SPORT

WHEELS AT THEIR HEELS

Sulky wheels are spinning as farmers and city folk flock to the tracks ... Harness racing is going places once again

ARTHUR MAYSE October 1 1944
SPORT

WHEELS AT THEIR HEELS

Sulky wheels are spinning as farmers and city folk flock to the tracks ... Harness racing is going places once again

ARTHUR MAYSE October 1 1944

WHEELS AT THEIR HEELS

Sulky wheels are spinning as farmers and city folk flock to the tracks ... Harness racing is going places once again

ARTHUR MAYSE

TIME was-—in your grandfather’s day—when horse racing in Canada meant but one thing. Those were horse and buggy days, and every

man, every boy, and maybe your grandmother, too, loved to ride behind a good horse and wanted to own one. Hence horse racing in those days meant harness racing and nothing else.

Then came the interest in galloping horses—in betting on the horse races—and for a long time harness racing went into a partial decline on this continent, eclipsed by the greater gamble that the galloping horses offered.

But now—and it is not due just to gasoline rationing —people are once more interested in the pacing and the trotting horse. Harness racing is coming into its own again and the rubber-tired sulkies are rolling on tracks in increasing numbers.

Great crowds are being drawn by the harness horses to the country fairs and the small-town meets. Across the Dominion, from the Maritimes to the foothills of Alberts, new circuits are being opened for harness racing and farmers are showing a new interest in breeding and training pacers and trotters. In the past five years many city tracks have brought back races for the gaited horses to satisfy the demands of their customers.

Curiously enough one of the main reasons why harness horses are coming back to the city tracks is because there is comparatively little betting on them. Most people look upon harness racing as a “sporty” sport—something to look at but not to bet on. The best horse and the best driver win. Actually they do. Favorites, according to statistics, win 60% of the time.

Reason for this is that there is no handicapping of t he harness horses. To reduce their chances of winning consistently the galloping horses carry greater weight according to their record of past performance. This, in theory, evens up the chances of winning. It makes for a better gamble.

But since harness horses are not handicapped they are a poor gamble. There have been attempts to apply the pari-mutuel system to harness racing, but it is not

general and most betting is done in the old-fashioned way by bookmakers who are permitted to operate at the tracks by special exemption from the Criminal Code regulating betting.

And so, as in your grandfather’s day, people now go to the harness races for the thrill of watching beautiful horses and skilful drivers. In rural areas there still is a great element of rivalry between local men racing their horses. Friends will naturally take sides and will make small wagers—and sometimes big ones. But, by and large harness racing is not a bettor’s sport in the same sense as that provided by the galloping horses.

Fall fair time is harness-racing time, although the season gets underway officially as early as May 24, and from that date until near Christmas there is now a trotting meeting being held somewhere in Canada every week. Ontario, which used to be the centre of the farmers’ sport, has been displaced by Quebec, which leads all other provinces in the number of clubs sponsoring harness races. However, Ontario is only slightly behind, with three major circuits in full swing and more than 150 agricultural fall fairs providing racing on their afternoon programs. In Manitoba the Great West Circuit includes four important harness racing centres and the loosely linked chain continues with the Carrot River Valley circuit, the Mid-West circuit, which opened this year, and continues on into

Alberta, where Vermillion is the centre of a group of towns which support the trotters and pacers with oldtime enthusiasm. From New Brunswick west all meets are conducted under the rules of the Canadian Trotting Association. The Maritimes run their events under United States Trotting Association regulations.

Origin Hidden

THE name of the spot in North America where the sport of racing in harness with gaited horses originated is lost in a misty past that unreels far back beyond Confederation. Perhaps it began with Jean Duval and Jacques Dubuc racing their carrioles along a well-frosted road beside the St. Lawrence River. All that is known for certain is that the sport is native to this continent and seems to be able to thrive best in Canada and the United States. It was popular for a while in England in the 1920’s, and an American driver was taken to Russia by the Czar to introduce the sport there, but he had to flee when the revolution broke out. Harness racing is well-established in Australia, too.

Curiously enough, while the English have never been able to develop any lasting enthusiasm for trotting races the blood lines of the most notable trotters on this continent stem back to British racing stock. Mambrine, foaled in 1768, was the historic sire of American trotters. His son, Messenger, crossed the Atlantic in 1788. From him, through Abdallati 1, and the Charles Kent mare, in 1849, came Hambeltonian 10, greatest of the breed, from whom evolved the trotting horse as he is known today and whose name is given to the outstanding harness racing event of the year, the Hambletonian, held at Goshen, N.Y.

Trotting is a generic term, covering both trotters and pacers. The difference between a trotter and a pacer is that in a trot the horse’s legs move in diagonal pairs, right fore and left hind hoof striking the track together. The pacer moves his legs in lateral pairs so that both the right front foot and right hind foot strike the ground simultaneously. The trot is smooth but the pace is a silky rhythm of forward progression that captivates the eye. According to turf legend it was developed in the southern United States by planters who wished to ride their acres with no uncomfortable jouncing in the saddle.

