Harness racing is a fast paced, exciting and dynamic sport, but it can be a little confusing if you haven’t seen it before, or have only seen Thoroughbred racing. Like most races, the first horse to cross the finish line wins, and everyone has to follow the rules or face being penalized. Here’s the basics you need to know to be ready to watch your first harness race!
1. Harness Racing in North America is Standardbreds only.
The Standardbred name origin comes from the ability of the horse to pace or trot a mile under a ‘Standard’ amount of time in order to be registered in the official breed registry. These horses were the foundation of what the breed is today. That is to say, the horse is bred to meet this timed standard aka Standardbred. While also bred for speed, Standardbreds tend to be more densely built than their Thoroughbred cousins.
2. Standardbreds race at the Trot or the Pace.
Standardbreds race in one of two gaits. Either pacing or trotting. Typically, Standardbreds are bred to be either pacers or trotters, but there are some who can race in both gaits. The ability to pace is genetic and controlled by the ‘gait keeper’ gene. Read more about it – and learn what pacing is – here.
3. Most races are 1 mile long.
Some traditions just can’t be beat! The same is true for harness racing as the same distance originally used years ago, is still used today. Unlike thoroughbred races, majority of harness races are the same length – 1 mile. Occasionally, you’ll see races that are anywhere from 11/16ths of a mile, to 1 ¼ miles just to change things up, or for special events. But the go to distance, and the distance you’ll see on most race cards is 1 mile.
4. The horses begin the race behind a moving starting gate.
Harness Races start at speed behind a mobile starting gate. The horses line up being the gate attached to a starting gate vehicle, and when they reach the starting pole the vehicle pulls away, the arms of the gate fold in, and the race begins! You can see the start of a Harness race here.
5. These horses are fast!
These horses are FAST. The average speed during a race ranges from 25-30 mph (40-48 km/hr) depending on the level of horses competing. However, at the start of the race, and coming down the home stretch these speeds can spike to over 35 mph (56 km/hr) . The world record is held by Always B Miki who paced a mile in 1:46, an average speed of approximately 34 mph (54.7 km/hr). That’s about 1.5 times faster than Usain Bolt, but sustained over an entire mile, not just 100m.
6. The horses race pulling a Sulky.
The sulky, more commonly known as a racebike, is a two wheel chart pulled by the horse during a race. It’s very lightweight and seats the driver very closely behind the horse. It is designed specifically for racing and built to create the least amount of drag possible. You can read more about Sulky’s and their origin here.
7. Trainers sometimes drive their own horses during a race.
Unlike Thoroughbred racing, many trainers also drive the horses they train during races. It’s not uncommon for them to be part (or sole) owners of the horses too! Those who do not drive their own horses when they race use what’s called a ‘catch driver’, who drives the horse just for that race. Some drivers make careers out of being catch drivers, whereas some prefer to just drive their own horses.
8. Horses can race from ages 2 – 15 years old.
Horses starting prepping for the race world being handled by people at an early age. Stake races start for horses during their 2 yr old year, and horses are allowed to race until they are 15 years old before they are required to retire. Many horses go on to compete into their early teens, with some continuing to break their own track records! (There are exceptions to this rule.)
9. The drivers wear their own colour and design specific outfits.
In horse racing the person directing the horse wears ‘silks’ or ‘colours’ that makes them easily identifiable. Unlike in flat racing where jockeys wear coloured jackets representing the owner of the horse they’re riding – Harness Racing drivers wear their own colours! Their outfits are often colourful, and are registered in a national database so no two outfits are the same. This outfit is worn every time they race regardless of if they’re driving their own horse or someone else’s.
10. It takes an army.
Getting a horse ready to race takes endless hours of round the clock care and training. It wouldn’t be possible without the trainers, drivers, grooms, owners, veterinarians and race officials all making sure the horses best interest is always put first. They are the members of a resilient, hardworking community that often make sacrifices in their own lives to make sure the horses are happy. The people of the harness racing industry are some of the most interesting people you will ever meet! When they’re not busy racing, most are more than happy to answer any questions you have, and talk all about their favourite athletes – their horses! Read more about the people of horse racing here.
Go all in or keep it simple! You don’t have to spend money to enjoy horse racing. You can cheer for your favourite colour, or you can do your homework, study the racelines and place your bets. Plus, harness horses race rain or shine (and sometimes snow) so you can watch harness racing year round! There’s something for everyone in harness racing, and whether you’re new to the sport or a seasoned pro, you can all enjoy a day at the races!
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