If asked to name types of horse racing, even those with only a passing interest in the sport would likely be aware that the British racing programme contains both flat and National Hunt (jumps) events. And those two forms of the sport do indeed represent the most popular forms of equine entertainment on offer – at least in the UK.
However, they aren’t the only shows in town when it comes to the racing of our four-legged friends. Welcome to the world of harness racing which – in certain areas of the world – is racing’s biggest ticket.
What Is Harness Racing?
In harness racing, rather than racing with a jockey sitting in the saddle, horses compete whilst pulling a lightweight (usually around 40lb) two-wheeled cart, often referred to as a sulky or spider. It is this cart which then contains the human “driver”. Rather than running freely or galloping in a standard horse race, harness racers must conform to one of two specific gaits, known as trotting and pacing.
The Role of the Driver in Harness Racing
Drivers in harness racing fulfil a similar role to that of a jockey in a standard horse race, i.e. to guide the horse throughout the race and implement any tactics in terms of changes of pace or direction. Drivers carry a light whip for this purpose, which is mainly used to strike the sulky rather than the horse itself, with the horse responding to the noise this makes.
When viewing a harness race, it can often appear that the main job of the driver is to restrain or pull back his mount. The reason for this is simply to ensure that the runner is travelling at a sensible enough pace to enable it to see out the distance, and finish its race effectively. Runners travelling too quickly are also more likely to lose their gait, which can lead to disqualification in a harness racing event.
Origins of Harness Racing
It is difficult to put an exact date on when humans first began to race horse and cart, with mentions of chariot racing in Homer’s Iliad, and reports of Assyrian Kings employing professional trainers for the purpose from as early as 1500 BCE. So it is safe to say it’s pretty old.
Moving forward to slightly more modern times, tales of horses and carts racing through the streets of Britain date back to at least 300 years ago. It was however the home of the flat racing game, Newmarket, which staged the first contest recorded in the history books back in 1750. This wasn’t really a race in the modern sense of the word, but rather a time challenge, with the Earls of March and Eglintowne wagering on whether four horses could pull a cart a distance of 19 miles in under an hour. However, this still seems to represent the moment when modern competitive harness racing – or at least the idea of it – was born in the UK.
Elsewhere in the world there are stories of trotting races dating from even earlier than those reported in the UK. The Dutch natives for example are alleged to have raced their animals and carts around the flat streets of the Netherlands from as early as 1554. Meanwhile in the US the origins are traced back to the postal cart horses of the early 1800’s who, when not transporting mail around the country, where often raced against one another.
Initially something of a slow developer with spectators, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the sport really began to grow in popularity. The 1800’s seeing the opening of the major tracks in the USA, with the European countries including France, Italy and the Scandinavian nations swiftly following suit. The UK were a little later to the party in terms of regulating the sport, but have now staged an organised version of harness racing for over 100 years.
Trotting vs Pacing
As mentioned, aside from the fact that they pull a cart, the other major difference between standard racing and harness racing comes with the manner in which the horses travel, i.e. the necessity to either trot or pace, rather than gallop.
When running at a trot, a horse’s diagonal legs move in unison, so as the left front leg goes forward so too does the right back leg, and vice versa. This is the more natural of the two gaits utilised in harness racing, and shouldn’t look too unfamiliar to those accustomed to traditional horse racing, with the exception that when horses run at a full gallop, as in a flat race for example, their back legs do tend to come forward together.
Pacing on the other hand is immediately recognisable as being distinct from the type of gait used in standard UK horse racing. Here the legs on each side of the horse move forward in unison, so as the left front leg goes forward so too does the left back leg. This is not a natural gait for many horses, although it has become more so with the development of the standardbred breed used in harness racing. Devices known as “hobbles” are nevertheless used in order to assist “pacers” in maintaining their gait whilst travelling at speed. A little counterintuitively – given it is the less instinctive of the gaits – pacing is actually fractionally quicker than trotting.
Whether trotting or pacing, the maintaining of the gait is crucial to success in a harness race. Any runner deemed to break stride, or use the wrong gait, may be disqualified from the event, or at the very least be required to move to the outside of the field until the correct gait is recovered – scuppering any realistic chance of winning.
What Does Modern Harness Racing Look Like?
Thankfully, harness races in modern times are far snappier affairs than the 19-mile endurance test which took place on Newmarket heath all those years ago. These days the vast majority of contests around the world take place at between half a mile and one mile. Those distances may be broadly in line with those used in many flat races around the world, but the similarities between flat racing and harness racing pretty much end there.
One of the major differences, certainly in the UK, with its vast array of idiosyncratic racecourses, is just how uniform the tracks used in harness racing tend to be. Wherever they take place in the world, harness races tend to be held on flat, oval shaped tracks. However, this design is really down to the necessity of the animals having to transport both themselves and also cart and driver safely around the course. This is clearly far easier to do so on a smooth turning oval circuit than, for instance, around the twists, turns and bumps of an Epsom Downs-style course.
