Harness Racing

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Form of horse racing in which each competing horse pulls a lightweight, two-wheeled cart, called a sulky or racing bike, which is guided by a skilled driver. Two kinds of races are usual, one for trotting horses and one for pacing horses. These two types of horses belong to the same breed, but they are trained to employ different gaits, or running styles. The fastest trotters and pacers can cover a mile in less than two minutes, although they cannot equal the speed of a galloping racehorse ridden by a jockey.

The world center of harness-racing activity is the U.S., where some 20 million persons annually witness the competitions. The governing body is the U.S. Trotting Association (USTA), which has jurisdiction over harness racing in the U.S. and in the Maritime provinces of Canada. The sport is also popular in France and other European countries and in Australia and New Zealand.

Types of Horses and Equipment.

Pacers and trotters are Standardbreds, the name being derived from the practice of basing racing records on a standard distance. These horses were bred mostly from Thoroughbred horses of the type ridden by jockeys in flat racing, Standardbred horses also have a small admixture of blood inherited from sturdy farm horses or workhorses. As a result, Standardbred horses are stronger and more tractable than the high-strung Thoroughbred saddle horses. The typical harness-racing horse is smaller than a flat-racing Thoroughbred, standing about 14 to 16 hands (about 142 to 162 cm/about 56 to 64 in) high and weighing between 408 and 522 kg (900 to 1150 lb). Virtually all Standardbred horses today are descended from Hambletonian, a U.S.-bred 19th-century stallion.

Trotters and pacers differ from each other in the way they coordinate the movements of their legs. The trotter is a diagonally gaited horse, that is, it moves its left front leg and right hind leg in unison in a smooth, high-stepping motion. The pacer is a laterally gaited horse, moving its right front leg and right hind leg in unison in a swaying, side-to-side motion. Pacers are somewhat swifter than trotters; the mile record for pacers is 1 min 491/5 sec, compared with 1 min 521/5 sec for trotters. By contrast, the mile record for a galloping racehorse ridden by a jockey is 1 min 314/5 sec. (These records are for oval tracks.) Some harness-racing horses, notably the American horse Calumet Evelyn, have competed with equal proficiency as pacers and as trotters.

A harness-racing sulky consists of a lightweight wooden or duralumin (an aluminum-copper-magnesium alloy) frame mounted on ball-bearing bicycle wheels with pneumatic tires. Wooden sulkies weigh about 18 kg (about 39 lb); some all-duralumin sulkies weigh only 3 kg (7 lb). Drivers, women or men, may be amateur or professional. Most of the drivers participating in major races, however, are full-time professionals.

Harness-racing tracks are usually oval. In the U.S., 24 of the 50 tracks that conduct extended pari-mutuel betting meets are half-mile tracks; 12 are mile tracks; the others are odd fractions of a mile in circumference. The noncommercial tracks in the U.S. are usually half-mile ovals. The tracks built exclusively for harness racing have a harder, faster surface than have the tracks used for flat racing. About 300 noncommercial tracks are used for harness racing in the U.S. At these tracks, state and country fair racing meets are held; few of these are betting meets. The seating capacity of harness-racing tracks varies widely. A popular, large track may have a grandstand capacity of 20,000 or more persons.

Pari-mutuel Betting.

Under the system now in general use in the U.S., the betting odds are computed from the relation between the amount wagered on a horse and the total amount wagered on the race, less a percentage deducted by the state for taxes. As in flat racing, wagers are made on the horses to finish first, second, or third. Odds are computed automatically by a totalizator and are electronically flashed on screens or on closed-circuit television sets.

Harness races are decided by single trials known as dashes, which predominate at commercial tracks; or they are decided by a series of trials called heats, 1.6 km (1 mi) in length, usually run at fair meets and in some stake races, usually with large sums of prize money at stake. Generally horses are required to finish first in two heats out of three to become winners.

For purposes of competition, horses are grouped into different classes according to age, previous performance, previous earnings, or sale value (claiming price). Since 1946 harness races at all pari-mutuel tracks, and at most others as well, have been conducted with the aid of a mobile starting gate. This consists of long horizontal rails, mounted on a slowly moving automobile and extending across the width of the track. The horses draw up to the starting gate and, if they are aligned evenly along the arms of the gate as it crosses the starting line, the race is declared officially under way. The gate is then quickly folded as the automobile speeds off.

