Standardbred Race Horse History

Table of Contents

History and Origin of the Breed

Harness Racing Today

Breed Characteristics

Harness Racing Terminology

Standardbred Equestrian Program

History and Origin of the Breed

The origins of the Standardbred trace back to Messenger, an English Thoroughbred foaled in 1780, and later exported to the United States. HambletonianMessenger was the great-grandsire of Hambletonian 10, to whom every Standardbred can trace its heritage. Thus, Standardbreds are a relatively new breed, dating back just over 200 years.

The name "Standardbred" originated because the early trotters (pacers would not come into favor until much later) were required to reach a certain standard for the mile distance in order to be registered as part of the new breed. The mile is still the standard distance covered in nearly every harness race.

The first Standardbred races were contested along roads, with men challenging their friends to see who had the swifter steed. Often the streets of major cities were cleared and races conducted. That's why so many American cities have a Race Street.

Star PointerOver the years, sportsmen came to recite the names of certain champions with awe: Flora Temple, the "Bob-Tailed Nag" of Stephen Foster's Camptown Races; Goldsmith Maid, who won 350 heats in her storied career; world champions Maud S. and Nancy Hanks.

They were all trotters but pacers soon began to gain acceptance with Dan Patch & M.W. Savagethe sport's first two-minute mile, recorded in 1897 by the pacer Star Pointer.

The horse who popularized pacing was Dan Patch, one of the fastest (1:55 for the mile) and most popular Standardbreds ever.

Harness racing continued to flourish until World War I, after which the sport suffered two lean decades. But world records by pacer Billy Direct and trotter Greyhound in 1938 signaled a rebirth, and the sport began to move forward in 1940 when aGreyhound group of businessmen took the heretofore rural sport and set it in the bright lights of New York City as a pari-mutuel activity. It was years before the new track, Roosevelt Raceway, on Long Island made money, but the night time "sulkies" soon caught on in many metropolitan areas, and today harness racing is firmly established as one of the biggest of big-league sports.

The past few years have seen major improvements in racetrack construction and maintenance; in sulky and harness design; and in the breed itself. The legendary Niatross heralded a new era with a 1:49-1/5 time-trial, the first harness horse to break 1:50.

Harness Racing Today

Harness racing is primarily centered in the Northeast and Midwest. Virtually every major population center in these areas boasts one or more major tracks. Several smaller communities also support harness tracks. The sport is also popular in Florida, California, and throughout Canada.

Not surprisingly, the sport's premier track, the Meadowlands, is located within 15 minutes of New York City. The modern plant plays host to the Hambletonian, the sport's premier race, each August.

Before 1940, however, there was no Standardbred racing atRoosevelt Raceway metropolitan ovals, because there was no pari-mutuel racing until Roosevelt Raceway opened in that year. Harness racing was supported primarily by a strong interest in Standardbreds in agricultural communities. The sport's stars traveled from county fairground to county fairground, while masses of people cheered for their favorites.

Today, county fairs are very supportive of harness racing with well over 300 fairs featuring the sport in their programs, with horsemen racing for the love of the sport more than purse money or glory. The sport's premier event for pacers, the Little Brown Jug, is held at the Delaware, Ohio County Fairgrounds.

Classic Races
Both three-year-old trotters and pacers vie for their own Triple Crown. Little Brown JugPacers race in the Cane Pace (Yonkers Raceway), The Messenger Stakes (Ladbroke at the Meadows), and the Little Brown Jug (Delaware, Ohio). The trotter square off in the Hambletonian (the Meadowlands), the Yonkers Trot (Yonkers Raceway), and the Kentucky Futurity (Lexington's Red Mile).

The Hambletonian purse is $1.2 million. Two other races, both for three-year-old pacers, are contested for $1 million pots each year: the Meadowlands Pace, Hambletonianthe Meadowlands' signature pacing event, and the North America Cup, raced at Woodbine, located near Toronto. In each event, the winning owner receives half of the purse, with the balance going to the next four finishers.

The top horses follow a barnstorming trail unique to harness racing. Known as the Grand Circuit, the "Roarin' Grand" moves from track to track every week during the summer, insuring horsemen of a chance to race their prize charges for lucrative purses. The newest addition to the top echelon of harness racing events is the Breeders' Crown. This series of races pits the top horses in the various divisions, with over $4 million in purses and bragging rights as divisional championships are on the line.

Breed Characteristics

In many respects, the Standardbred resembles its ancestor theNiatross Thoroughbred. It does not stand as tall, averaging 15.2 hands, although it has a longer body. The head is refined, set on a medium-sized neck. The quarters are muscular yet sleek. The clean hind legs are set well back. Individual Standardbreds tend to either trot or pace. This breed appears in varying colors, although bay, brown and black are predominant. It weighs between 800 and 1000 pounds.

Standardbred racing is contested on two gaits, the trot and the pace. Trotters move with a diagonal gait; the left front and right rear legs move in unison, as to the right front and left rear. It requires much skill by the trainer to get a trotter to move perfectly at high speeds, even though the trotting gait is a natural one in the animal world. But horseman and fans agree that there are few things more beautiful than a trotting horse in full stride.

Pacers, on the other hand, move the legs on one side of their body in tandem: left front and rear, and right front and rear. This action shows why pacers are often called "sidewheelers." Pacers, which account for about 80 percent of the performers in harness racing, are aided in maintaining their gait by plastic loops called hobbles, which keep their legs moving in synchronization. Due to the sureness of their action, pacers are usually several seconds faster than trotters.

Actually, a third gait often manifests itself in harness racing running. But a horse who runs, or goes "off-stride" in the parlance of the sport, must return to his natural gait or face disqualification.

