Cheers rose from the grandstand as the thundering hooves of standardbred horses pulling cart and driver raced around the half-mile dirt track of Shenandoah Downs in Woodstock, Virginia. I was pressed up against the fence watching a tangle of wheels and legs whiz by me leaving nothing but clouds of dust in their wake as they raced around the half-mile track twice before crossing the finish line.
I had just witnessed my first ever harness race at Shenandoah Downs, and in fact, my first horse competition of any kind.
With just 20 minutes before the next race, I tried to digest as much information as I could from our guide about the sport of racing standardbreds. Whereas thoroughbred horses are born to run, standardbred horses are bred to race at one specific gait: either pacing or trotting. Pacers move both legs on one side of the body together, and trotters move diagonally paired legs together. And the two opposites never race each other since they move at very different speeds.
Many of the pacers wear hopples connecting their front and rear legs to help balance their stride and maintain their gait during races. If they go off-stride, they’re penalized and have to slow down and move to the outside until they regain the proper gait.
At the sound of the bugle fanfare playing “Call to the Post” I turned my attention back to the parade of horses entering the track. Since Shenandoah Downs is a para-mutuel track, a viewing of the contenders often helps prospective bettors choose a favorite.
A few minutes later, the car carrying the mobile starting gate appeared and the horses with driver and sulkies lined up behind it. As the car approached the starting line, the winged gates closed up, the car accelerated off the track, and the race was on.
In harness racing, the horse is most important, but the driver is critical, as there is a fair amount of strategy involved. Each horse has one really good move – some like to be on the front end, some like to close, and the driver has to know when that one move is going to take place and be in the right position at the right time.
It was fascinating to watch the drivers in action and see their wildly varying expressions of intensity during the race.
Shenandoah County Fairgrounds
300 Fairground Rd, Woodstock, VA 22664
Harness racing season begins Saturday, September 15, 2018
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