A first-person look at what it's like to drive in a harness horse race
Pomona, Calif. — Even in my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd be giving orders to a King! Of course before we go any further, I think I ought to tell you that King is a standardbred horse trained for harness racing. The guy I have to thank for putting me in racing silks is Sid Robinson, publicity director of the Los Angeles County Fair Association and its many satellite attractions.
``For a short time, to try to make the public more knowledgeable about harness racing, we're running a driver's training school for media people like yourself,'' Robinson said on the telephone. ``Like to have you come over and take some lessons. In fact, we'll even find somebody else in the media you can race against. Anyway, it will make a great offbeat story for you.'
Class began for me on a Chamber of Commerce Day at 8:45 a.m. at the L.A. Fair Grounds. Robinson took me over to the paddock area and introduced me to Pete de Luca, executive secretary of the California Harness Drivers' Guild.
After de Luca briefed me on the fundamentals of controlling a horse hitched to a race-bike (the trade calls it a sulky), I was placed gently into the custody of veteran harness racing owner-trainer Dave Belucci. Dave couldn't have been more concerned for my safety if I had been a Chinese vase from the Ming Dynasty.
``Nothing to worry about,'' Belucci asssured me. ``You'll love working with harness horses. King has been racing for more than 10 years and he'll react perfectly to whoever is holding his reins.
``Of course the reins have to be taut at all times,'' Dave continued. ``You pull left, he'll go left. You pull right, he'll go right. You pull back and he'll slow down; harder and he'll stop, although we also want you to yell whoa at times like that.''
Sulkies, which can be made of either wood or steel and cost approximatley $750, look like something that has been left over after taxes.
They have a skeleton-like frame, with a black seat in the rear mounted on two rods that allows you to ride directly behind the horse. Off to each side is what probably looks from the grandstand like oversized bicycle wheels. But they obviously are better crafted, much more rugged, and roll on expensive pneumatic tires.
The sulky is attached to the horse by long narrow wooden arms that reach down each side of his body. Along the way they are fastened in several places to the harness.
When you sit on a 125-pound sulky, your legs instinctively reach out for the metal boot rests that are mounted on both sides of the vehicle's upper frame. This is supposed to help give you balance. But since there is nothing to support your back, the chief feeling you get is both unnatural and uncomfortable - much like being in the passenger seat of a motorcycle.
But a lot of that uneasiness disappears when the trainer places the reins, which have loops on the ends, into your hands. Actually before you are halfway around the five-eighths-of-a-mile track, you are so busy keeping those reins taut and competing in traffic that you don't think about your back anymore.
Once the mobile starting gate, mounted on the back of a full-size pickup truck, speeds away from the starting line, it's mostly between you and the horse. Relax the bit in his mouth too soon and he may not have enough stamina left to make like Olympic track star Carl Lewis in the stretch. But holding him back too early can be frustrating to the animal and discourage him from making a top effort.
And all of your decisions have to be made while zipping along at speeds which Dave assured me reach 35 miles an hour, and perhaps beyond.
According to Belucci it's a feel that becomes automatic to a new driver only after weeks of practice. But for the distance I was racing (much shorter than regular races), you can pretty much give the horse his head and not worry about fatigue.
In a way, harness-racing horses are aristocrats. Because horses' hoofs never stop growing, they go to the beauty parlor once a month for a foot cut and new shoes. Cost: approximately $45. They also get bathed by hand; are fed one gallon of oats three times a day; and are usually given all the hay they want.
``If King were a pro football player,'' Belucci said, ``he's so smart he'd be the quarterback. You can put a good horse with a mediocre driver and he'll probably still win. But it seldom works if the situation is reversed.''
What Belucci looks for most when he's in the market for buying a horse is posture.
``If a horse continually hangs his head, it's obvious that his body is too much out of balance for him to go into racing,'' Dave explained. ``If his hoofs point out, chances are his legs are going to hit each other when he runs. But if he has good posture, you can teach him the rest, assuming he also has the speed and the heart.''
I am not going to bore you with the details of my first media race as a harness driver, except to say that I came home a winner.
But in all fairness I guess I should report the reaction of my wife, who sometimes reads over my shoulder.
``First place certainly does sound impressive,'' she said. ``I just hope nobody asks you how many horses and drivers were in the race!''