Both the trot and the pace are, to some extent, artificial gaits in which horses have to be trained from colthood. Exact breeding through many equine generations has produced natural trotters or pacers, although both, unless restrained by gaiting devices of one sort or another, will sometimes undo man’s endeavor by reverting to a run.

Of the two harness gaits the pace is the less natural. With the exception of a rare few “free-legged” pacers, horses trained in this gait race with what looks like a supplementary harness of straps looped loosely around the legs on either side. Those straps are hopples— pronounced “hobbles” by harness racers—and their purpose is to keep the horse from changing gait. Without them to constrain his forward-reaching legs in the heat of a race, the pacer might break into a run.

Several other devices are needed to keep the harness horse in the path ordained for his precisely moving hooves. The sidestick, which is a thin pole extending forward from the back pad through a ring at the side of the bridle and projecting past the nose, keeps the horse from turning his head. Along the flanks, a

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trifle above the sulky shafts, run gaiting straps to hold the hindquarters straight.

Almost all the horses are fitted with blind bridles, that is, bridles with blinkers. Many have fat shadow rolls across their noses, the purpose of which is to keep the horse from catching sight of shadows on the track and trying to bolt away from them.

Harness racing is credited with saving the utility horse from extinction. Today’s trotting horse is, in fact, the farmer’s road horse of the last century. The only real difference is that he has acquired a faster set of leg muscles through years of scientific breeding and racing, cutting his time for the trotted mile from two minutes, 40 seconds at Ottawa in 1876 to the present average of 2:10. The world’s trotting record now is 1.5534, established by the grey gelding, Greyhound, at Lexington in 1938.

Much of the credit for saving and improving the utility horse in Canada goes to a handful of Ontario breeders. There is Miss Katherine L. Wilks, whose Cruickston Stock Farm near Galt boasted 135 fine horses in its heyday, trotters and pacers that won glory as well as fat stakes on American tracks. I here is also Charles Barrett of Spring Hills Stock Farm near Parkhill, Ont., who imported Grattan Royal as a yearling from the United States and thereby did harness racing in Canada its most valuable single service.

Grattan Royal, who died in honorable retirement in 1924, is known as the Canadian fountainhead, and many regard him as only less great than Hambletonian. A bay pacer, it was as a sire that he gained his chief renown. Foals that he fathered won wide recognition south of the border, and brought many a hatful of dollars to Canadian farmers. The Grattan Royal strain still runs strong, and the Grattan name still catches the eye at many meetings.

The sulky, a cutaway, streamlined version of the buggy, had tall wheels and steel tires in the old days. Now it rolls on bicycle wheels, and a man of average strength can lift it, shafts, pneumatic tires and all, in one hand.

Harness racing has its share of spills,

serious harm doesn’t often befall man or horse. Most of the upsets occur on the turns, when a horse bears in to hug the rail and cuts another down.

Pocketing, ’ a device sometimes used to keep a dangerous contender enclosed so that he cannot hit his full stride, produces its share of spills. A driver hates above all elsè to he pocketed, and he will try a breakout, no matter how great the risk. If his timing or judgment of distance is faulty or if his horse fails to respond at the precise moment that an extra effort is required, accidents usually follow. Even more than a jockey in running races, the drivers of trotting horses win and lose harness races by their skill or lack of it.

In It For Sport

1 here are few young men among the drivers. Most of them are farmers who breed, train and race their own horses, None of them will get ric{¿ from the trotting races, and almost all have put more into the sport than they ever hope to get out of it.

“Make money on cows, lose it on standard breds,” they will tell you.

The drivers seem to hold their precarious seats by friction and a nice sense of balance. They sit with backs straight and legs spread wide, feet anchored in the shaft stirrups, reins held middling low. They wear what-

ever they happen to favor, although most of them sport peaked caps with full crowns very much like those you see on railwaymen, and big goggles to keep the sun and dust out of their eyes. At the big time meetings in the United States it is different. There the drivers show the colors of the stables they represent, and at the glamorous Hambletonian—which is to harness racing what the Kentucky Derby is to the runners—caps and jackets flash with all the hues of the spectrum.

Drivers’ weights once were limited to 150 pounds; now there is no limit. The old rule .was jettisoned because too many good reinsmen of 180 or even 200 pounds were barred from competition.

Canada has a few professional drivers, most of whom follow the American circuits during the season and return to race and train at Dufferin in Toronto in the winter. Clifford Chapman, Wilmer Hillock, Charles Lindberg and William Harvey, Toronto, are among the number. So is Floyd Milton, New Hamburg.

Vic Fleming, now a prominent trainer at Goshen, is looked upori*as one of the world’s best drivers. Born near Dundas, Ont., he tucked his feet into the stirrups at Lexington, Ky., in 1938, and drove the free-legged pacer, Billy Direct, to the standing world’s record of 1.55.

