The story of Standardbred racing and its place in North American culture can best aptly be described as fascinating.
Its inception started from the most humble beginnings. After a long day of work simple farmers, traders, and the like, found pleasure and often times, excitement, in testing the speed of their horse and buggies against one another. It was here, along these roughly hewn dirt paths that the first faint renderings of a track began to take form. As a growing population began to take notice of such spectacles, the seed of what was to become harness racing in its present form, eventually blossomed.
Starting in Massachusetts, rules, regulations, and more importantly, fully funded tracks began to take form. Robert Temple in his book entitled, The History of Harness Racing in New England, clearly shows how quickly these new tracks began to be built. He states,
"There was the Brockton Fairgrounds; Franklin Park, Saugus; Mystic Park, South Medford; Old Cambridge Park, North Cambridge; Wyoma Park, Linn; The Nantucket Racing Fairgrounds off the Cape Cod coast; and three on Cape Cod: Riverside Park in West Dennis, The Barnstable County Fair and another in Harwhich Port."
All of these tracks were built roughly within the same time period from the late 1890's to the early 1900's.
During this time period harness racing had reached the pinnacle. With the coming of horses such as Dan Patch, newspapers and radio broadcasts began to pick up the sport.
On September 8, 1906, the day Dan Patch set the record for a mile pace of 1:55, a crowd of 93,000 people lined the Minnesota State Fairgrounds track to witness the feat. A crowd of 93,000 in 1906 just to see a horse race was remarkable. The American public was invested. Harness racing was easily the most popular sport in the United States. At the time, it seemed its growth would continue to spring forth on an inevitable path of fruition. Unfortunately however, as people inside the business know today, it has followed a path of opposite fortunes. The question is, why?
The answer lies in the image of harness racing. People within the business already know the dark cloud drifting above the sport is a negative perception and negative press so a reiteration of these points would be redundant and unnecessary. What needs to be discussed is how and why this image was created. Where did it come from? And how do we change it?
The inherent nature of horse racing has been to compare the two different variations against one another. After harness racing's decline and the arise of Thoroughbreds, it seems Standardbred racing has been designated to carry the burden of being the "little brother," always trying to surpass the more successful business but never being able to do so. This idea that harness racing just isn't as good as Thoroughbred racing has become a normal social structure in American culture. Ultimately, this is where the problem has arisen.
An article that appeared in a 1980 Sports Illustrated written by Douglas A. Looney, clearly demonstrates this. The article was written when the Meadowlands decided to hold a Standardbred race for the largest purse to date; a sum of $2 million. This should have been lauded as a great achievement for a sport based around purse money. They were racing for millions of dollars, but instead of applauding such efforts, people within the racing community were questioning whether it was a good idea or not based on what the Thoroughbreds were racing for.
In the article Looney quotes a man named Thurman Downing, owner of one of the horses within the race, who had just won a sum of over $200,000, he stated, "If this had been a thoroughbred race, it would have been a huge deal." One can only ascertain from these words that the publicity surrounding the event of such magnitude was wholly unsuccessful. And it must have been. As Thoroughbred races began to have similar big payouts, not a word of doubt was spoken from within the community. Standardbred racing has been carrying an inferiority complex over the course of its decline.
This is nonsense. First, the image of harness racing from its inception should be far and away a positive for the sport. It is one of the truest American pastimes in existence. It was created by hardworking commoners. During the early years Thoroughbred racing was thought to be the sport of the upper-class British rich folk. The very same people the ancestors of these early settlers fought to emancipate themselves from. Standardbred racing should be held up there with baseball, Budweiser and Chevrolet as far as being truly American in nature. And it should be advertised as such.
Instead of trying to compete with Thoroughbred racing, harness racing should separate themselves from being included in the general conversation of racing and show people how truly American it is and how unique the racing format is.
Which leads into the second point; the two types of racing are completely different and should be advertised as such. It is far and away much more difficult to train a trotter or pacer as compared to a straight runner. To get a horse and keep it on a specific gait while driving them at top speed around a track while maneuvering these large animals through narrow alleyways down the stretch takes much more skill and finesse compared to that of just running down the stretch as the field separates itself from one another.
Trainers and drivers in Standardbred racing do not get the credit they deserve and because they do not, the public is often times made very unaware of their efforts on a daily basis. The skill and knowledge needed to train a harness racer should somehow be integrated into the sport more, showing the public the intricacies of the sport. Even the equipment itself and how a trainer outfits their horse are a science, an art, and a true measure of the care and time it takes to succeed at the sport.
The techniques as well as the differences between a trotter, pacer and a runner could possibly be shown in the programs for sale across the United States. The general population often times appreciates skill and hard work and they need to know how much effort and care goes into getting these horses to the track.
The last point deals with how the public views the races themselves. One gets the sense that a large portion of the population believes harness racing to be fixed. Unfortunately, in some instances it can be; but not always. It is easy to understand how a person who is unaware of the technique that drivers use when lining up on the gate, maneuvering after the start, and spacing coming down the stretch can be misinterpreted as throwing a race or blocking the favorite horse.
To say this does not go on at all would be incorrect. But, can these maneuvers also be misinterpreted? Can it be that it takes a lot of patience and skill to move these large animals through tight spaces in order to drive for a win and avoid injury and a crash? Yes. And that is what Standardbred racing should advertise; skill and technique. This form of racing is not for the uneducated layman and while this has been used as a source of negativity, within every problem is the solution.
If the public is made aware of the intricacies of the sport, more people will begin to take interest. Not only that, but the population will become invested in the trainers and drivers, not just the horses. Create a new niche for harness racing as a skill oriented form of racing instead of just a straight runner’s race where just the speed of the horse is tested against another. Now to say that it doesn’t take any skill to train and ride a Thoroughbred would obviously be incorrect, but that is not the point.
The point is…it is not Thoroughbred racing. It is a sport unique of its own.
One wouldn't compare baseball with cricket, so why is there a need to compare Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds. Separate the two and create a new image for harness racing out of its deeply seeded inherent positives; positives that flow through the sport like fresh water spilling forth from a mountain spring. Just like the spring water, the inception of harness racing, and its humblest of beginnings, is pure.
This is one of the original American sports created by the common people. And it encompasses all of the characteristics the general population covets; skill, technique, hard work, and passion.
How could anyone not like that?
By DJ Kazmaier, for Harnesslink.com
Daniel J. Kazmaier is the son of trainer/driver Dan Kazmaier, a noted east coast horseman and current Presiding Judge in Delaware. DJ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.