Harness racing refers to a type of horse-racing where horses chase each other at a specified pace. They habitually drag two-wheeled carts that are called sulkies.
Harness racing was the most widely accepted sport in the years before the Civil War. After the management of the Thoroughbred, racing was no longer in the hands of the South. Northern horseman desired to take control, but a depressed breeding market, a lack of strong jockey clubs to regulate the sport and an absence of promoters who could put together good races, kept the track in the doldrums. In 1850 there were more spectators who watched harness racing than all other races.
These harness races were limited mostly to standard bred horses. In Scandinavia or Europe cold-blooded horses, so called because they belong to a breed known for having a stable, calm temperament, are used as well as European horses which regularly have some French or even Russian ancestry. Standardbreds are so called because in the early years of the Standardbred stud book, only horses who could run or pace a mile in standard time, or whose brood could do so, were entered into the book.
The Standardbreds usually have shorter legs than the Thoroughbreds. Instead they have longer bodies. They also are of more docile dispositions, as suits horses whose races engage more strategy and more acceleration than Thoroughbred races.
Messenger was the name of Standardbred horse’s founding member. It was brought in 1788 to America and bought by Henry Astor, brother of John Jacob Astor. From this stud was born a great-grandson named Hambletonian 10 that is widely remembered for his breed line. The ancestry of practically all American Standardbred race horses comes from Hambletonian 10’s descendents.
The races can take place by trotting or pacing, two different steps. The difference is that the trotter tends to move its legs onwards in oblique pairs, while a pacer moves its legs to one side.
In continental Europe races are conducted entirely between trotters, whereas in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States races are also held for pacers.
Pacing races represent 80% to 90% of the Harness racing conducted in North America. They are quicker and, most noteworthy to the bettor, much less likely to falter pace (a horse that begins to run needs to be slowed down or taken outside in hope of regaining speed). An explanation for pacers being less likely to break stride is that they regularly wear hopples or hobbles, which are straps that fix the legs to the horse’s sides.
The idea that hopples are used to create this gait is wrong; the gait is natural, the hopples are simply an accessory to support the pace when gaining top speed.