It was one of those perfect summer days that you wish you could bottle up and save for the winter that served as a backdrop to the exciting day that was planned for the Sullivan County 4-H group who traveled to The Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame and the Goshen Historic Track, located in Goshen, NY.
The daylong program was described as “Horses 24/7” for youngsters ages 11 – 18, with no experience necessary, and provided plenty of hands-on activities, from learning the history of Standardbred horses and the racing industry, to grooming and harnessing and even driving a horse.
Coordinating the event was Barbara Moran, 4-H Animal Science Program Coordinator, from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County; funding for the event came from The Agriculture and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund for Standardbred and Harness Racing education.
We were greeted by Kristine Roberts, Education Coordinator and Sculptorist of horses for the Hall of Fame, who provided a very comprehensive tour of the museum and Hall of Fame.
The tour began with a movie of a race, and Kristine explained the Morning Line, the paper that contains all of the information for that day’s races including notes on the horses, any equipment changes and how much each driver weighs. The race is one mile in length, and is broken down into quarters. Interestingly we learned that there is no height limit or weight limit in harness racing and, unlike flat racing, a driver can be of any size. She extolled the virtues of the Standardbred horses, remarking how their temperaments are great, and they can “do anything.”
She described the two gaits used in harness racing — the trot, which is a diagonal gait with two feet on the ground at all times; and the pace, which is a lateral gait where two feet on the same side move together. With two feet on the ground at all times, harness racing is easier on the horse’s legs than flat racing, when all the weight is on just one leg at the gallop.
The youngsters learned that the term Standardbred meant a horse that could run one mile in two minutes, 30 seconds or less. The horses, trotters and pacers, were bred to the standard of time of one mile.
In the year of the California gold rush, Hambletonian 10 (Rysdyk’s Hambletonian) was born in Sugar Loaf, NY on May 5, 1849, to a 27-year-old mare called the Charles Kent mare. He was an American trotter and was bred by Jonas Seeley, Jr. on his farm in Sugar Loaf. Seeley’s hired hand, William Rysdyk, was in charge of caring for the mare and foal. Rysdyk fell in love with the foal and believed that the foal was special and would someday be a great horse. He became so attached that he asked to buy them. Seeley agreed and sold the pair to Rysdyk for $125. Hambletonian had an unusual build; he was low at the withers (15.1 1/4 hands) and high at the croup (15.3 1/4 hands). The length of his hind leg provided a great deal of thrust and power with each stride, and he was able to pass both characteristics on to all his get. He was a founding sire of the Standardbred horse breed; in his lifetime of 27 years, he produced 1,351 foals; and 90 percent of all the Standardbreds today around the world are direct descendants of this great horse.
Kristine discussed the conformation of the horse and how important it is when you go to select a horse at sale or a farm. She described how to examine the whole body, looking at its conformation to see if the horse stands straight. It’s important to look at the point of shoulder straight down to point of knee and ankle — and visualize an imaginary line to dissect center of the leg all the way down, looking for toeing in or toeing out. She said when the foot lands if the horse doesn’t have straight legs it puts pressure on the inside — and that most horses toe out slightly but it can be made up for with proper shoes. Trainers try to figure out a way to get their horse to trot faster — whether it’s adjusting the trim of the hoof, or adjusting the shoe to enable a horse to break over faster, or putting groove on bottom to grab the ground a little harder.
The group got to see the original moving starting gate created in 1872 and other historical items key to the sport, such as the development of the race carts — from bicycle wheels and relatively heavy carts to today’s high-tech super-light sulkies made with carbon fibre, aluminum or titanium.
There were displays of famous horses, such as Dan Patch, the 1896 Pacer who held the pacing record for 33 years. Kristine said he was so fast others wouldn’t race against him. His owner had his own railroad car and his own band and would travel around the country with his horse, who loved people and seeing the crowds.
Next was the Hall of Fame — comprised of the Hall of Immortals of people and horses, as well as the Living Hall of Fame of both people and horses, where each year inductees are honored by a sculptured statuette; and when they pass away the statuettes are placed in the Hall of Immortals cases.
Kristine described the 11-month gestation for a mare in foal and talked about how critical the timing is when a mare comes into heat and becomes pregnant — and how additional hours of light are added to the barn to ‘trick’ the mare into coming into her heat cycle at the ideal time, and how important it is for a foal to be born early in the year, as every Standardbred horse is considered a year old on Jan. 1, and foals born late will be smaller and less developed than the others.
She described the Black Book, which is the first pedigree of the horse, and provides information on the first dam and the second dam — giving the genetic line and the various physical attributes and history of the horse. Every aspect of harness racing was covered, from the silks and colors worn by the drivers, to the rosettes on the horses’ bridles to the harnesses tools and tack used in training and racing.
Other exhibits included the beautiful and colorful sleighs used by Currier & Ives. The Harness Racing Museum is home of one of the world’s largest compilations of Currier & Ives equine lithographs. Kristine described the process by which lithographs were made, which was useful to remember later during the arts and crafts session.
In addition was an exhibit of Bev Lopez, (1922 – 2014) well-known artist who painted and sculpted horses for more than 50 years, and another art exhibit showcased the painting styles of Thomas Kirby Van Zandt (1814 -1886) with his son William Garrett Van Zandt (1867-1942) of Albany, NY, whose family there dated back to the 1600s. They produced folk and fine art scenes depicting the farm animals and horses of the region of upstate New York, as well as from the racetracks of Saratoga.
There was a display about the race divisions of the Triple Crown in harness racing — the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Pacers consists of the Cane Pace, held at Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, NJ; the Little Brown Jug, held at the Delaware County Fair in Delaware, Ohio; and the Messenger Stakes, held at Yonkers Raceway in Yonkers, NY. The Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Trotters consists of the Hambletonian, held at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, NJ; the Yonkers Trot, held at Yonkers Raceway and the Kentucky Futurity, held at The Red Mile in Lexington, KY.
The group was treated to a 3-D live simulation of a race — in which we all were issued 3-D glasses and instructed to sit in the mini theater seats with nothing in our laps. A bar came up across our knees and as the race started, the seats vibrated and we felt a strong breeze blowing across our faces — we felt that we were actually ‘driving’ in the race — I ducked each time a clod of dirt was thrown my way by the horse in front of me — and it was quite a thrill to experience the sights, sounds and feel of being in a sulky traveling at high speed!
Our tour ended at the great trotter Greyhound’s stall. The boards from his stall were all numbered so they could be reconstructed inside the museum just as it was in his barn. The stall area included a sitting room, and today a display case holds his guest book — a tome about 5 inches thick that was filled with signatures of his guests. Greyhound was a grey Standardbred gelding, nicknamed “The Great Grey Ghost”. He was born in 1932, and was the outstanding trotting horse of his day, and considered to be the most outstanding horse in the history of the sport. In 1935 he won the Hambletonian race and in 1938 he lowered the record time for trotting the mile to 1:55 1/4. This record stood for 33 years until 1969.
As we wound down our tour of the Museum and Hall of Fame the 4-Hers were given an arts and crafts project to do before lunch — a ‘lithograph’ of a horse head that would be impressed onto a thin colored foil sheet, then smoothed and ‘framed’ with a cutout frame to take home.
There were games both inside and out — in the harness display area, each team of two was given ‘pacing hobbles’ and tried to walk in tandem while lifting up their ‘shoes’ on the same side with a rope; followed by a series of relay races outside.
After we ate our lunch the youngsters had a chance to visit the Museum gift shop, and then headed to the barns and race track for the remainder of the afternoon.