The familiar white rails which feature on most traditional flat and jumps courses are also absent in the vast majority of harness races, with the tracks instead being marked by a series of relatively lightweight bollards. This is again primarily due to safety reasons, namely the prospect of collisions between wheels and fence. This layout also enables any runners who need to be taken out of the race, for whatever reason, to be safely pulled to the inside of the track.
The manner in which handicaps are applied in a harness race is also notably different to that used in flat and National Hunt racing. Whereas in flat and national hunt, horses are required to carry varying weights related to their ability – the better the horse, the more weight to be carried – in harness racing a distance method is instead used. The faster horses being required to start a specified number of metres behind their slower rivals, a method similar to that used in British and Irish greyhound racing.
Another obvious adjustment to harness racing comes in the way in which the races begin. The types of stalls used in traditional flat races for example would be practically impossible to manage with the additional complication of the sulky, and so alternative means of starting the races are required.
Two methods are commonly used to get the competitors underway, the most simple of which being the standing start, which simply places the runners in starting lanes, so as to avoid any early collisions, with the race then getting underway when the starter gives the signal.
The second method involves the use of a motorised starting gate. In this instance the runners begin to trot or pace behind the moving gate – which is usually attached to a car – with the race then beginning in earnest as the gate is lifted and the car moves off to the side.
It takes a certain type of horse to effectively pull a cart around a racecourse, and indeed to maintain the required trotting or pacing gait. It is an activity which certainly isn’t particularly suited to the type of thoroughbred seen in modern flat racing.
The most common type of runners used in harness racing are referred to as “standardbred” horses; so called from a breeding perspective because upon the initial organisation of the sport only those runners who could trot or pace a mile in a “standard” time of 2m30s would be listed as such in the official studbook. Harness racing in the UK, North America, Australia and New Zealand is exclusively restricted to standardbred runners.
In addition to standardbreds, other harness racing jurisdictions do permit the racing of other breeds. These include the French Trotter of France, Russian and Orlov Trotters of Russia, and the Finnhorses of Scandinavia. The differing breeds do vary slightly in appearance, but all tend to have shorter legs and longer, more muscular, bodies than found on a thoroughbred racehorse.
Harness Racing in the UK
It may live somewhat in the shadows of flat and National Hunt racing, but harness racing is nevertheless a well-established sport in the UK, with a total of 38 tracks spread over just about the length and breadth of the country – the three biggest of which being York, Corbiewood and Tir Prince. Traditionally something of a backwater sport contested mainly by farmers in their spare time, UK harness racing remains a predominantly amateur activity to this day.
The UK is, however, unique amongst European nations in that it stages both trotting and pacing events. The overwhelming majority of races held elsewhere on the continent – including in the major hubs of France, Italy and Sweden – are for trotters only. In common with the rest of the world – and with traditional flat horseracing – harness racers in the UK are not eligible to compete until they are two years old.
All harness racers in the UK begin life in the Grade 0 class, and are elevated to Grade 1 upon winning their first race. The grades then move up from 1 to 12, with horses advancing up the ladder as they accumulate more prize money.
Harness Racing Around the World
Harness racing is something of a minority sport in the UK and occupies a similar place on the sporting spectrum in other European nations including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Malta, Russia and Ireland. It is, however, a much bigger deal elsewhere in the world, with the sight of horses pulling sulky and driver around the racetrack being particularly prevalent in the following locations.
Home of the so-called Coldblood Trotter Finnhorse breed, harness racing is very popular in the European nations of Scandinavia. Finland leads the way 43 tracks, ahead of Sweden with 33, whilst Norway and nearby Denmark chip in with 11 and nine, respectively.
Racing in these nations operates on a class system, with the classes being defined by virtue of the amount of prize money previously won by the contenders. The six levels of the Scandinavian harness racing ladder, ranging from highest to lowest, are as follows:
- Class I
- Class II
- Class III
All harness races in Scandinavia are contested by “trotters” with the vast majority taking place over one of the following four set distances.
- Short: 1640m
- Normal: 2140m
- Long: 2640m
- Extra Long: 3140m
France is one of the most influential harness racing nations in the world, giving the sport the French Trotter breed, and staging over 11,000 trotting races every year. For purposes of comparison the combined number of flat and National Hunt events held in the country amounts to 8,000. The Gallic nation is home to around 200 harness racing tracks, with the most high-profile being Vincennes, Enghien, Caen and Cabourg.
The governing body of “Le Trot” is run as a non-profit organisation for the advancement of the sport, and stages a number of the biggest races held anywhere in the world. Given the name of the French breed, and the sport’s organising body, it should come as no surprise to learn that harness racing in France is contested exclusively by “trotters”.
The class system used in French harness racing is very similar to that utilised in its flat counterpart, with Group 1 events representing the top of the pyramid, moving down to Group 2, Group 3, and so on, with the very best events being referred to as the Classics, of which there are 10.
