are less likely to break stride is that they often wear hopples or hobbles, straps which connect the legs on each of the horse's sides. The belief that hobbles are used to create this gait is a misconception. The pace is a natural gait, and hobbles are merely an accessory to support the pace at top speed, which also ensures safer races.

Most harness races start from behind a motorized starting gate. The horses line up behind a hinged gate mounted on a motor vehicle which then takes them to the starting line. At the starting line the wings of the gate are folded up and the vehicle accelerates away from the horses. Some European and Australiasian races start without a gate.The sulky, informally known as a bike, is a light two - wheeled cart equipped with bicycle wheels. The driver carries a long, light whip which is chiefly used to signal the horse by tapping and to make noise by striking the sulky shaft.

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Almost all North American races are at a distance of one mile, and North American harness horses are all assigned a "mark" which is their fastest winning time at that distance. Harness races involve considerable strategy. First of all, drivers may contend for the lead out of the gate. They then try to avoid getting boxed in as the horses form into two lines - one on the rail and the other outside - in the second quarter mile. They may decide to go to the front, to race on the front on the outside ("first over", a difficult position), or to race with cover on the outside. On the rail behind the leader is a choice spot, known as the pocket, and a horse in that position is said to have a garden trip. Third on the rail is an undesirable spot, known as the death hole. As the race nears the three - quarter mile mark, the drivers implement their tactics for advancing their positions – going to the lead early, circling the field, moving up an open rail, advancing behind a horse expected to tire, and so on. The finishes of harness races are often spectacular and perhaps more often extremely close. The judges (equivalent to thoroughbred stewards) often have to request prints of win, place, and show photos to determine the order of finish.

A Great Ancestry

The founding sire of today's Standardbred horse was a grey thoroughbred named Messenger - a decendant of the Darley Arabian line of thoroughbreds - who was brought to the United States in 1788, and purchased by Henry Astor, a brother of John Jacob Astor.

Messenger's great - grandson was Hambletonian 10, born on May 5, 1849 in the town of Sugar Loaf, Orange County, New York, and who is considered to be the foundation of the modern Standardbred breed. His sire was Abdallah and he was out of a Charles Kent mare. Hambletonian 10 began his stud career at age two.

Another son of Abdallah, named Abdallah Chief, was thought to be the faster of the two horses at the time. So he and Hambletonian 10 were hitched to skeleton wagons at Long Island's Union Course racetrack. Each horse went around the track seperately, and each was timed. Hambltonian 10 was clocked in 2:28 and 1/2 for the mile, while Abdallah Chief was timed in 2:55 and 1/2. This earned Hambletonian his reputation for speed, and his stud fee was thus set at an unprecedented $500.

From his four sons, the entire lineage of virtually all modern Standardbreds can be traced. Hambletonian 10 died in 1876 at the age of 27, and the Hambletonian Society was established in 1924 to honor him and the trotting gait. The first Hambletonian Stake was held in 1926 at Syracuse raceway, and today is held at the Meadowland's on the first Saturday in August annually.

The Road to Trotting's Triple Crown

The Dexter Cup - the first step on the road to the Hambletonian is contested at Freehold Raceway in central New Jersey. This event for three - year - old trotters is held in May.

The Hambletonian - is the first leg of Trotting's Triple Crown and was held for years at Goshen, New York and then to DuQuoin, Illinois until 1980 - when it was won by Burgomeister. It was moved to The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1981 and was won by Shiaway St. Pat. It is held on the first day of August each year.

The Yonkers Trot - is the second leg of trotting's Triple Crown and is usually held at Yonkers Raceway in Yonkers, New York, in late August.

The Kentucky Futurity - is the final leg of trotting's Triple Crown and is contested in September at Lexington's famed Red Mile.

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