Standardbred horses a staple for harness racing
It started with fast-trotting carthorses, and the friendly match races held during Colonial times. Easing alongside each other on straight stretches of dirt roads, drivers issued the challenge to see whose horse was fastest. By the 1800’s, trotting races had become such a major sport that a specialized breed appeared: the Standardbred.
Two hundred years later, “Ohio has become a hub for harness racing,” said Jim Coan of Marietta, the oldest town in the state, established in 1788. “We catch horses from both the west and the east coasts.”
Coan, who is retired from Coca-Cola, boards and trains two horses at the local fairgrounds.
Another reason why Ohio is such a hotspot is the high populations of Amish, who buy retired mares and gelding to use for transportation. Many towns even have special “buggy lanes,” where the animals briskly step out at 30 miles an hour.
The name Standardbred originally referred to a horse that “could trot a mile in harness within certain, standard time.” Seeking to breed a more specialized type of racer, enthusiasts turned to a popular Thoroughbred stallion, “Messenger,” whose offspring seemed more inclined to trot than to run.
In 1849, when one of Messenger’s great-grandsons was foaled, a savvy hired man named William Rysdyck bought the colt for $125, naming it “Rysdyck’s Hambletonian.” The stallion sired 1,300 foals, with over 40 of them turning in blazing trotting speeds.
Most modern Standardbreds can be traced back to him, mixed with strains of Morgan, Hackney and Arabian to produce sturdiness. They stand between 14.1 and 16.1 hands high and come in chestnut, black, and bay. In addition to being stouter than the Thoroughbred, a trotter usually has a longer head and ears, with heavily boned legs. And as Coan pointed out, “they can be kind of jug-headed, too.”
Coan used to place bets on Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses at tracks in California. One night, he saw his first Standardbred race and thought, “What is that?” He was instantly hooked.
A harness racing track ranges from a half mile to a mile, but can go as long as two, and surfaces are firm. Pulling sulkies that are four feet wide and weigh about 65 pounds, the horses begin their race behind an automobile-mounted starting gate. The car increases in speed as they line up behind it, eventually getting far enough ahead to pull off to the side and fold its gates shut.
But what is it about harness racing that makes it especially intriguing? For one thing, it isn’t as expensive as Thoroughbred racing.
“We can buy one horse at a time, train it, and if it doesn’t work out, sell it pretty easily,” he said.
Another bonus: since Standardbreds tend to be calm by nature, there is less danger of accidents.
Horses can continue racing into their teens because there is not as much strain on the tendons and joints. As a result, the owner gets more out of his or her investment. For example, the legendary gelding, Dan Patch, had a nine-year racing career and set a one-mile pacing record of 1:54 ¼ when he was nine years old. The current record is down to 1:48.
A sulky driver does not have to be young or lightweight in order to qualify, either. Owners can actually breed, train and race their own stock well past retirement. Dean Fleming, who continues to exercise and shoe his own stock at the age of 85 said, “You can do anything you want with these horses. They’re real good to ride, too, because the majority of them are pretty sensible. They’re handled daily and exposed to all sorts of different things, so they don’t pay attention to much that might spook another.”
Fleming has been around horses his entire life; he supported his habit by spending 38 years working for a metal smelting company outside of Marietta. Once getting started in Standardbred racing, “I quickly found out I wasn’t aggressive enough on the track and so hired other drivers.”
Drivers need to know when the timing is perfect to ask for a burst of speed, as when there’s a chance opening between sulkies.
Like most racehorses, Standardbreds love to hit the track but as Coan explained, “You have to teach them what their job is, of course, with hands, voice and lines. We get ours as babies and teach them what to expect long before they’re first hooked to a cart and actually driven.”
Two gaits are accepted in harness racing, the trot — in which the diagonal legs move together— and the pace. Although a horse usually moves faster at the pace, during which the legs on the same side work in unison, it is often harder for the pacer to hold that pattern, even if it comes naturally.
Sometimes horses wear a special type of rigging, known as “hobbles” or “Indiana pants,” to prevent them from breaking stride. An “overcheck,” which runs from the bit, over the poll and attaches at the withers, prevents the horse from extending the neck and going into a gallop.
Boots and special shoes help, too. As Fred Boyd buckled leather boots around “Fast-Flying Maddie’s” lower legs before her workout, Coan pointed to them and said, “Those prevent bruising the skin.”
If a horse nicks itself, they also try adjusting the shoes and the toe weights, which help with balance and length of stride.
Boyd, who is employed by a law firm, gets off at 2:00 each afternoon and heads straight for the fairgrounds.
“Driving is a way to relax,” he said. Although racing “was a business at first, it’s now turned into more of a hobby. There’s something about sitting behind an animal at a trot, going about a mile every two minutes, that’s kind of soothing. It relieves stress. I needed something else besides work.”
When asked if 2-year-old Maddie will be raced one day, though, he admitted, “I’m thinking about next year.”
Sometimes it is hard to resist just another friendly match between cart-pulling horses. ❖