About Harness Racing

A brief history of Harness Racing

There are various opinions as to how Harness Racing began – folk racing their horses and traps home from church, trotting horses under saddle carrying the post all over the country and being raced by their owners etc.

Racing is thought to have begun in the mid 1700′s, the earliest recorded race being on Newmarket Heath on 29th August 1750. The Earl of March and the Earl of Eglintowne bet 1,000 guineas that four horses could pull a four wheeled chaise carrying one person 19 miles in an under an hour. A century and a half later, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales drove a trotter on the old Lanark racecourse in Scotland.

Many ‘match’ races used to take place between two horses, and also betting on horses trotting a set distance inside a certain time, some of the more notable recorded ones being:- In 1800 Phenomena, a brown mare 14.3hh, trotted 17 miles on the road in 56 minutes, when she was 12 years old. Some questioned the accuracy of the timing so she repeated the feat in three minutes less! She also trotted 19 miles in an hour, and at the age of 23, she still trotted 9 miles in 28.5 minutes. Creeping Sally was only 14 hands and blind, but she was backed to cover 50 miles of public road within 5 hours, trotting in harness. Her blindness probably proved an advantage that day, as there was a thick fog at Shoreditch and for all of the 25 miles out on the Harlow road. She turned round and headed back to London in 16 minutes under the stipulated time, with no signs of distress.

In 1839, two horses which were driven in tandem trotting 45 miles of road in 2 hours 55.5 minutes, were Tommy and Gustavus, a 24 year old. Both horses had won individual match races. By driving this pair backwards and forwards over a measured five mile stretch of road between Hampton and Sunbury, Mr Burke of Hereford won £100 for completing inside 3 hours. Lady was a trotting mare from Birmingham born in 1828 by Mr Richard Taylor from the noted horse Matchless out of Cheshire Cheese Lass. She was less than 15 hands but her first match was won against a 16hh horse, between Litchfield and Burton on 23/11/1832. She won easily passing him at the distance of 5 miles after giving him a mile start. On 13/5/1834 she trotted 17 miles in 55 minutes, carrying 12 stone.

The main foundation sire of American Harness Racing stock was a grey English thoroughbred called Messenger, and he was exported to America in 1788. His career as a stallion lasted 20 years, and today nearly all of America’s Standardbreds can be traced directly back to one of Messenger’s great grandsons, Hambletonian. The name Standardbred derives from the early American trotters who were required to reach a set standard of 2 minutes 30 seconds for a mile, in order to gain breed recognition. As far back as 1800, many top class American Standardbreds have stopped in Britain on their way to Australia, and British breeders have benefited from them resting here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can any horse compete in Harness Racing?

No, only registered Standardbreds can compete. Standardbreds look similar to thoroughbred horses but are tougher and usually have calmer temperaments. Their breeding lines started out with thoroughbreds then branched out in a similar way to the Hackney breed, but to maximise the trotting and pacing speed. Standardbreds are so called because in 1879 the American Trotting Register considered a fair ‘Standard’ for a mile was 2 minutes 30 seconds. Today the British mile record is held by Doonbeg in a time of 1m 53.7 secs.

What is the difference between a ‘Pacer’ and a ‘Trotter’?

A Trotter has the normal diagonal trot of other horses. A pacer has an extra lateral gait where it moves the legs on each side of his body forward and back at the same time. As an example, camels walk like this, or you may remember ‘Spotty Dog’ in ‘The Woodentops’!

Pacing is a very smooth gait compared to trotting, rather like ice skating is to running, and pacers are up to three seconds a mile faster than trotters.

Why do Pacers wear straps on their legs?

Pacers wear ‘hopples’ which guide them to their optimum stride length at speed, and help to prevent them ‘breaking’.

What causes a horse to break stride and start galloping?

Several factors can cause breaks: a horse may be going too fast to maintain its gait; it may be tired; it may have been interfered with; it may have incorrectly adjusted hopples, it may be lame.

How fast is a Harness Horse?

Races are usually contested at speeds averaging 25 miles per hour. When leaving the starting gate, speeds of up to 30 miles per hour are achieved by top horses.

