Harness racing is a category of horse-racing in which the horses race each other at a precise pace. They usually pull two-wheeled carts named sulkies.
Harness racing was the most successful sport in the years before the Civil War. Since control of Thoroughbred racing was taken by the South, the Northern States tried to gain control, but a miserable reproduction market, a need for sturdy jockey clubs to adjust the sport and a deficiency of supporters who could place high-quality matches kept the sport low. In 1850 there were more spectators who watched harness racing than all other races.
These harness races were limited mostly to standard bred horses. Cold-blooded horses, so named because of a stable, calm temperament, raced alongside European horses which commonly have either Russian or French descendents. 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.
Standardbreds have shorter legs than the Thoroughbreds, but they compensate with their 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 horse came a great-grandson, named Hambletonian 10, which received an extensive following for his personal racing aptitudes. He is also well known for his breed line. The lineage of almost every American Standardbred horses can be followed from his sons.
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 Europe all races are conducted between trotters, but in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom races are also conducted for pacers.
The pacing races attribute to almost 90% of Harness racing performed in North America. The pacing horses are quicker and, very significant for a bettor, they are less likely to have a gait accident. A horse that gallops needs to be slowed down and then taken to the side. 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.
A suggestion that hopples are supposed to create this stride is a mistake, the hopples are just an ornament to steady the pace while gaining top velocity.