Harness Racing Terminology

Handicapping: The first step in successfully picking a winner (or "handicapping") is becoming familiar with reading the racing program. Each program has a section explaining the information format used at that particular track. Probably the best place to start when handicapping Standardbreds is time. Since over 99 percent of all harness races are conducted at the one-mile distance, valid comparisons can be made among horses.

Post Position: Generally, the closer a horse starts to the inside rail or barrier of the track (especially on smaller tracks), the better is its chance of winning. At the start, horses must either "leave" (start quickly) to get a good position or else find a place on the rail to avoid racing on the outside of other horses. When racing on the outside the horse is said to be "parked out", and loses ground on every turn. A horse on the inside has a better chance to get to the rail or quickly get a good position.

Driver: The top drivers at any track have two big advantages in the sulky: (1) They usually are the best planners, knowing how to maximize the chances of their horses by using shrewd racing tactics. and (2) They have an innate ability to keep a horse trying his best right to the finish. The top drivers at each track are usually listed in the race program.

Consistency: A horse who has the winning habit, either in terms of races won or money won, deserves extra consideration when trying to pick a winner. An inconsistent performer, especially one who breaks stride often, can be risky.

Class: A horse which has raced adequately against better foes may find his way into the winner's circle, while a horse who has beaten inferior foes may find tougher horses not to its liking. A fairly reliable way of checking class is comparing the purses of the previous races and the present race.

Sharpness: Horses are not machines, and their abilities wax and wane. The alert fan can detect these changes in the racing program. A former classy horse who shows a series of dull efforts may simply be worn out. Similarly, a horse at the peak of competitive sharpness may be able to handle foes that he could only dream about in the recent past. Signs of a sharp horse include the ability to overcome racing on the outside (a "parked-out" trip), a tough battle on the lead, and the making up of much ground in the stretch. The balancing of "class" and "sharpness" is one of the keys to successful handicapping.

Win: The horse you select must come in first.

Place: The horse you select must come in first or second.

Show: The horse you select must come in first, second, or third.

Daily Double: A bet attempting to pick the winner of two consecutive races.

Pick Three: A bet attempting to select the winners of three consecutive races.

Quinella: A bet attempting to select the first two finishers, regardless of order.

Perfecta or Exacta: A bet attempting to select the first two finishers in exact order.

Trifecta: A bet attempting to select the first three finishers in exact order.

Tri-Super: A bet attempting to select the first three finishers in exact order, and then the first four finishers in exact order in a subsequent race.

Twin Trifecta: A bet attempting to select the first three finishers in exact order, and then the first three finishers in exact order in a subsequent race.

Conditioned Race: A race where eligibility is based on age, sex, money won, or races won. For example, "3-year-old fillies, non-winners of $10,000 or 4 races."

Claiming Race: A race where any of the entrants may be claimed (purchased) for a specified amount.

Invitational: A race for the top horses in the area. Also known a Open, Free-For-All, or the like.

Stakes Race: A race where owners make a series of payments, starting well in advance, to keep a horse eligible. If an owner misses a payment to a stakes race, the horse becomes ineligible.

Early-Closer/Late-Closer: A race requiring payments which start much closer to the actual race date than a stake "Early" and "Late" involve specified periods of time.

Colt: A male three years of age or less.

Horse: A male four years of age or older.

Gelding: A castrated male of any age.

Filly: A female three years of age or less.

Mare: A female four years of age or more.


Standardbred Equestrian Program

Standardbreds are making the successful transition to lives and careers that are far removed from the racetrack. In addition to being the world?s fastest horse in harness, the Standardbred excels in a variety of equine disciplines. Representatives of this breed are able to face every task put before them with gentleness, patience, and a heart that knows no limit.

The Standardbred?s personality is much different than you might expect from a racing athlete. When competing, he may appear somewhat fierce in his pursuit of victory, but the Standardbred is good natured, friendly, a quick learner and is known for having a calm disposition.

That?s why the US Trotting Association has launched the Standardbred Equestrian Program, or SEP. An ambitious, multi-faceted program designed to promote the Standardbred in all disciplines; SEP provides a variety of ways to enjoy a rewarding relationship with your Standardbred.

Racing trotters and pacers under saddle, as was done in theTrotters Under Saddle earliest days of the Standardbred breed, has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and popularity in the 1990?s, and the enthusiasm has led to the USTA sponsored Boots and Saddles-Racing Under Saddle Series. Held at tracks across North America, this year?s Boot?s and Saddle Series will offer in excess of $65,000 in purse money. 

Other USTA sanctioned races under saddle are also being held at county fairs and pari-mutuel tracks. And unlike Thoroughbred racing, these events aren?t limited to featherweight jockeys. In this sport, if you can ride, you can be licensed to race. Racing under saddle has revitalized the roots of Standardbred racing, drawing enthusiasm from track audiences across the nation. 

The Standardbred is so popular as a road horse, that the American Road Horse and Pony Association and the World Championship Horse Show have named a new Roadster class in honor of the United States Trotting Association. The entries compete for prize money in excess of $15,000. This new and exciting event will be held annually during World Championship Horse Show Week at the Kentucky Fair and Expositions Center.

Other uses for the Standardbred include dressage, eventing, western and hunt seat pleasure classes, hunters, jumpers, trail horses, barrel racers, endurance mounts, cutting, gymkhana, racking and saddle seat classes, and police and drill team mounts.

SEP also works with 4-H programs to encourage youth involvement with the Standardbred, both as a racehorse and and also in other equine disciplines and equestrian events.

Many individuals and organizations are helping Standardbreds find loving homes away from the racetrack. SEP assists by listing the availability of horses and homes on the USTA?s World Wide Web Site, as well as promoting adoption to racehorse owners when a horse?s racing career is finished. SEP also fills requests from new Standardbred owners looking for information on their horse?s "former life."

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