Why go to harness races?
July 4, 2011 5:42 AM   Subscribe

Who goes to harness racing (a.k.a. horse buggies, trotters), and why? A friend compared it to speed walking, lots of activity but still pretty darned slow. Is it simply something else to bet on or is there something wonderful or at least interesting about the sport that I'm missing?

I have to put myself in the position of people who enjoy this sport and want to understand what they get out of it--see, feel. Is it entertaining in its own way? How? Minus the speed of thoroughbreds, what's the appeal? Does it remind people of ancient Rome? Is it just so unusual that there's an enjoyable weird factor?
ANY light you can shed would be greatly appreciated.
posted by brynnwood to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There is gambling involved. For a substantial group of people, this is all it takes to make any activity interesting.
posted by jbickers at 5:44 AM on July 4, 2011

Almost exclusively gamblers, isn't it? I can't remember ever meeting anyone remotely interested in any variety of horse racing who wasn't also a chronic punter.
posted by chmmr at 5:45 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I enjoy all kinds of horse racing. Mostly because I enjoy watching pretty horses. In this specific instance - it's unusual, and I just find it entertaining. Nailing down why is pretty hard, I just do you know?

YMMV, especially as I also enjoy darts and snooker.
posted by stillnocturnal at 6:05 AM on July 4, 2011

I can't remember ever meeting anyone remotely interested in any variety of horse racing who wasn't also a chronic punter.

The only horse racing I watch is the Kentucky Derby. I'm no gambler, but it's an excuse to wear funny hats and drink mint juleps. Perhaps harness racing has some accompanying pleasurable rituals?
posted by jon1270 at 6:06 AM on July 4, 2011

My family loves horse racing and has always been partial to harness racing. I think it is more of a family oriented sport and one doesn't have to be a tiny little jockey to participate - some of those drivers get pretty hefty!

It's probably like anything where people are attracted to a certain breed or animal for what it does or how it looks, and yes, the gambling is a factor too :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 6:18 AM on July 4, 2011

I don't watch horse races, but I watch all sorts of driving at horse shows, which is probably even more insipid under your criteria. There's absolutely something wonderful about watching horses go around in circles even if it isn't the pinnacle of athleticism (racing, dressage, or jumping). Experienced fans can pick up on a lot of interesting details and drama that a neophyte couldn't.
posted by acidic at 6:24 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Short answer: It's a slow paced horse race you can bet on.

Long answer: it's a really old format for horse racing, as you say, with a great deal of heritage. It takes a lot to train a horse to pace or trot, and it's a very difficult and dangerous task to race a gig behind a harness horse at full speed. In a race with more than about six entrants it's extremely hard to overtake or move through a crowd, so it takes a lot of strategic riding, while it also demands a great deal of stamina from horses and concentration from everyone involved. It also makes for longer races with fewer horses able simply to outclass their competition through brute speed or strength. The horse needs to be trained, and the rider needs to have a plan.

I grew up next to Harold Park in Sydney, NSW, now being redeveloped for housing. They had a racing schedule up until 2010 with the major race of the year being the Miracle Mile---here's the one from 1971, to give you some idea of the atmosphere. When I was a kid, my parents and I used to walk up the road to watch the end of it through the chicken wire (although by the 1980s, when I was there, it was declining a bit as a fashionable thing to know about).

I remember growing up there were horses stabled in the house across the road from where I lived that were walked in a park at 5am every morning. Clop, clop, clop. This in inner-city street of rows of terraces, walking distance from the centre of the city. You can still see people around where my parents live walking muzzled greyhounds, too dangerous and fast to ever look like pets.

Glebe right up to the 1970s-1980s was a very working-class place and had been since the mid-nineteenth century, and gambling/sport was an enormous part of life. Glebe was one of the inaugural rugby league teams, and it's straddled by the now defunct Harold Park and the still-in-use Wentworth Park where they race greyhounds. Pigeons were big in the late ninteenth century and early twentieth, but boxing, greyhounds and pacers were the big betting sports of the mid to late twentieth century. When there was a horse flu epidemic and horse movements were restricted throughout Australia in 2007, there were camel substitutes. Yes, it's about gambling, but it's also a communal source of entertainment.

Last year, after Harold Park's owners voted to close up and sell the site to developers, they had a last evening with a packed house. I was there, I wouldn't have missed it. The wikipedia sentence is a bit anodyne:
Other punters took home various other souvenirs from the 120 year old paceway.[1]
Read: "about twenty to thirty thousand people streamed onto the course after the last race and looted it, smashing up the signs, taking the advertisements, the fences, lights, even the sand".

