Day At The Track

Hooves pound, manes fly and the Cadillac rolls

01:34 PM 19 Jul 2019 NZST
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John Betts
John Betts, sitting backwards facing the horses, runs the starter's car for the harness races as his wife Sandy steers
Leila Navidi Photo

For John and Sandy Betts, the 1-mile trip to start Running Aces races is a joy ride. 

Three evenings a week, John and Sandy Betts climb into a 1995 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and go to work. They follow the same routine every night: Sandy takes the wheel, with her husband sitting behind her, telling her when to hit the gas.

Despite how it sounds, John Betts is no back-seat driver. The car that starts the harness races at Running Aces doesn’t even have a back seat; it has been replaced by a tiny desk and the swivel chair where John sits, facing the rear window. And there’s never any arguing about directions, since the route is always the same: two counterclockwise laps around the track, with a herd of Standardbred racehorses in hot pursuit.

Plenty of marriages wouldn’t survive three decades of driving in circles. For John and Sandy Betts, who have gotten more than 5,000 races off to a good start at Running Aces, every 1-mile business trip is a joy ride.

“We’ve been doing this for about 30 years, through most of our married life,” John Betts said. “It’s not an easy job. A lot of things can go wrong when you’ve got nine or 10 horses and nine or 10 drivers.

“But we both love horse racing, and we admire these animals. We really enjoy it.”

Sandy, who has been married to John for nearly 32 years, seconded that. “Every race is thrilling,” she said. “All these years, and it never gets old.”

The Bettses have been starting races at Running Aces since the track opened in 2008, just north of the I-35W/35E split, in Columbus. John, a third-generation horseman, worked in his family’s harness racing stable before switching to a different kind of horsepower. Sandy, a former trainer, has been in the driver’s seat for many of the 10,000-plus races started at her husband’s direction.

They take great pride in the elegant, cream-colored Fleetwoods that get the races rolling at Running Aces. The basic setup isn’t much different from the mobile starting gates introduced to harness racing in the mid-1940s.

The gate consists of two steel wings mounted on the back of the car, which span about 65 feet from end to end and have post positions marked for nine horses. When not in use, the wings fold in and hug the sides of the vehicle. The cars’ roofs have been removed and fitted with transparent bubbles to provide more headroom for the starter seated in the rear.

The Fleetwoods have high-powered Corvette engines and beefed-up suspensions to support the 1-ton gate. While many tracks now mount their gates on pickup trucks, the Bettses said the Cadillacs add some extra glamour to the races.

“When we drive past the crowd, you hear a comment every night, like ‘Sharp car!’ or ‘Wow!’ ” said John, whose mechanical expertise keeps the vehicles in top shape. “Sandy polishes these cars so they shine like a new penny, so they always look their best on race days. And we never forget we’re here to put on a show.”

John controls the initial speed with a throttle at the desk. The hoofbeats grow louder and louder as the horses move closer, traveling about 15 to 17 miles per hour. When all are lined up at their designated post positions — hooves pounding and manes flying, just feet away from John’s steady gaze — he says, “Go!” and Sandy speeds off and retracts the wings.

While the horses shift toward the rail to begin racing, Sandy keeps the car on the outside edge of the track and drives alongside the field so John can watch for any infractions during the race. The speedometer climbs as high as 38 miles per hour, accompanied by a multilayered soundtrack: horses snorting, drivers whistling, wheels squeaking, whips snapping.

“Most horses handle the gate fine, once they figure out it’s not going to eat them,” John said. “Some will come up and put their nose right on it. Others are harder to control. Your job is to make sure everyone has a fair start, and no horse has a bad experience.”

The Bettses’ teamwork and precision ensures most starts at Running Aces are smooth. John can spot potential problems — a driver struggling with his horse, or a slick spot on the track — before they happen. Sandy, just an arm’s length away, knows the exact path to take to keep the car steady and how to utilize its considerable power and size.

John Betts also serves as Running Aces’ track superintendent and director of facilities, so the couple lives in Minnesota year-round. When the races end in September, the Fleetwood goes into the garage.

They spend the winter in their own cars, a Jeep Cherokee and a Dodge Ram pickup. And when they’re sharing a vehicle off the track?

“Then, it’s different,” John said. “I’m the one that drives most of the time.’’

By Rachel Blount is a sports reporter for the Star Tribune who covers a variety of topics, including the Olympics, Wild, college sports and horse racing. She has written extensively about Minnesota's Olympic athletes and has covered pro and college hockey since joining the staff in 1990. 

Reprinted with permission of The Star Tribune

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