Harness Racing: A Taste Worth Acquiring

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

Harness racing is indeed, an acquired taste. When somebody sees it for the first time, they likely don’t get it. They see horses pulling men in carts and simply, they just don’t understand what they’re seeing. Thoroughbred racing, for most is easy. They see a small person “riding” a horse, something that they themselves might have done—or still do—in their lifetimes. When they see the driver pulling back and forth and the wheels rolling along, they might use words like silly or odd to describe it.

It’s an acquired taste for sure, but once it is acquired, it will grow on you. There is plenty of harness racing to go round, too. Each day, there could be 25 tracks up and running, ready to take your bet, ready for you to check them out. With so many races, it can be tough to not only acquire, but to develop and maintain that taste.

For some, it’s the lure of the big money race, like the $1 million Hambletonian. For others, it’s the season ending Breeders Crown, a series of 12 championship races over two days at one venue. From sire stakes to free-for-alls, there is something for everyone.

On Saturday, September 23, there were the three races that caught my eye and reaffirmed why I like the sport of harness racing. They were non-descript events, but again, to me, very fulfilling.

Let’s start with Freehold Raceway, the nation’s oldest racetrack with roots going back to 1853. It’s a half-mile track with no casino that races about 95 days per year, mostly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons. The purses and crowds are small, and it sits in the shadows of the Big M—the Meadowlands.

On this particular day, the $35,000 Charles Smith Memorial for 3-year-old trotters was the feature race.   It only attracted a field of four, but the four that ran were all solid colts.

The pace was quick with Southwind Woody going to the front and leading at every panel. The others didn’t sit back; they tried to catch Woody, but in the end, he prevailed and set a track record for 3-year old trotters with an impressive 1:55.2 clocking. That time won’t win the Hambletonian, or any other major trot in America, but the effort was great not only for him, but for the other horses.   To watch was to appreciate.

The second example came from Yonkers Raceway. Each week, they have the Open Handicaps for pacers and for trotters and most of time; the same horses compete against one another. In yesterday’s Open Trot, Dia Monde led from start to finish. Most of the time, I find that boring. Who doesn’t root for back and forth action and exciting stretch runs? But, in this case, it was a pure pleasure to see Dia Monde run hard, stopping the clock in 1:54.2, a great time for a trot on a half-mile track.

The Open Pace topped it all. In that race, Mister Daytona set the early hard pace, but in the end, it was The Real One, who spent most of the race in fifth place, rallying to take the win in a scintillating time of 1:50.3. The race had everything—fast pace, horses taking runs and then a stirring stretch drive. Since moving the finish line back 100 feet, the racing has gotten better at the Hilltop Oval. Drivers are making moves earlier, the racing on the second lap has improved greatly and the finishes are not only better, but more exciting. It’s still tough to start from the eight post and win, but it’s hard to do that at most half-mile tracks, but for some reason Yonkers gets picked on the most for it.

Southwind Woody, Dia Monde and The Real One. Three horses, two tracks, three different races. They all gave efforts, were pushed and in the end, provided solid entertainment to those who watched.

Harness racing is a taste that most people will never acquire. That is unfortunate, because it’s a taste worth experiencing. The races were crisp, clean and well run, not only by the winners, but the others as well.

And, the best thing is that we will see all three race again soon, because in harness racing, the horses run and run often which is only good for the sport.

And, that suits my taste just fine.

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