Harness Racing


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Harness racing has been part of the Australian sporting calendar for 150 years now, and it becomes a bigger industry year on year. In Australia, there are 91 harness racing tracks holding nearly two thousand meetings per year. Around 5000 standardbred horses are foaled and registered each year, and the sport features nearly 3000 drivers across the country, with 4000 registered trainers.

Pacers make up nearly 90 per cent of Australian harness races, with races generally run over distances between 1,609 metres (one mile) to around 2,650 metres. There's nothing quite like the excitement of going harness racing, with race meetings being held on many metropolitan tracks - most often on Friday or Saturday nights. The excitement builds as the horses line up behind the mobile barrier ready for the off, though there are plenty of races held from a standing start.

In terms of big races in Australia, you can't look past the Inter Dominion. This series, conducted between horses from Australia and New Zealand, has been contested since 1936. Other big Group One races include the A G Hunter Cup, Miracle Mile, the Australian Pacing Championship and the Victoria Cup. The premier juvenile harness racing series in the Southern Hemisphere is the Australian Breeders Cup, while the Australasian Pacers Grand Circuit is a Group One event that was set up to be the showpiece of the Australian and New Zealand harness racing industry.

Harness racing is generally accepted as having starte in April 1810 at Parramatta in New South Wales, while the first organized race meeting for trotters and pacers was in January 1860. Over the years there have been many horses that have gone down as phenomenally successful, and Mount Eden is one such. The dual gaited, Mount Eden (1966) won eight of his eleven starts including, six successive races as a three-year-old (3yo), shattering a series of State, Australian and World Records in the process, including the world record 2:04.0 for a 3yo over 1 1/2 miles (1970).

San Simeon had a record winning sequence of 29 races from his first start as a two year old until his defeat in the 1981 Interdominion. He began his 29 race winning sequence by winning all 10 starts as a two year old. He was voted the 1978/9 Australian Two-Year-Old champion and the $50,162 he earned that season was a new Australian record for a horse of his age. Our Sir Vancelot (NZ) was the first horse to win three successive Inter Dominion Pacing Championships, during 1997-98-99 and also numerous Grand Circuit and Group One events. More recently, Blacks A Fake won the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 Inter Dominion Championships, making him the only four-time winner of Australasia's premier harness race.

Races can be conducted in two differing gaits - trotting and pacing. The difference is that a trotter moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs (right front and left hind, then left front and right hind striking the ground simultaneously), whereas a pacer moves its legs laterally (right front and right hind together, then left front and left hind). In continental Europe races are conducted exclusively among trotters, whereas in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States races are also held for pacers.

Pacing races constitute 80% to 90% of the harness races conducted in North America. Pacing horses are faster and (most important to the bettor) less likely to break stride (a horse which starts to gallop must be slowed down and taken to the outside until it resumes trotting or pacing). One of the reasons pacers are less likely to break stride is that they often wear hopples or hobbles (straps connecting the legs on each of the horse's sides). The belief that hopples are used to create this gait is a common misunderstanding. The pace is a natural gait for many horses, and hopples are an aid in supporting the gait at top speed; trotting hopples (which employ a different design, due to the difference in the gait) are becoming increasingly popular for the same reason.

Most harness races start from behind a motorized starting gate. The horses line up behind a slow-moving, hinged gate mounted on a motor vehicle, which then leads them to the starting line. At the line, the wings of the gate are folded up and the vehicle accelerates away from the horses. Another kind of start is a standing start, where there are tapes or imaginary lines across the track behind which the horses either stand stationary or trot in circles in pairs in a specific pattern to hit the starting line as a group. This enables handicaps to be placed on horses (according to class) with several tapes, usually with 10 or 20 meters between tapes. Many European - and some Australian and New Zealand - races use a standing start.