In Italy, the sport known as “trotto” matches flat horse racing or “galoppo” in terms of popularity. The racing programme features a number of high-profile and hugely popular events, including the Italian trotting Derby, and the much-coveted Gran Premio Lotteria.
Italy is also famous in the trotting sphere for producing the greatest horse in the history of the sport. The brilliant colt Varenne came home in front on an impressive 62 occasions from his 73 career starts, with those successes coming over 11 different distances and in seven different countries – leading to career earnings of a whopping €6,035,665. Quite an achievement considering he was initially deemed to have little future in the sport due to a malformed leg!
Nowhere is harness racing more prevalent than in North America, with the USA and Canada boasting over 650 racetracks between them. Even accounting for the size of the nation, that’s still a pretty impressive number, and a testament to just how popular the sport is on the other side of the Atlantic. The first thing to note about harness racing in the region is that it is the pacers who very much rule the roost, with around 80-90% of all harness races falling into the pacing category.
Almost all races in North America take place over a trip of one mile, although the tracks themselves range from half a mile to one mile per circuit. There are a range of classifications used in North American harness racing, with some tracks utilising a system related to the number of recent wins, or wins of a certain value, recorded by a horse. Others meanwhile opt for a more traditional method, and list classes from Grade A to Grade C. “Open” or “Free For All” events tend to attract runners from the upper end of the class spectrum wherever they are held.
Not only is the quantity high in North America, the quality is also amongst the highest on the planet, with many of the most prestigious events in the world taking place on US tracks – including the valuable events which make up the triple-crown for both pacers and trotters.
Other major events, aside from the Triple Crown, include the Grand Circuit or “Big Wheel” series, which is the longest running race series of any type to be held in the USA; and the Breeders’ Crown Series, which offers a $1 million bonus to any horse who can win the North America Cup, Meadowlands Pace and Little Brown Jug, and the equivalent Breeders’ Crown race.
One final thing to note about North American harness racing is a feature of the tracks known as the “open lane”: a racing lane on the inside of the bollards which marks the track in the home straight. The leader in the straight must maintain their racing lane, but other runners are permitted to move into the “open lane” in order to provide an additional route to overtake, and so decrease the number of hard luck stories resulting from runners being boxed in.
Australia & New Zealand
Much like in the USA, both pacing and trotting races are staged in Australia and New Zealand, and it is again the pacers who dominate the scene, with 80-90% of events being contested by the lateral leg performers.
Whilst not quite on the same scale as the US, these two nations nevertheless feature 135 harness racing tracks between them, with the vast majority of contests being held over distances between 1600m and 2600m. The open lane feature prevalent in the US is also a common feature of Aussie and Kiwi tracks.
Australian racing uses a class system related to the number of previous wins in certain types of race, with the class of a horse generally being defined by its total number of career wins, wins in restricted races and wins in higher quality events known as Metro races.
The class system used in New Zealand will be more familiar to fans of UK flat racing, particularly at the upper end where Group 1, Group 2, Group 3 and Listed races all feature.
Biggest Harness Races
A good place to start for anyone looking to delve a little deeper into the world of harness racing is with the biggest races on the calendar. Such is the popularity of the sport, it would likely take another article to list all of the high profile events on the planet, but the below list contains those contests which are universally recognised as being the real cream of the harness racing crop.
|Hambletonian||Meadowlands||USA||First leg of US Harness Racing Triple Crown for Trotters|
|Yonkers Trot||Yonkers Raceway||USA||Second leg of US Harness Racing Triple Crown for Trotters|
|Kentucky Futurity||The Red Mile||USA||Third leg of US Harness Racing Triple Crown for Trotters|
|Cane Pace||Meadowlands||USA||First leg of US Harness Racing Triple Crown for Pacers|
|Messenger Stakes||Yonkers Raceway||USA||Second leg of US Harness Racing Triple Crown for Pacers|
|Little Brown Jug||Delaware Fairgrounds||USA||Third leg of US Harness Racing Triple Crown for Pacers|
|North America Cup||Mohawk Raceway||Canada||Canada’s biggest harness race. Part of the Grand Slam.|
|Miracle Mile Pace||Menagle Park||Australia||One of Australia’s most valuable races with a purse of AUD $1,000,000|
|Victoria Derby||Moonee Valley||Australia||Australia’s oldest major race having first been run in 1914|
|New Zealand Cup||Addington Raceway||New Zealand||New Zealand’s most prestigious race, offering NZ $750,000 in prize money|
|Auckland Cup||Alexandra Park||New Zealand||One of New Zealand’s “Big Two” traditionally held on New Year’s Eve|
|Prix d’Amérique||Vincennes||France||Many view this as the most prestigious harness race in the world|
|Elitlopper||Solvalla||Sweden||Sweden’s biggest event which attracts the best trotters from around Europe|
|Gran Premio Lotteria||Agnano Racetracak||Italy||A major event on the European calendar, offering €600,500|