Once a year, I have to eat this stuff - corn dogs, greasy fries with malt vinegar and too much salt, and lemonade shake-ups that should really be called "sugar water with lemon flavoring." Tastes great, but oh, so sick-making. Or, was it the ice cream in the waffle cone that did me in?
Anyway, it was now time for the main event - harness racing. If you are not familiar with this east coast and midwest style of horse racing, you really should check it out. Horses called Standardbreds are hitched to small carts called sulkies and pull men, sometimes old men and rarely women, called drivers around a small dirt track. The standard distance of a harness race is 1 mile. At the Clermont County fair, this means two laps around the half-mile oval.
Just like other county fair traditions, harness racing grew out of the farmer's desire to compete with his neighbor, to see whose horse and buggy was the fastest. No wonder county fairs still run harness racing to this day. As a child, the harness racing was always my favorite part of every county fair we went to, and I got pretty good at picking winners.
In the old days, horses used to have to run multiple heats to determine the winner, with the top placing horses of two or three races competing against each other for their share of the purse. Now each race is run independently of the next. Fillies (young female horses) and colts (young males) are run in separate races, for the most part, and Sunday was ladies' day at the track.
The first thing you need to know about harness racing is that the horses don't start in a set of stalls, like you see on TV when the Thoroughbreds run the Kentucky Derby. Instead, they take a running start, using a truck with folding gates attached to the rear to keep them in line.
The drivers try to get their horses' noses as close to the gate as possible without touching in order to start in front, but there is no such thing as a false start. If you are too far back when the gates swing away and the truck speeds on ahead, you just have to make up lost ground.
The next important piece of information is the two types of runners. Trotters trot. When they run, they have the opposite legs off the ground at the same time. Left rear and right fore, then right rear and left fore, alternating. This is a natural gait for the horse, and is very balanced.Some young trotters wear a modified type of leg hobbles while in training.
Whether your horse paces or trots, it must maintain that gait for the entire mile of the race. If a horse "breaks" and begins to gallop, the driver must pull over to the side, slow down and get his horse back under control before racing on. Bettors groan when their pick breaks at the start of the race.
a pacing filly in hobbles
Pacers pace. They run with the legs on the same side of the body off the ground. Left front and rear, then right front and rear, back and forth. This is an unnatural gait for a horse, and looks a little odd as she wobbles from side to side, but is faster than a trot. Pacers usually wear pacing hobbles to help keep their leg movements coordinated, although there are some natural pacers that run "free-legged."
a pacing filly in hobbles
Horses and drivers wear all sorts of equipment for the race. Horses may wear blinders to keep them from being distracted by things behind them, like this filly, who is also wearing pacing hobbles. The number cloth is her position at the start of the race, in this case, number 1, along the rail, and the color indicates which race she is in.
The color of the silks (racing clothes) belongs to the driver, not the horse, and drivers wear the same colors for the entire day of racing, rather than changing for each race, as with Thoroughbreds. Many drivers are also the owner and trainer of the horse, and are wearing their own colors. Drivers wear goggles and safety helmets, but there is nothing holding them onto the sulky. If they fall off that tiny seat under thundering hooves, they could be in big trouble.
The horses race quite closely sometimes, and if they crowd the rail or each other, the sulky wheels can get caught, flipping the cart and dumping the driver.
This trotting filly has won her race, thanks in part to her driver, Steven Carter, who won all 5 of the races he was in on Sunday.
Out of 12 races, I picked 6 winners, 1 place (second), 2 shows (third) and had 3 "also-rans." Pretty good for being out of practice.