CANFIELD, Ohio – The smell of fresh hay mingled with the humid early summer air as drivers hooked driving harnesses to their young horses in preparation of tackling the half-mile dirt track of the Canfield Fairgrounds.
The harness racing event put on by the Canfield Harness Horseman’s Association (CHHA) earlier this month wasn’t your standard harness race. It was a “matinee,” which differs slightly from regular harness racing.
Proving grounds. “The difference is that there’s no betting and no money purses,” said Presiding Judge Jim Schroyer. “They (the driver and horse) are racing for a blanket and also to develop manner and speed so they’ll be able to race this summer at fairs and other races.”
There are similarities between the two events, such as the use of a harness, Standardbred horses, and two different gaits; trotting and pacing. The harnesses used by the drivers are known as sulkies and the drivers at Canfield used three different designs.
Sulky variations. Some chose to have their feet spread apart the width of the horse, while others chose to have their feet closer together. The position of the driver’s feet was not the only difference between the sulkies, there was also the way in which the driver sat. There were those who preferred to sit in a reclined position, while some chose to sit more in a straight-backed position.
Even though the drivers can sit and position their feet differently, it really makes no difference toward the race outcome.
While the harnesses may differ slightly, the horses used for the race are all the same breed, Standardbred. These horses have proportionally shorter legs and longer bodies than other Thoroughbreds.
Race ready? A driver begins training his horse in September of its second year, in hopes it will be race ready by June. Many of the horses that raced at the matinee in Canfield were 2-year-olds, but there were some older ones being led through the barns.
“They start at 2 and they race through their 14th year. That is their last year of eligibility before they’re forced into mandatory retirement,” said Canfield Harness Horseman’s Association member Lee Unkefer.
School’s in session. The matinee begins with the horses “going to school,” which is a pace lap behind the starting gate.
“We keep the 2-year-olds behind the gate longer so they don’t get spooked having other horses next to them,” Unkefer said.
After going to school, the horses race for one mile. The number of laps depends on the length of the track. Track lengths range from a half-mile to one mile. Some of the races have a specific time in which the team of horse and driver must complete one lap. If the team falls short, they are subject to a $10 fine.
Most drivers have been horse lovers their entire lives and have taken part in other horse events, such as showing or barrel racing.
“I’ve always loved horses and been competitive,” said 10-year harness racing veteran Jean Abranovich. “I used to ride horses and go to horse shows and now I race.”
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