The racing of horses in harness dates back to ancient times,
its origins among the prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia who first
domesticated the horse about 4500 BC. For thousands of years, horse racing
flourished as the sport of kings and the nobility. but the sport
virtually disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire and their chariot
racings in the Coliseum.
Harness racing in America became a
popular rural pastime by the end of the 18th century where racing
trotting horses over country roads became a popular rural pastime.
The first tracks for harness racing were constructed in the first
decade of the 19th century, and by 1825 harness racing was an
institution at hundreds of country fairs across the nation.
Modern racing, however, exists primarily
because it is a major venue for legalized gambling.
The popularity of harness racing came
with the development of the
Standardbred, a horse bred specifically for racing under harness. The
founding sire of all Standardbreds is an English Thoroughbred named
Messenger, who was brought to the United States in 1788. Messenger was
bred to both pure
Thoroughbred and mixed breed mares, and his
descendants were rebred until these matings produced a new breed with
endurance, temperament, and anatomy uniquely suited to racing under
harness. This new breed was called the Standardbred, after the
practice of basing all harness-racing speed records on the "standard"
distance of one mile.
Harness racing reached the early zenith of its popularity in the
late 1800s, with the establishment of a Grand Circuit of major fairs.
The sport sharply declined in popularity after 1900, as the automobile
replaced the horse and the United States became more urbanized. In
1940, however, Roosevelt Raceway in New York introduced harness racing
under the lights with pari-mutuel betting. This innovation sparked a
rebirth of harness racing, and today its number of tracks and number
of annual races exceed those of Thoroughbred racing. The sport is also
popular in most European countries, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and
The "standard" referred to a 2:30 minute mark under which a horse
had to trot or pace one mile. Thoroughbred, Morgan, and Narragansett
Pacer blood were combined to achieve the Standardbred. Messenger, a
grey Thoroughbred imported in 1788 from England, was the
Standardbred's foundation sire.
A great-grandson of Messenger, this horse sired more than 1,300
foals that dominated harness racing after the Civil War.
Foaled in 1896, Dan Patch was unbeaten in three racing seasons. The
pacer's 1:55 ¼ mile record, set in 1906 as a nine year old, lasted
for 32 years.
The Difference Between a Trotter and Pacer
A trotter moves its legs diagonally, right front and left hind,
then left front and right hind striking the ground simultaneously. A
pacer moves its legs laterally, right front and right hind, then left
front and left hind striking the ground simultaneously.
- Plow Reining
The young Standardbred is first taught to accept and respond to
harness and reins. The trainer walks behind, as if directing a plow.
- Training Cart
The first vehicle is a training cart, heavier than the sulky which
the Standardbred will ultimately pull.
- Morning Workout
Whether at a farm or at a track, horses are regularly exercised to
develop and maintain speed and condition.
A check rein and head pole keep a trotter's head in position, while
blinkers focus attention straight ahead. Although most pacer's wear
leg hopples to keep them on gait, some race "free-legged."
- Sulkies - Weighing approximately forty pounds, lighter but more stable
bicycle-type sulkies replaced ones with higher wheels, reducing wind
resistance and increasing speed.
Size, weight, and age are not restrictive factors for drivers.
Great skill is needed to guide the horse and sulky in the tight
quarters of a high speed race. Some drivers are also trainers and some
are even owners, a unique "across the board" involvement in all
aspects of harness racing competition.
From the time the mobile starting gate accelerates away to the
moment that the winning horse crosses the finish line, a harness race
is a mile of speed and strategy. A gate mounted on the back of a car
allows all the horses to start at speed and on stride. Once it crosses
the starting line, the car accelerates out of the way.
Worldwide Harness Racing
- On Snow
Standardbred racing on snow in Switzerland is part of the winter
- Under Saddle
Riders, not drivers, handle the reins in an unusual format of
Standardbred racing in France.
- On Turf
Harness horses race on grass surfaces in many countries of the
- On Sand
Pounding along a beach in Spain, Standardbreds race effectively on a
The Hambletonian is the first, and most prestigious event in the
United States Trotting Triple Crown races. The Hambletonian is
a United States harness racing event held annually for three-year-old
trotting standardbreds. The race is named for the famous trotting
horse, Hambletonian 10 (1849-1876), from whose four sons, the lineage
of virtually all American standardbred race horses can be traced. It
is the most coveted North American race for trotters; among races for
pacers, only the Little Brown Jug is as prestigious.
Held at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, this race for three-year-old
trotters is one of America's classic harness races.
The introduction of klieg lights in 1940 to harness tracks
permitted night racing and popularized the sport in metropolitan