A Brief History of the Standardbred and Harness Racing

The same year the United States Constitution was ratified in 1788 a Thoroughbred stallion named Messenger was imported into the United States from England.  Messenger was the foundation of the American Standardbred lineage as well as the sire of many of the great Thoroughbred lines.  The great Thoroughbred Man O’War was a descendant of Messenger.

The racing of trotters started in the 1700’s on rural American roads between common citizens.  The term standard was introduced in late 1790’s as a reference on the ability of a horse to trot in a standard time of a mile in two and a half minutes or less.  The typical Standardbred of the 18th and 19th century was also usually a family’s work or transportation horse as well as a part time race horse.  Standardbred history is interwoven into American history ever since.  For example the song Camptown Races is a reference to Standardbred races.  The popular Christmas song Jingle Bells is believed to reference a Standardbred sleigh racing in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.

Danpatch1The great pacing phenomena Dan Patch was the early 1900’s sports marketing version of our modern era Tiger Woods.  He had a huge popularity with the American public and his name was marketed on a amazing variety of consumer products.

The development of the modern American Standardbred can be traced to a wide array of contributing breeds; Thoroughbred, Morgan, Narragansett Pacer, Norfolk Trotter, Hackney, and Canadian Pacer.   In upstate New York in 1849 a horse named Hambletonian 10, or Rydsyk’s Hambletonian, was foaled.  The foal was purchased by William Rydsyk, the foals caregiver, for $125.  Hambletonian became the sire that nearly all American Standardbreds can be traced back to, and “The Hambletonian” is the title for the greatest harness race in the United States. The funny thing is that Hambletonian never raced.


In many respects, the Standardbred resembles its ancestor the Thoroughbred. The variance is that they typically do not stand as tall, averaging 15.2 hands, and has a longer barreled body. The head is refined, set on a medium-sized neck. The quarters are muscular yet sleek. The clean hind legs are set well back. Individual Standardbreds tend to either trot or pace. This breed appears in varying colors, although bay, brown and black are predominant. It weighs between 900 and 1100 pounds.

Standardbred racing is contested on two gaits, the trot and the pace. Trotters move with a diagonal gait; the left front and right rear legs move in unison, as to the right front and left rear. It requires much skill by the trainer to get a trotter to move perfectly at high speeds, even though the trotting gait is a natural one in the animal world. But horseman and fans agree that there are few things more beautiful than a trotting horse in full stride.



Pacers, on the other hand, move the legs on one side of their body in tandem: left front and rear, and right front and rear. This action pacershows why pacers are often called “sidewheelers.” Pacers, which account for about 80 percent of the performers in harness racing, are aided in maintaining their gait by plastic loops called hobbles, which keep their legs moving in synchronization. Due to the sureness of their action, pacers are usually several seconds faster than trotters.

Harness racing is now popular across the world.  If you look at the family history of the greatest performers from across the world; France, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Australia, New Zealand…  you will see that many of these champions trace their roots to American sires.

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Why choose Harness Racing?

When people start thinking about race horse ownership their minds immediately jump to Mint Juleps a owning the Kentucky Derby winner. The financial hurdles to enter, as well as keep afloat, in the thoroughbred game are extremely high and carry a higher risk than harness racing. This is truly the sport of Kings, Queens and Sheikhs… So if you want to win the Derby you may need the strength of the GDP of an OPEC nation to pursue your dream.

Harness racing is different, our entry costs are cheaper for purchase, our maintenance costs are much less than the thoroughbred industry. A common training fee for thoroughbreds is around $100/day depending on location and trainer. Then you need to add in all the additional costs of exercise riders and miscellaneous costs. You can locate very good harness trainers at half that cost. The purse money in harness racing is divided among the first 5 finishers with the winner getting 50% (2nd-5th – 25%, 12%, 8%, 5%). The driver and trainers customarily earn 5% each of the purse. In thoroughbreds the winner usually gets 60% and the rest is distributed through 5th (20%, 11%, 6%, 3%)… but don’t spend it too quickly because everyone and their brother gets a cut… usually 10% to jockey and another 10% to trainer, then more percentages to pensions, disabled jockey foundations… Yes, the thoroughbred purses are larger so the rewards could be higher…. BUT, thoroughbreds are not as sturdy as their standardbred cousins and have many fewer starts over a much shorter racing career. Pick up a December program from a thoroughbred track and a harness race track. If you look up a mid-level claiming race you will probably note that the thoroughbreds only are averaging between 6 and 10 starts per year and you will see very few horse on the entire card over 7 years old; the harness program will show horses starting 24-36 times a year and there are many horses aged from 8-10 years old.

