Yes, harness racing still exists…

The other day, DeadSplinter writer Constantine penned a great article about horse racing and why it’s still as dangerous – both to rider and to horse – as ever. Here’s a link to the article.

But what if I told you there was another type of horse racing – one that wasn’t as violent or as fast, yet just as compelling?

Welcome to the world of harness racing.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, harness racing looks like someone swapped out one of those horses with a surrey with the fringe on the top. But actually, these kinds of horses are trained to run in a specific and monitored gait – “pacers” move their left legs first, then their right legs; while “trotters” move their feet in a diagonal manner (left front, right rear at one step, right front left rear in the other). Horses must maintain this gait for one mile, from start to finish.

You want a crowded racing field in harness racing? Sorry, tracks top out at a maximum ten racers per race. And the races are one mile in length, which means that you could see the horses go around at least twice on a half-mile track.

Oh, here’s another cool thing. The horses approach the starting line via the use of a moving starting gate. Sort of like how NASCAR starts their races, in that everybody’s already up to speed.

Here’s an example of what to look for in a harness race. This one from last May at Saratoga Casino Hotel (originally named Saratoga Harness) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. has all the action.

Horses have to remain in stride – this is a race for trotters, which means that the horses must run in a specific gait. One horse broke stride, and his rider actually pulls him out of contention and the horse must finish the race dead last.

Meanwhile, the riders are guiding their stallions around the half-mile track, looking for the one opportunity to surge to the front of the race. Maybe they want to use another horse and create a draft run of two or three racers, or another horse in front might simply run out of strength and fade back. It’s a damn science here.

And we’re not talking lightning speed here. A good horse can win a harness race in less than two minutes, it’s not a full speed gallop from start to finish. This pace actually allows standardbred horses to continue racing for years and years, as opposed to thoroughbreds (the ones you see at Churchill Downs) who can only race for a few seasons before they head out to stud.

And there are actually TWO different “Triple Crown” races for harness horses; pacers can claim their Triple Crown by winning the Cane Pace at the Meadowlands; the Little Brown Jug at the Delaware County Fair; and the Messenger Stakes in Yonkers. The great pacer Niatross is one of only ten horses to win the Pacer Triple Crown.

Trotters, however, can earn their Triple Crown title with wins in the Hambletonian at the Meadowlands; the Yonkers Trot at Yonkers Raceway, and the Kentucky Futility in Lexington. Nine stallions have claimed Triple Crown status in those races, with the last one, Marion Marauder, doing it in 2016.

I should note that although this is a less speedy pace than in thoroughbred races, harness racing can be just as dangerous. I’ve seen horses get thrown when the bikes they pull lock wheels with other bikes; especially in cases where a horse breaks stride and has to go to the tail of the line. I’ve even seen a rider get catapulted out of their bike in instances of locked wheels. It’s not pretty.

But if you want to bet on harness horses, you can bet on them in the same way as you would a thoroughbred race. Daily Doubles, Superfectas, all of that. And in some tracks, you might actually get to hobnob and talk with the trainers and owners of the horses as they cheer on their charges to victory.

Oh, and one more thing. In many cases, after a harness horse’s racing career is over, they are highly desired as horsepower for Amish buggies. I mean, the horses already have a peaceful disposition to begin with, and they know not to gallop away.

Just something to think about if you want a diversion from thoroughbred racing.



  1. For a harness-racing adjacent story, do a search on Walter Case, Jr. He won over 11,000 races, then went off the rails and wound up in prison for stabbing his estranged wife. I once saw him win 5 times in one night.

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