Harness racing is another extremely popular, wide-reaching spectator sport within horse racing. It is also one of the few sports that allows men and women to compete together on an equal level. Apart from in the UK, harness racing is at least as popular, if not more popular, than flat horseracing. This is especially so in mainland Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Harness racing uses standardbred horses that are raced along with a driver. The driver sits in a two-wheeled buggy or a cart known as a sulky. The French have their own version of harness racing called ‘le trotter Francais’.
Historically, harness racing goes back to chariot races in Roman Times. While in more recent times it began when people started racing their horses and traps home from church or other events just for fun. Harness racing became a more formal sport in the 18th century when the first official race took place at Newmarket Heath on 29th August 1750. Records show that the Earl of March and the Earl of Eglintowne bet each other a 1000 guineas whether four horses could pull a person and cart a distance of nineteen miles in under an hour.
The main founding sire of North American harness racing was a grey thoroughbred called Messenger. The horse left England and arrived in North America in 1788. Nowadays, nearly all standardbreds in the United States can be traced back to Messenger through his great grandson Hambletonian. Hambletonian was around in the 1850s and is the most famous horse in harness racing.
Standardbred horses are able to trot or pace at speeds of at least 30 miles per hour. The name standardbred derives from the standardbred stud book of 1879 which states that only horses that are able to trot to a standard time of 2 minute 30 seconds per mile can be called standardbreds.
There are two different types of standardbred – the trotter and the pacer – and they are distinguishable by differences in their leg (or gait) movements. The trotter moves its front left and rear right legs together, while the pacer moves both legs on the same side together. Pacers wear straps on their legs to help regulate them at the optimum stride for their speed and they are usually faster than trotters. Pacers are more common in Europe, while trotters tend to be more popular in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Harness racing in the UK and Ireland is less popular than thoroughbred racing and it is traditionally considered a sport for amateurs. Originally, races took place on grass tracks but they are now held either on grass or on one of the four all-weather tracks in the UK at Amman Valley, Corbiewood, Tir Prince, and York.
In Wales, harness racing started in the late 1800s and nowadays it is especially popular in the rural, central areas. The first race meeting in Wales took place in 1884 at Llangadog in Carmarthenshire and, since then, races take place there every Easter Monday. In 1999, the meeting moved a short distance from Llangadog to Tairgwaith in the Amman Valley. Two of the four all-weather tracks in the UK are in Wales at Ammanford Valley and Tir Prince in Towyn.
Rules of Harness Racing
- Only registered standardbreds can compete.
- Horses must be over two years old.
- Both men and women can be drivers.
- Drivers must wear protective clothing including body protectors and a helmet.
- Drivers can apply for a provisional license when they are 15 years, but they must be 18 years to own or train a horse.
- Horses can be disqualified if they break into a gallop or canter.
- At the start of a race, horses line up behind a mobile gate which allows them to reach speeds of up to 30 mph before the race starts.
- When the race finishes, competitors are classified using the terms – short head, neck, length and number of lengths. These refer to the distance (in horse parts) between the winner and other horses in the race.
- A handicapping system may be used at the start of a race. This classifies horses according to age and experience. Horses start as maidens and each time they win a race they move up a scale to novice, improvers and intermediates (intermediates have won three races). When they have won four races, they begin open racing and have a rating of 0 on the gate. As they win more races, their rating increases and they start further and further back from the gate relative to the other horses in the race.
- Besides the handicapping systems, drivers may also draw lots for their starting position.
Tips and Techniques for those participating in Harness Racing
- Drivers need to be able to control of the gait of their horse
- Drivers are usually small and light like racing jockeys.
- Drivers need to know how to balance correctly in the sulky.
- Drivers need to be familiar with the speed and ability of the horse.
- If horses race close to the rail, they have an advantage because they cover a shorter distance.
Harness racing in competition
The most important harness races in the world take place in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.
Australia and New Zealand
One or the major harness racing events for horses from both Australia and New Zealand is called Inter Dominion. The Inter Dominion takes place in either Australia or New Zealand on a rotating basis. Other important races in the two countries include:
- Australian Derby
- Australian Pacing Championships
- Miracle Mile
- Hankook Hunter Cup
- New South Wales Derby
- Victoria Cup
- Victoria Derby (the oldest harness rating in Australia, started in 1914)
- Auckland Cup
- Great Northern Derby
- New Zealand Cup
- New Zealand Derby
- New Zealand Messenger Championship
- Noel J Taylor Memorial Mile
The main races in Europe take place in France, Italy and Sweden. Three of the most important races are:
- Elitloppet in Sweden (near to Stockholm).
- Gran Premio Lotteria di Agnano in Italy (Naples).
- The Prix d’Amerique in France (near Paris).
The most important harness racing tracks are in New Jersey (Meadowlands Racetrack and Freehold Raceway) and in Ontario (Woodbine Racetrack and Mohawk Raceway). Other notable events include:
- Little Brown Jug
- Breeders Crown Series
- North America Sup
- Canadian Pacing Derby
- Maple Leaf Trot
Resources for Harness Racing
For more information about harness racing around the world please visit the following websites:
- The British Harness Racing Club
- The British Horse Driving Trials Association
- Channel 4 Racing
- UK Standardbred Racing Association
- UK Harness Racing
- S4C Rasus
- The Standardbred and Trotting Horse Association of Great Britain and Ireland
- Amman Valley Trotting Club
- Tir Prince Raceway
- Tregaron Trotting Club
- Welsh and Border Counties Harness Racing Club