Everything You Need to Know About Harness Racing

harness ready horse at northfield park racetrack

What is Harness Racing?

Harness racing is one of the two main types of horse racing. The other involves saddles, jockeys, and powerful thoroughbred horses. Conversely, harness racing involves a more durable horse, driver, and a two-wheeled vehicle, known as a sulky. It is seen in 30 countries by millions of adoring fans, who wager billions annually. The horses reach 30 mph, even with a driver in tow. These drivers, not to be confused with thoroughbred riders, sit low on the seat of the sulky. They race around a track, just as they do in standard thoroughbred racing. Yet, you will notice that the horses run in a peculiar way. That’s because the horses must run at a trot or pace, depending on the race.

Before we dive deeper, let’s step back and look a little history.

Harness Racing Origins and Early History

Most people have never heard of harness racing, let alone seen it with their own two eyes. Yet, any equestrian sports fan with a love for steeds and a passion for racing knows the joy and excitement of watching humans and horses join forces in the name of competition. First-time spectators often recall the chariot races of ancient Rome, as seen in movies like Ben-Hur and Gladiator.

harness racing at northfield park

Early records indicate that harness racing is, in fact, linked to chariot racing, an endeavor with origins in antiquity. Assyrian Kings in 1500 BC kept stables for horses used to pull chariots, both in war and sport hunting. Homer’s famous account of a chariot race in The Iliad remains one of the sport’s crowning tales. The ancient Greeks even included four-horse hitch chariot races in their Olympic Games, dating back to the 7th century BC. In Greece, chariot racing was limited to rich men. But by the time it came to Rome, the sport involved companies of everyday people, with each competing horse-drawn chariot distinguished by color. Rome’s Circus Maximus held over 200,000 spectators—50,000 more than that of the largest modern-day sports stadium. In the age of Augustus, 12 races were held each day, with that number reaching 100 by the time Flavius took the reins of Rome. When the city fell, the wheels came off the chariot as well. And a sport was left in ruins.

That is, until the early 19th century. But even before that, horses were entered intro trotting matches in Holland. The Golden Whip, the country’s most famous trotting event, was first run back in 1777. By 1840, trotting was officially a sport in New England. In 1871, the Grand Circuit was established, spreading across 23 tracks in North America. Races moved from fairs to commercial harness tracks. In the 1890s, the sulky, which was once no more than a cart, developed into what is basically a U-shaped shaft mounted on two bicycle wheels with an accompanying seat. The Circuit eventually featured Standardbred horses, which were established in the United States. To many, harness racing is America’s true original pastime. After all, it was popularized before baseball’s first team, The Cincinnati Redstockings, were a figment of any imagination.

Breeding, Trotting, and Pacing

North American harness racing features Standardbred horses. The horses have longer bodies and shorter legs than their Thoroughbred counterparts. Standardbreds generally have a milder disposition as well. Standardbred horses were named after the time trials required for entry back in the 19th century; horses had to run a mile in 2:30 or less to compete. Today, most winning horses post mile times of less than 2 minutes.

jockeys and horses behind a pacer

Harness racing can be divided into two main categories: pacing and trotting. A trotter moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs, with the right front coming up in line with the left hind, followed by the left front and right hind, which strike the ground simultaneously. Alternatively, pacers move their legs laterally. Right front and right hind together, with left legs following suit. Confused? Thought so. Let’s explain it another way. Pacers moves both legs on one side of its body at the same time. Trotting horses, on the other hand, stride with their left front and right rear leg moving forward simultaneously. Then, the right front and left rear come forward together.

harness racing horses and jockeys

In Europe, trotting is all the rage, whereas races in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US are conducted mainly among pacing horses. You won’t see any high-stepping gaits such as those exhibited by Clydesdales, as speed is of the essence. While some horses can switch gaits, most were bred to perform solely as a trotter or pacer.

Pacing horses are faster than trotting horses and are less likely to break stride. This is due, in part, to the use of ‘hobbles’, a strap that connect the legs on each side. Hobbles do not aid in pacing, as is often assumed; these straps merely aid to support the gait at high speeds. In fact, many horses ‘pace’ naturally. If stride is broken during a race, a horse must be taken to the outside of the track to resume the proper gait. Though originally used exclusively for pacing horses, trotting hobbles are becoming a popular way to avoid missteps. Harness racing requires a lot of equipment, which differs depending on the gait.

Modern-Day Harness Races

Harness races begin from behind a starting gate, which is now motorized. The horses line up behind a gate mounted on a vehicle, which starts slowly but gradually picks up speed and leads them to the starting line. The gate is then folded and the car accelerates forward, signifying the start of the race. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, races often use a standing start, in which horses stand stationary or trot in circles before setting off.

starting line harness race

The driver carries a light whip used to signal the horse. Use of the whip is restricted; and in some places, even forbidden. Rules and distances vary from place to place. Pardon our fondness for brevity, but we’ll focus on North America. The United States Trotting Association has a strict guidebook. A comprehensive trotting and pacing guide can be found on their site.

Nearly all races in North America are one-mile long. Horses race on dirt tracks and feature both male and female horses. North American horses earn a “mark”, which is their personal record. In harness racing, strategy is paramount. Some shorter tracks require two laps, and often require early speed. Longer, mile-long tracks feature long stretch runs, which heavily favor horses with high endurance and strong straightaway speed. Most of today’s tracks are constructed solely for harness racing, though a few support both harness and Thoroughbred racing.

Harness Racing Strategy

As in thoroughbred racing, many drivers will try to take an early lead from the gate and establish an advantage on the inside and avoid getting “boxed in”. Horses form two lines, one rail-side and one outside, right around the second quarter-mile mark. The front outside position is a difficult one. This is often referred to as the “first over” spot. On the rail, directly behind the leader, lies the “the pocket”, which is the most ideal place to be, next to the lead rail spot. This driver can essentially ride on the leader’s coattails. The third rail spot has often been called the “death hole”. Drivers often find it impossible to mount a comeback from this position in the final stretch.

northfield park racetrack sunset

Strategy has changed a lot in the past 20+ years. Until the 1990s, tracks featured inside rails. They have since been replaced by pylons to allow for safety turn-offs. This had led to another innovation known as “open lane racing” where an additional lane was opened at the inside of the previously placed rail. This helps to avoid too many cases where trailing horses are boxed in. It also requires a rail-positioned leader to maintain position or move further out to open a lane for challengers. Open lanes are only used in certain jurisdictions.

When the race nears its final quarter mile, the drivers implement their tactics for advancing their positions. So if you want to see a horse go to the lead early, circle the field, move up a rail, and advance behind a horse expecting to tire, may we suggest heading out of the house and off to the track.

With so many close races, you are bound to catch a photo finish after a few visits.

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