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Harness Racing History

What is harness racing?

Harness racing is a worldwide sport where a special breed of horses, called Standardbreds, race around a track while pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart, called a sulky. It is seen in more than 30 countries by millions of fans who wager more than $3 billion annually. The horses reach speeds of more than 30 mph.

Whether you love the majesty of the horses, or the thrill of gaming, or just like to relax and enjoy people watching, then going to the racetrack and watching harness racing is the ideal recreational activity.

To really feel the power of the horses, watch the races from the fence, which is as close as you can get to the action without actually driving in the race. It is a thrill to see the horses strive to do what they do best—go fast and win!

What is the difference between a Trotter and a Pacer?

Harness horses compete using 2 different gaits: the trot or the pace, rather than the gallop.  When pacers move down the track, the legs on the same side of their body move in unison. They can also be identified by the straps around all four legs, called hobbles, which help them maintain their gait. Pacers are much more common than trotters, and they tend to go faster.

With trotters, the diagonal legs move in unison. The trotting gait is more natural for the horse so most do not need equipment to help them trot, although some wear loops on their front legs to maintain their rhythm, called trotting hobboles. See below for an example of each.

The horses you see on the track have ben bred to perform at their particular gait. While some may be able to switch gaits, most race at the same gait as the generations before them.

"What are you wearing?"

 Below are diagrams of the equipment used in harness racing and the equipment each type of horse wears:

Trotter

1. Racebike
Also known as a sulky, an aerodynamic cart used only in races, which reduces drag and provides lift on the horse.

2. Driving lines
Straps attached to the driving bit that run back to the handholds, which the driver uses to control the direction and speed of the horse.

3. Harness
Holds the equipment in position on the horse, and consists of the bridle, saddle, girth and crupper. The girth connects the harness around the belly. The crupper is a loop that slides under the base of the tail to keep the harness from moving forward.

4. Head Number
Connects to the crown of the bridle and designates the horse’s number in the racing program.

5. Bridle
Consists of several straps, usually leather, that fit over the head and face of the horse, allowing the driver to control the horse through the use of a driving bit. The blind bridle shown here obscures sight from the sides as well as from behind, which prevents the horse from seeing anything that may cause anxiety.

6. Driving bit
Usually a jointed metal bar seated in an area of the horse’s mouth between the front incisors and molars, where there are no teeth. By creating pressure on the sides of the mouth through the driving lines, the driver can steer the horse.

7. Headpole
Runs along the head and neck and hooks to the harness to keep the horse from turning its head, which may cause it to break stride.

8. Bell boots
Rubber hoof covers used to protect a horse from hitting its front heels with its rear hoof.

9. Shin boots
Worn on the hind legs just beneath the hock and over the ankle, covering the hind legs to provide additional protection from getting struck with a hoof.

Pacer

10. Open bridle
Allows the horse a full range of sight with no obstruction. Open bridles are useful to relax an otherwise tense or aggressive animal.

11. Overcheck
A rein generally attached to the overcheck bit, running over the top of the head and down the neck where it is strapped to the harness. It prevents the horse from lowering its head, which helps maintain a proper gait.

12. Saddle pad
Designates the horse’s program number in the race. Each numbered saddle pad corresponds to a particular color. The smaller number is the race number.

13. Tail tie
When a horse wants to swish his tail, it is generally a sign that it is going to kick. A tie may be used to brace the tail from movement, which helps the horse resist the urge to kick.

14. Jog cart
Used for training, it is heavier than a race bike and is more comfortable for the driver. Many horses warming up between races will also be seen pulling a jog cart.

15. Hobbles
Also called hopples, plastic loops worn by pacers to help the horse maintain the pacing gait. Hobbles for trotters are similar to pacing hobbles, but the loops are worn only around the front legs, and are joined by a rope and pulley that hangs underneath the horse.

16. Tendon boots
Used to protect the tendon of the front foreleg between the knee joint and the ankle from being struck by a hoof on the opposite foreleg.

17. Knee boots
Worn on the forelegs to protect from knee-knocking, which occurs when the knee is struck by the hoof of the opposite leg.

18. Knee spreaders
Used to widen the horse’s gait in its front legs to prevent it from hitting its knees.

19. Buxton
Nylon strap that runs across the shoulders, around the neck and between the front legs in a Y-shape, which prevents the harness from slipping backward.

America's Original Pasttime

By the mid 18th century most European countries and the United States turned their attention to the production of harness racing horses as a specialized breed.  In all of these attempts the English Thoroughbred played a significant role. In Russia, Count Orlov was at this time producing his famous Orlov Trotters, and later they were reinforced with Thoroughbred blood.  One of the resultant foals was Bellfounder who, in turn, sired Messenger, the most famous and influential of all harness racing sires.

In 1788 the great sire Messenger was brought to America where he stood at stud for 20 years. One of his sons, Hambletonian, became the father of the American Standardbred breed of harness racing horses.

In the United States, every Standardbred horse can trace its heritage to Hambletonian, born May 5, 1849, in the tiny hamlet of Sugar Loaf, N.Y.

The name Standardbred originated because the early trotters (pacers would not come into the picture until later) were required to reach a certain standard of time for the mile distance in order be registered as part of the new breed. The mile is still the standard distance covered in nearly every harness race.

Today, harness racing can still be found in the hundreds of country fairs that host the sport, and the numerous parti-mutuel tracks across North America. The sport is also popular worldwide in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Italy, and France.

Fact: When you see an "A" or an "N" after a horse's name in the race program, this means they originiated from either Australia or New Zealand!

The origins of the America Pacer in harness racing are a little different than that of the trotter. Prior to 1700 in America, pacers were known in the county of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island and the horses became known as the Narragansett Pacer. The breed developed rapidly in colonial America and there are records of George Washington entering in a pacing race held near Mt. Vernon, New York.  However, when general road surfaces improved, the Narragansett Pacer lost favor and gradually disappeared and a Canadian pacing horse came into favor.

Three Canadian harness racing sires, all pacers, were imported: Copper Bottom, Old Pilot and Tom Hall, the ancestor of many pacers today. These horses were basically responsible for the pacing horse families in American, yet the blood lines of every pacer in the sport today can be traced to the Narragansett pacer.

One of the first harness racing tracks in America, if not the first, was the Harlem Lane course in New York, although it also carried Thoroughbred racing and the first speed record in American trotting history was set her in 1806.  As the popularity of the sport increase, other tracks were built.  In 1940, the opening of Roosevelt Raceway was the beginning of harness racing's current era, with really took off after the end of World War II and most large tracks were lighted for night racing also.

Today with Pari-mutuel harness racing, the sport is a national past time in many countries as it continues to grow in popularity.

Despite the speed of modern harness racing today, despite the modern race tracks and miles of tote machines, despite such innovations as the all weather racing strips, harness racing remains a nostalgic link with the past in America as it does in many countries. 

Article courtesy of ©HorseShowCentral.com 

Diagrams and information courtesy of The US Trotting Association, at www.USTrotting.com