Why do drivers sometimes appear to hold their horses back?

A driver must use his or her skill & experience to judge the ability of the horse to run the required distance of the race. If a driver believes his horse can run a mile rate of 2:05 and no more, a driver may hold back to give the horse a ‘breather’ and retain enough energy for a fast sprint to the finish. Let’s face it, if Schumacher just kept his foot to the floor all the way round Monza he’d blow his engine before he reached the first pit stop!!

Are there age limits for harness racing horses?

A horse cannot race until it reaches two years of age. Some horses keep racing until their early teens.

Does drivers weight make a difference in driving?

For years the experts have been saying no, except under muddy conditions. Observers have noticed, however, that some of the sports leading drivers have tended to be on the small and light side.

How often does a horse race?

Once a week is considered the ideal, although this is at the discretion of the horse’s owners and/or trainer and many horses can race twice in a week without problems. The number of races available for a particular class can also determine how many starts a horse can have. Most horses race for a certain time and then have a short break from racing (which is called a spell) before resuming.

Are there age or gender restrictions?

A provisional driver can obtain a licence at 15 years of age. Men and women make equally good drivers. The minimum age limit for owning and/or training a horse is 18.

Is a driver permitted to bet in a race in which he/she is driving?

Yes, but only his/her horse and with the permission of the owner. A driver may bet in any other race.

Do favourites win most races?

The race is settled on the track, not by the pre-race opinioned bettors. Favourites, however, win roughly 30-40% of the time.

Is it better for a horse to race along the rail?

Definitely. Mathematics have figured that a horse travelling 5 feet from the rail (one horse from the fence) will travel 62 feet further than the horse at the rail over one mile on a half mile track.

How does the handicapping system work?

Young or inexperienced horses start as Grade 0 or maidens; after one win they become a Grade 1 and after the amount of money won determines the horses position between Grade 1 and Grade 12.

What is a free for all?

A Free For All is normally a race for top class horses where each competitor starts on a level mark. The horses in these races draw for position.

Is driving dangerous?

A certain amount of danger is inherent in any activity that combines great speed and split second decision making.

Harness Racing contains both of those elements and safety precautions must be taken to minimise risks. e.g. Helmets and body protectors must be worn by drivers, wheels must have safety disks covering the spokes, and most of BHRC rules have been formulated with safety in mind.

Why do some horses have their legs bandaged?

For the same reason that human athletes frequently wear tape and other bandages to help support their legs and to provide protection.

What is the coloured roll worn on the head of some horses?

That’s a shadow roll, a large sheepskin type roll worn across the face, just below the eyes. It cuts off the horse’s view of the track so that he won’t shy at shadows, pieces of paper or other objects.

How long does it take to train a young horse?

A youngster usually has about nine months of schooling and serious training before making his first start. An older horse will run into shape with three or four months under his harness.

How much does a Sulky weigh?

The modern sulky normally weighs around 40lbs. A jog cart used in training the horse, weighs about 60lbs.

What is the pole alongside some horses heads?

It’s called a head pole and it is used to prevent a horse from turning it’s head to the opposite side which the pole is on. Some horses have a tendency to turn their heads while racing around the turns.

Do drivers always wear the same colours?

All colours must be registered with the BHRC. Drivers wear either their own colours or those belonging to the owner of the horse.

How many horses earn money in a race?

Usually, the majority of the stake money in a race is won by the first three or four placed horses, depending on the importance of the race.

Why is a horse warmed up?

Harness horses are one of the world’s most finely conditioned competitors, and, just as a human track star loosens his muscles with a preliminary activity, so too does a trotter or a pacer.

Who picks a winner in a close race?

The judges, relying on a photo finish camera at all tracks where betting is conducted. All races are videoed, and the film is stopped when the first horse’s nose reaches the finish line. If the judges cannot split the two horses then a dead heat is announced.

Are races supervised?

Yes! Races are supervised by a number of ‘Stewards’ who are responsible for the running of all events. They are assisted in their duties by video (as above) to record races and provide playbacks. This system enables the industry to maintain integrity in the sport.