So You Want To Learn About Harness Racing…

You’re at the track with your friends. They all love coming to Hoosier Park and are pretty well-versed with harness racing. This is your first time here and you’re so excited. A few hours into the night, you make a comment that you wish you could hit the delete button on: “Man, that jockey Sam Widger has already won three races tonight!” Your friends all laugh at your incorrect statement. It’s pretty humiliating. You flee, embarrassed.

Here’s the thing: nobody is born knowing everything about harness racing, but everybody is capable of learning. It doesn’t take a lot of time to learn about harness racing at Hoosier Park, and this blog is a good place to start. So, whether you’re a beginner that’s reading this for new information, or you’re an expert that’s looking for information to pass on to friends that may not know as much, this blog is a good place to start.

#1. First things first, Thoroughbred horses do not race at Hoosier Park; Standardbred horses do. Hoosier Park hasn’t raced Thoroughbred horses since 2012. Standardbreds are more muscular and have longer bodies than Thoroughbreds. They are typically a little sturdier in build and are usually shorter in stature. Thoroughbreds, by nature, can be a little high-strung and hot-blooded because they are bred for agility whereas Standardbreds are built more for endurance and strength. Also, Standardbreds do not and will not ever race in the Kentucky Derby.

#2. With that, a lot of people mix up what you call the person that accompanies the horse while it’s racing. Most people think that “jockey” is a universal term, but those people are actually called “drivers” in Standardbred racing. Horses are also never ridden here, other than the case of the outrider, whose purpose is to help keep the horses in their place before the race starts. Drivers sit in a race bike behind the horse.

#3. I know a few people that think harness racing is cruel because the drivers have whips during the race. What these people don’t know is that the drivers aren’t actually whipping the horses, they’re whipping the bike. The sound of the whip hitting the bike is what encourages the horse to move faster. The horses are taken care of by their grooms, trainers and owners; This is a team of people that truly care for their well-being and give them better treatment than even I sometimes get. This year, I saw people on social media voicing their concerns about the condition of the track during the Kentucky Derby. “It can’t be safe to run in the mud!” people would say. While the Derby might be Thoroughbred racing, the same rule applies here for harness racing; it is perfectly safe for horses to race on a sloppy track. The drivers might not appreciate the mud being flung in their faces, but the horses are fine. There’s also a team of dedicated professionals making sure that the horses and the people involved are safe at all times.

#4. People also have a tendency not to pay attention to the sex of the horses in the race, which is something I know I sometimes have a bad habit of overlooking (I’m getting better, I promise!). For females, there are fillies, that are four years and younger, and mares, that are five years and older. For males there are colts, that are four years and younger, and geldings, that are castrated and five years and older. Not sure how to tell which is which? You can find that information in your program.

#5. Lastly, I’ll hear a lot of harness racing newbies (like me, four months ago) talk about watching the horses run. In harness racing, you’ll only see pacing and trotting; If a Standardbred is running, it actually means it’s breaking stride. Pacers move their legs laterally, right front and hind, then left front and hind . Trotters move their legs in diagonal pairs, right front and left hind, then left front and right hind. It sounds confusing when it’s explained on paper, but it’s pretty easy to spot when you’re at the track–So rather than say run, it’s best to say trot or pace.

Hopefully after reading this, you’ll come back to Hoosier Park knowing all about how the drivers ride in their race bikes behind the Standardbred fillies on the sometimes sloppy track that is totally safe for horses. Maybe you learned something your friends didn’t even know. If you’re a harness racing aficionado, hopefully this will help show your friends that harness racing isn’t as complicated as it may look to an outsider.

Story by Race Marketing Intern Rose Flood. Photos by Dean Gillette.