An Overview of Horse and Harness Racing

Horse Racing

The competitive racing of horses is one of the most ancient of sports, having its origins among the prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia who first domesticated the horse about 4500 BC. For thousands of years, horse racing flourished as the sport of kings and the nobility. Modern racing, however, exists primarily because it is a major venue for legalized gambling.

Horse racing is the second most widely attended U.S. spectator sport, after baseball.    Last year, 53.4 million Americans visited a casino, according to the American Gaming Association, betting $27 billion at 443 casinos and employing more than 350,000 workers. Overall, more than $61 billion is legally wagered each year in this country at casinos, race tracks and online websites, including $10B on horse races (2009 estimate).  US Betting on Horse Racing reached a high of $15B in 2007 prior to the rcession. It is estimated that another $6 billion is bet on illegal offshore Internet sites.

The Horse Race betting industry in the United States has remained a juggernaut over the past six years.   Horse_Racing_history

Even with the recession of 07-10, Online Internet Wagers have grown 17% annually - showing that some businesses are truly recession proof.    While attendance at Horse Tracks throughout America is on the decline, wagers on horse races have migrated to online betting – so that 20% or 1 of every 5 wagers placed on horse races is placed through online service providers.   Based on information compiled by The Jockey Club, over 89% of pari-mutuel wagers, or handle, on thoroughbred racing in the United States were placed at locations away from the host track during 2008. We believe the shift toward off-track wagering has been driven by the betting public’s desire for convenience, the interest in wagering on races outside of one’s own region and throughout the U.S. and access to a broader range of content such as online educational tools, online viewing of race streaming video, and online racing historical reference information.  

The U.S. online wagering market represents $2-$3 Billion of the $10 Billion industry – and the portion of online racing wagers will continue to grow as Horse Parks and State Gaming Commissions struggle to replace traditional funding sources with the high growth online wagering market.   Online Horse wagering has grown 17% annually from 2007 levels.   Yet, the U.S. Horse Racing wager industry is only a fraction of the size of the International market.  Worldwide horse race wagering is in the range of $120 Billion per year.

Harness Racing

This is a form of horse-racing in which the horses race in a specified gait. They usually pull two-wheeled carts called sulkies, although races to saddle (trot monté in French) are also conducted in Europe.

harness racingRaces can be conducted in two differing gaits; trotting and pacing. The difference is that a trotter moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs, right front and left hind, then left front and right hind striking the ground simultaneously, whereas a pacer moves its legs laterally, right front and right hind together, then left front and left hind.

In continental Europe races are conducted exclusively between trotters, whereas in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States races are also held for pacers.

Pacing races constitute 80% to 90% of the harness races conducted in North America. Pacing horses are faster and, most important to the bettor, less likely to break stride (a horse which starts to gallop must be slowed down and taken to the outside until it regains stride).

One of the reasons pacers are less likely to break stride is that they often wear hopples or hobbles, straps which connect the legs on each of the horse's sides. The belief that hopples are used to create this gait is a misconception; the pace is a natural gait, the hopples are merely an accessory to support the pace at top speed.

Most harness races start from behind a motorized starting gate. The horses line up behind a hinged gate mounted on a motor vehicle which then takes them to the starting line. At the starting line the wings of the gate are folded up and the vehicle accelerates away from the horses. The other kind of start to race is a standing start, where there are tapes or imaginary lines across the track behind which the horses either stand stationary or trot in circles in pairs in a specific pattern to hit the starting line as a front. This enables handicaps to be placed on horses according to class with several tapes, usually with 10 or 20 metres in between. Many European and some Australian and New Zealand races start using standing starts.

The sulky (informally known as a bike) is a light two-wheeled cart equipped with bicycle wheels. The driver (not a jockey as in thoroughbred racing) carries a long, light whip which is chiefly used to signal the horse by tapping and to make noise by striking the sulky shaft. There are strict rules as to how and how much the whip may be used.

North America

Almost all North American races are at a distance of one mile (1,609m), and North American harness horses are all assigned a "mark" which is their fastest winning time at that distance. Harness races involve considerable strategy. Track size plays an important part here; on the smaller half-mile and five-eighths rings common to harness racing early speed becomes a more important factor, while the longer stretch runs of seven-eighths and mile tracks lend themselves more favorably to closing efforts.

Usually several drivers will contend for the lead out of the gate. They then try to avoid getting boxed in as the horses form into two lines—one on the rail and the other outside—in the second quarter mile. They may decide to go to the front, to race on the front on the outside ("first over", a difficult position), or to race with cover on the outside. On the rail behind the leader is a choice spot, known as the pocket, and a horse in that position is said to have a garden trip.

Third on the rail is an undesirable spot, known on small tracks as the death hole. As the race nears the three-quarter mile mark, the drivers implement their tactics for advancing their positions – going to the lead early, circling the field, moving up an open rail, advancing behind a horse expected to tire, and so on. Unlike thoroughbreds, harness horses accelerate during the final quarter mile of a race. The finishes of harness races are often spectacular and perhaps more often extremely close. The judges often have to request prints of win, place, and show photos to determine the order of finish.

Most races are run on tracks constructed solely for harness racing (and may even have banked turns), but a few tracks conduct both harness and Thoroughbred flat racing.

Until the 1990s, harness tracks featured a rail on the inside, much like Thoroughbred tracks. This changed to the use of pylons, usually of a flexible material, which marked the inside boundary of the course. This innovation was mainly for safety reasons, as it allowed a driver to pull off to the inside of the course if necessary, avoiding injury to themselves, their horse and other competitors.

In addition, this change allowed another innovation called "open stretch racing," where an additional lane was opened to the inside of the traditional placement of the rail. Assuming the race leader was positioned on the rail at the top of the home stretch, that leader was required by rule to maintain that line (or perhaps move further out), while horses behind the leader could be moved into the open lane and potentially pass the leader. This helped alleviate a common problem where trailing horses would be "boxed in" behind the leader and another horse to the outside, and made race results more wide open — and thus more attractive to bettors with potentially higher payoffs. Open lane racing is only used in certain jurisdictions.


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