I walked a lap of the course, and cried.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:47 AM on July 4, 2011 [48 favorites]

For the really top tier harness races (Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug) you'll see times of just under two minutes for one mile. For top tier flat racing (Kentucky Derby) times are just over two minutes for a mile and a quarter. So they're going slower but they're not exactly slow, and the time you spend watching the race is around the same. You really don't have time to get bored. Also, harness racing tends to have quicker post times (less time sitting around waiting for the next race to start), which is the boring part for a lot of people. And there's more skill needed, in order to keep the horse trotting/pacing instead of breaking into a gallop.

Although, if you're really a speed demon you should go watch quarter horse racing. Top times around 22 seconds for a quarter mile.
posted by anaelith at 7:10 AM on July 4, 2011

There is a harness racing track in Freehold, NJ. People in that area were brought up going to the track with their father. It is Freehold tradition.
posted by Flood at 7:49 AM on July 4, 2011

In Maryland, when I was growing up, it was the only horse-racing. And when I first went to the track with my older brother and his friends, I coldn't stop laughing when I first saw the rigs the horses were pulling, they were so unexpected -- but then the lyrics from "The Music Man" suddenly made sense:
Not a wholesome trottin race, no!
But a race where they sit down right on the horse!
posted by Rash at 9:12 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Long answer: it's a really old format for horse racing, as you say, with a great deal of heritage.

It's popular around here with people who are very into both horses and old-timey traditions here in Vermont. There was [maybe still is] a local library called the Vermont Trotting Library that was just about this type of sport. This book which I think you can read at least a good chunk of on Google books talks about the history of harness racing in New England.
posted by jessamyn at 10:24 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Harness racing has a very long tradition throughout the midwest, especially at county and state fairs.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:12 AM on July 4, 2011

FWIW: my great uncle trained and raced horses for both harness and traditional racing. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame for harness racing, and I still own the cufflinks he was given on that occasion. In his later years he was exclusively harness-oriented and felt it was a more genteel crowd and a more refined version of racing. I went with him many times to the track in Pompano Beach, FL and he would carefully explain to me the details of gait, stride and other esoterica that I wish I had listened to more. To hear him explain it, any horse could run, but only certain horses could run well in a harness and it was a combination of rhythm, pacing, breeding and training that created a great harness racer.

He died several years back and was buried in his silk colors and was one of my great friends as a child.

A story: He was training a new horse at a track in New York just off the East River, the colt went wild and threw him off, finally getting tangled in his harness and drowning in the river. He, as the trainer, was morally bound to make a phone call to the owner and tell him that his investment in a new horse was now kaput. He called the man, who may or may not have had crime connections, telling him his horse had died. The man was silent for a while and then said, "Well, it's not the first partner I've lost in the river." He told this story with a laugh and suggested that had it happened in traditional racing, he wouldn't have been around to tell it at all, but that even the crime bosses involved with harness racing were of a higher caliber than most.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:43 PM on July 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

I grew up around harness racing, because well, both my parents were jockeys and that's how they met. (And whattya know Jessamyn, this was in Vermont!) Harness jockeys don't have the diminutive stature of standardbred jockeys btw, my dad was 5'11 my mom 5'7 or so.

You want to know the appeal of harness horse racing? Do you ever see two people bet on which raindrop will hit the bottom of the window first? I would say 90% of the people at a harness race are in it for one reason, they want to win and enjoy the rush of victory. Back in the day it was a pretty cheap form of entertainment. A night at the races might set you back 10 bucks (in 1970s dollars) if you didn't win a thing. Some days you might come out ahead.

The horse track I used to run around as a kid has been shut down now for years, although the grandstand and the track are still there, slowly decaying. About 200 yards away from the track one of those super Walmarts opened last year. There's not much else in that town and it would be trite to suggest that people get the rush they need from Walmart instead of the track. (Cause Walmart doesn't sell lottery tickets but it would be ripe irony if they did). But we like the type of screens you can pick up for cheap nowadays, they are easy and satisfying and we can turn them off when we want to.

The horse track is loud and often crowded. People push and shove to get their bets in on time. There are good seats and bad seats. Raw emotions are on display: joy, anger, disappointment and elation. You have no idea how fast your heart can beat as the bell rings in the last lap and your horse is chasing down the lead, running three wide. Do the animals like to race? (Shrugs). I don't know. But the sharp sweat of a victorious horse is the most real thing you could ever smell. It's a beautiful smell.
posted by jeremias at 8:19 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Maryland, when I was growing up, [harness racing] was the only horse-racing.

Huh? Haven't they been running thoroughbreds at Pimlico since 1870?
posted by Jahaza at 1:39 PM on July 5, 2011

Possibly -- but that's way up in Baltimore, and my Maryland is the DC suburbs -- the track where I first saw these modern chariot races was at Laurel (which is now history, I believe).
posted by Rash at 2:19 PM on July 5, 2011

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