Horse Racing’s King: Harness Racing

Harness Racing

Whenever the term horse racing crosses one’s mind, “Harness Racing” also gallops into view in the mind’s eye. The sight of a one-horse, single seat four-wheeled vehicle known as “Sulky” pulled by a special breed of horse, known as a “Standardbred”, is easy to picture throughout history in on the screen of the imagination.

Harness racing is classed as either a trotting or pacing discipline. In pacing, horses move both of their legs at the same time on one side of their body whereas in trotting, the horses stride with their left front and right rear leg moving forward simultaneously, then right front and left rear together.

The history of this symbiotic union of human and horse against competitors is surprisingly largely unknown to many of its followers, so to initiate those less familiar here is some background to this spirited equestrian sport.

Harness Racing’s Origins

Harness racing is associated with chariot racing and began as early as 1500 BC in the time of the Assyrian Kings. Later, in Greece, four-horse hitch chariot races became part of the Olympic Games of the 7th century BC.

By the time of Augustus Cesare’s reign over Rome, the event had become so popular that as many as 12 races took place every day. However, this was nothing compared to the verve with which the sport flourished under Flavius’ time when this number exploded to 100 races daily.

Modern Harness Racing’s History

With the fall of Rome the sport was left in ruins until its full return in the early 19th century. By 1840, trotting had gained the status of a sport in New England. It gained further popularity with the establishment of “The Grand Circuit” in 1871 and spread to 23 tracks across North America. Races were no longer confined to fairs but were held commercially on dedicated harness tracks.

With the advent of the commercialization of the sport, various organizations came into existence and the popularity of harness racing increased. In modern times, races are held throughout the world especially in Europe and North America.

Notable Harness Racing Events

Some of the most notable harness races that take place in Europe are overseen by the European Trotting Union (UET). Perhaps the most followed events are the European Trotting Derby; 3-year-old European championship; European-5-year-old Championship and the UET Masters Series the latter of which can offer a purse of around €460,000.

The most famous event among these is the Masters Series. This competition runs all year long and comprises of four Grand Slam races that include:

  • Prix d’Amerique
  • Lotteria
  • Elitloppet
  • Oslo Grand Prix

It also features around 100 Group 1 to Group 2 races from eight different European countries. The final race of the series is held every September between the top 12 to 16 horses and is called the UET Trotting Masters or UET Masters du Trot.

Harness racing is a beloved sport in North America as well. The major races that keep the viewers glued to their seats are the Little Brown Jug and the Breeders Crown Series. The series comprises of 12 races featuring horses belonging to various gender, gait and ages.

Craze of Harness Racing in UK and Europe

The British Harness Racing Club is responsible for the organization of harness racing events throughout the UK. It was founded in 1969 and since then has been helping to entertain sports lovers with various nail biting races whatever the weather.

Harness races are held throughout the year at 30 different locations throughout UK. To counter the hurdles imposed by the weather, four all-weather tracks exist so that spectators may enjoy the races without any hindrance.

The harness racing season commences in May and bids farewell in October every year during which some 800 races are held with the total prize money exceeding £600,000.

Harness racing is passionately supported in various European countries and has some of its most ardent followers in Finland, France, Italy, Norway and Sweden. Finnish fans enjoy two major races each year which include the Finlandia-Ajo and the Kuninkuusravit.

The most famous French harness race is Prix d’Amérique, which is also considered the most beloved harness race of Europe. Italian harness race viewers enjoy the Gran Premio Lotteria or Gran Premio della Lotteria which is popularly known as Lotteria whilst the most famous Norwegian harness race is the Oslo Grand Prix.

Multiple harness racing events take place every year in Sweden with the most famous one being the Swedish Trotting Derby.

It is interesting to note that one of the key rules in harness racing is to refrain from encouraging the horse to gallop. A whip may be used as a scare tactic; however, this can backfire if the driver accidentally hits the horse instead of the sulky.

The sport is loved equally by equestrians and adrenaline seekers from all walks of life. Harness racing is clearly a fantastic sport that keeps everyone on the edge of their seat, including the driver, from the sound of the starting pistol to the moment the sulkies cross the finish line.

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