The leading meets are conducted by associations belonging to the Grand Circuit, founded in 1873. Its membership varies frequently; by the 1970s 22 tracks belonged. Any track electing to sponsor a Grand Circuit harness meet becomes a member and is represented on the Board of Stewards, which decides meet dates and establishes general regulations.

In states that sanction pari-mutuel betting, the state harness-racing commissions cooperate with the USTA; however, the laws of each state govern the betting and the general conduct of the sport.


Harness racing as an organized activity is an American innovation dating from the early 19th century. In the early races, the horses usually carried riders and did not draw vehicles. Sulkies came into use in the 1830s and '40s. The first known speed record was an unofficial mark set in 1806 by the American trotter Yankee, 2 min 59 sec for one mile under saddle. Later better breeding and training methods led to much faster performances, notably the performance of the trotter Lady Suffolk in 1845, 2 min 29.5 sec for the mile.

During the first half of the 19th century, most of the fast American horses were descendants of Messenger, an English thoroughbred brought to the U.S. in 1788. Hambletonian, descended from Messenger and foaled in 1849, became the greatest stud horse in harness-racing history. The Hambletonian Stakes, the most important of all harness-racing stake events for trotters, was named for the horse. This event, first held at Syracuse, N.Y., in 1926, was run at Goshen, N.Y., 1930-42; at Yonkers, N.Y., in 1943; at Goshen again, 1944-56; at Du Quoin, Ill., 1957-80; and from 1981 at Meadowlands Race Track in East Rutherford, N.J.

Goldsmith Maid is considered the most remarkable trotting horse of that early era. She raced only once before the age of 8, but after that she set many records. She made her fastest time at the age of 19 and was still racing a year later. Goldsmith Maid earned a total of $364,200, a world record at the time. One of the greatest pacers of all times was Dan Patch. Foaled in 1896, he was retired in 1909, never having lost a race. He broke the 2-min mile record 30 times in his career.

Following the introduction of night racing in 1940 at Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, N.Y., harness racing enjoyed a nationwide increase in popularity. Crowds attending races grew very large, especially at night meets, and many new tracks were built.

The USTA, organized in 1938, was established primarily to standardize the sport. The chief functions of the association are to improve the breed of horses used in harness racing, to establish rules for the conduct of the sport, and to sanction race meetings and issue licenses to track officials, owners, and drivers. The USTA, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, had 49,650 members in 1987. The association has a board of directors consisting of several members from each of its 11 regional districts in the U.S. and Canada, and each district also has its own board of directors. The USTA puts out an official publication, The Yearbook, which contains statistics on all phases of harness racing and breeding, including a roster of all racers who have been timed in 2 min 5 sec or less for the mile.

In 1951 the Museum and Hall of Fame of the Trotter was established at Goshen. Records of famous events in harness racing are kept there, and memorabilia are on display in an original stable setting depicting the history of the sport.

Three of the major stake races in each division have been designated triple-crown events, as in flat racing. By winning all three events, a horse becomes the holder of the triple crown. In trotting, the triple-crown events are the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Futurity, held at Lexington, Ky., and the Yonkers Futurity, held at Yonkers. In pacing, the three events are the Little Brown Jug at Delaware, Ohio, the Messenger Stakes at Rosecroft Raceway in Oxonhill, Md., and the Cane Pace at Yonkers Raceway. In 1968, for the first time, the triple crown was won in both divisions. Nevele Pride, trained and driven by Stanley Dancer (1927- ), won the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Futurity, and the Yonkers Futurity for the trotting triple crown. Rum Customer, driven by Billy Haughton (1923-86), won the Little Brown Jug, the Messenger Stakes, and the Cane Pace for the pacing triple crown.

Nevele Pride was retired in 1969 and sold for breeding purposes to a syndicate for $3 million, a record price for harness racers. The 4-year-old colt held ten world records. The most important of these was the mark of 1 min 544/5 sec for a race over a one-mile track. In setting this record in August 1969, Nevele Pride bettered the record, set by Greyhound, that had stood for 31 years. In October 1980 the pacer Niatross set a new record by completing a mile in 1 min 491/5 sec.

For further information on this topic, see the Bibliography, section 812. Horse racing.