Another ace is Clint Hodgins, born and raised near Clandeboye, Ont. He’s a leading light on the American tracks, and you may have seen him as one of the drivers in the Twentieth-CenturyFox harness racing film, “Home in Indiana.” Nat Ray, Toronto-born driver, drove the first Hambletonian winner, Guy McKinney, in 1926.

Lady drivers aren’t unknown. Toronto can claim one in Mrs. Clifford Bradley. Another is Mrs. Roland Harriman, New York, sister-in-law of the American ambassador to Great Britain. Alma Sheppard, an American, drove Dean Hanover to a record 1.583^ in 1937 at Lexington, Ky., where practically all harness racing records have been set.

There is considerable gypsying about from track to track with one or two horses in a trailer or a horse van. In the course of a season a horse may race at many different tracks. This year, for example, J. C. Weiner, Pilot Mound, Man., followed the Great West circuit in his own province, went on to Goderich and Stratford, in the Western Ontario circuit, then dropped over into Quebec and returned to Stratford for Labor Day.

“Harness racing in Canada is simply a recreation and a neighborly outdoor sport,” says William A. Lawrason, secretary of Canadian Trotting Association and a veteran driver.

“It’s a sport that is kept up entirely by the lovers of the harness horse,” he goes on. “In the whole of Ontario there’s less betting on all the trotting races of the season than there is in one day on the runners. If the handle were $3,000 at any Canadian harness meeting it would be a big day.”

It goes without saying that purses in Canada fall far short of the $42,000 to $73,000 awarded to the winner of the Hambletonian. Purses at the biggest races in Ontario, the Stratford Futurities, are $1,000 for two-year-olds and $3,000 for three-year-olds. The Orpendale Limited Association of Toronto, which sponsors the Dufferin Park meetings, puts up $15,000.

Trotting rules are detailed and strict and there isn’t much skulduggery at a harness meeting. That isn’t to say, though, that your breeder-owner-driver is a bucolic character with straw in his hair. Harness racing teems with yarns about owners and drivers.

There was, for example, the incident

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of the lazy mare. She had once been a fast pacer but had fallen into slothful ways. Nothing short of a good scare would persuade her to unleash her speed. And it took quite a loud and dreadful noise to scare her. Her owner schemed and studied. Presently the neighbors heard him playing the bagpipes like mad in the evenings in his back pasture. He entered the mare in the final meeting of the year at a sizeable fair, with carnival attractions and a pipe and drum band. The mare paced her usual lackadaisical race, dropping farther and farther behind. Then, as they passed the stands for the last time, the air suddenly thrilled to the high shrill of the pipes.

At the sound the mare snorted loudly and launched into a sprint. Down the stretch she rushed with the wind in her tail, and over the finish line a length in front.

The bested drivers hunted out the bandsman who had skirled at the crucial moment. “All I know,” he protested, “is that the laddie asked me to gi’e him a tune for luck when he came ’round the turn. I couldna’ see a thing wrong wi’ that.”

Sentiment First

But shrewdness takes a second place to sentiment in the make-up of the harness racer. Indeed, the game is based on sentiment and has remained live and vigorous because of the way men feel toward gallant trotting horses.

When a harness race man passes on to you the tragic story of the sweet bay mare, Sadie Mac, his voice becomes sad as if he were recounting the death of some well-loved friend.

Sadie Mac was a trotter, a daughter of Peter the Great, owned by Miss Wilks, CruickstonPark. In 1905, on the U. S. Grand Circuit, Sadie Mac trotted her last race on a heavy track, in the Charter Oak of Hartford, Conn., for a $10,000 purse. An anonymous turr scribe of that day wrote her epitaph:

“In the fourth heat the game little mare went away at a whirlwind gait, and at the quarter had the lead. Making the last turn, her strength failed, and one by one the fiving horses passed her. She fought gamely, however, struggling through dust and flying clods. The courageous instincts of her royal ancestors rose in a mighty effort. With her head outstretched in one last vain attempt, her feeble muscles faltered at the distance post. She staggered and fell to the grassy sward of the infield. Few eyes were dry when the word passed that the little mare was dead.”

It is this mixture of sentiment, tradition and genuine love of noblehearted horses which keeps the sport of harness racing “pure” and alive. A great effort is being made to restore it to the position of popularity it once held in Canada, and remarkable success has already attended these efforts. Harness racing promoters contend that the federal law which limits trotting meetings to three days a week and to 14 days on one track in a season is a great obstacle. They’d like to make the meets longer. They would also like to try out night racing, which is proving popular on American tracks. Whatever changes are attempted it seems reasonably certain that harness racing in Canada will remain what it has always been, a country sport. The fickle city crowds may make a vogue of “going to the harness races,” in the name of “pure sport,” but long after they have returned to their parimutuels farmers will be rounding out a leisurely day at the fall fair by drifting over to the track to watch the trotters dangle.