When I was a boy, harness racing was, if not a major American sport, at least a noticeable one. The sports sections of the New York newspapers had regular coverage of the events at Yonkers Raceway and other harness tracks. There were agate summaries of each race, just as there were agate tables of the stock exchange prices. There were occasional features about the top horses and drivers. Each year, the Hambletonian, harness racing's equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, got lots of attention.
But that was long ago. Harness racing, like bowling, has faded out of the sports pages and the internet sites where a casual fan might occasionally read about it. In the Washington area, where I moved in the 1970s, there was a harness track called Rosecroft Raceway. It disappeared some years ago, and I couldn't even guess when that happened.
I can guess about why it happened. For one thing, harness racing thrived when there were few, if any, legal opportunities to wager. If you wanted to bet, you had to go to a track. Now it's the rare state that doesn't have a lottery, casinos, or both. For another thing, harness racing isn't very well suited for television. Each race has a couple of minutes of action, and then there is up to half an hour of dead time before the next race begins. Television, once it gets its commercials in, abhors dead time. Plus, the horses are the stars, and you can't get post-race interviews from a horse. And then here's the bond between harness racing and a bygone era when more people lived on the land and got around by driving buggies drawn by horses. The smaller that era gets in our rear-view mirror, the more harness racing will be an antiquity.
So I was surprised and a little intrigued when my friend Mike Mitchell informed me that there was harness racing scheduled in Pinehurst, N.C on the first Saturday in April. We were in adjoining Southern Pines to play golf, and golf is the sport I have always associated with that area. I knew there was an old horse track in Pinehurst, because it's visible near a few holes on some of the resort's golf courses. But I didn't know it was still in use.
It is in use and has been since 1915. Harness racing nowadays is centered around places like Canada and the Middle West, which are snow-covered in the winter. The horses, like any athletes, need to train year-round. So the owners, trainers and drivers (jobs that in the harness racing world appear frequently to be held by the same individual) spend the months from November to April in the South, in places like Pinehurst. It can get nippy there, but it rarely snows.
In Pinehurst, one of the culminating moments of the winter training season is the Spring Matinee Races. It's a pleasantly casual event. General admission is supposed to be five bucks, but Mike, our fellow golfer-photographer Don Tobin, and I got there late because of our morning round of golf, and the ticket-sellers must have gone to the track to watch the races. We got in free. We also didn't have press passes. But when we wandered by the pickup truck that carries the starting gate for the races, the lady operating the gate invited us to shoot up close from the bed of the truck. (It was a mixed blessing to be that close. I had an 85mm lens, which was not wide enough for capturing the whole array of gate and horses at the beginning of the race. It also wasn't long enough t get a good closeup of a horse or driver. The shot above left was the best I could do.)
There's no pari-mutuel betting at the Spring Matinee Races, no prize money, no official odds, no tote boards. There is a little system where you can try to pick winners and get prizes, but no one seemed to take it very seriously. Mostly it was a family-and-friends event, thankfully nowhere near as studiously posh as steeplechase races and polo matches. The railbirds at racetracks I remember tended to be old guys in straw hats, clutching the Racing Form in one hand and a foul cigar in the other. At Pinehurst, they tended to be little kids playing in the dirt or pointing to the horses. I saw one cluster of people who were celebrating a patriarch's 70th birthday. I saw a cluster of young women at the edge of the far turn who were having a bachelorette party.
I went back to the track on Monday morning, just after dawn. It was foggy, and the horses and drivers practicing on the track were partly shrouded. It was quiet, and you could heard the clip-clop, clip-clop of the hooves striking the clay track.
Harness racing is an odd discipline. Though it's a race, the horses cannot gallop. They must maintain either a trotting or a pacing gait depending on the race. In trotting, the horse's legs move forward together in diagonal pairs--left foreleg and right hind leg, for example. In pacing, the legs on each side move together. Trotting in a harness while pulling a sulky with a driver in it is not something all horses take to instinctively, I gathered. The horse pictured at the top of this post was balking against the discipline during his morning training.
Drivers and trainers use a few devices to get the horses's attention and keep him focused. There's the whip, which seem designed not to hurt the horse, but to make a sound and remind him of his job. They use blinkers on horses that can be distracted visually by sights along the periphery of the track. They use ear covers to prevent horses from being distracted by sounds. The red pair on the horse at right gave him a rather diabolical look, I thought. Some drivers talk to their horses as they make their way around the track. One driver sang in a low, nurturing voice.