If you want entertainment and excitement from your investment the Harness Game offers the better value for the dollar. Depending on your horse and trainer you may even have the opportunity to jog your own horse, this type of hands on experience is not a part of the thoroughbred race horse world.

Here are some interesting factoids from an article written in 2011 by Bill Finley for the US Trotting Association.

  • The 24 most expensive standardbred yearlings sold at US auctions in 2008 cost a combined $5,617,000. Thus far, they have returned $4,034,493 on the track, or a .718 return on investment. Considering that Muscle Massive, who tops the list, is now a stallion standing at a fee of $10,000 and that Poof She’s Gone has become a very valuable broodmare, it’s not hard to conclude that the top sellers of 2008, as a group, came out ahead for their owners
  • Though the numbers could be better, look at what happened to the priciest Thoroughbred yearlings sold in 2008. The top 24 Thoroughbreds cost a combined $31.2 million and have thus far returned $579,621. That a meager .019 return on investment.
  • All things being equal, the typical Standardbred is almost guaranteed of making more money racing than the typical Thoroughbred.
  • There were 12,200 Standardbreds born in North America in 2007. In 2010, the combined purses in the U.S. and Canada were $613,470,900. That’s a ratio of $50,284 per horse for the 2007 foal crop for Standardbreds that were born in North America.
  • Thoroughbreds raced for a lot more money, but there are a lot more Thoroughbreds. Thoroughbred purses in North America were roughly $1.2 billion in 2010. In 2007, 36,1000 Thoroughbreds were born in North America. That’s a ratio of just $33,333 per foal.

After you purchase your first race horse you will understand the passion and emotional ties to owning a race horse. I spent 20 years in the computer software industry and never lost my passion for returning to the sport. As you research and talk to more people involved in racing you will come to learn the magnetism of this sport. Please take a look at this article in Barron’s magazine. The author presents his love for the harness game and the special relationship that tied his family to the sport through generations.

Racings True Return – Barrons, March 2, 2013


There are multiple ways to own a horse or a part of one:

Individual Ownership

In the scenario of an individual owner – you pay all the bills and take all the risks, but you also reap all the rewards–and the purses your horse wins.


In a partnership, you and your partner(s) share paying the bills and
assuming risks–and each takes a cut of the purses. Partnerships can also be
“unbalanced,” in which each partner owns a different percentage, and thus pays
a different percentage of the expenses and earns a varying cut of the purse.
Your trainer, of course, can also be your partner. There are many trainers that accept “Deals” on training horses; such as splitting the earned purses in lieu of a training bill.

Limited Partnerships

A growing number of people, especially those with limited amounts to
invest, or who fear losing more than what they have budgeted, have invested in limited partnerships. It’s a common investment form: In a limited partnership you put up a fixed amount towards the management of a horse’s racing career. A “general” or “managing” partner makes all the decisions about acquiring a horse, including selecting a trainer, and making stakes payments. You will share proportionately in the purses won, when they exceed expenses, and in a worst-case scenario will not lose more than what you have invested. Such partnerships are widely advertised in trade publications and online.

Making the Purchase

Private Sale

A private sale brings one buyer together with one seller. An owner may want to sell for a number of reasons: he wants to buy a different horse, to dissolve a partnership, to sell his racing stock when it turns age four, or just because he feels like it.

Pluses: These sales are immediate, and since horses are “traded” frequently, your trainer probably already knows of a few that might be for sale immediately.

Challenges: If you are buying a horse at another location it’s a bit more difficult to inspect that horse, although your trainer might ask another trainer, located where the horse is, to inspect it for you.


At an auction the horses are sold to the highest bidder. Some sales feature only yearlings (1-year-old horses). Other types of sales include “mixed” sales, which offer active racehorses, broodmares, stallion prospects, and yearlings.

Pluses: Sales offer large numbers of horses, and most at mixed sales are ready to race. You and your trainer will have the opportunity to physically inspect each horse before it goes through the sale ring.

Challenges: They are held infrequently, so if you’re ready to “go to the races” you might have to wait weeks or months for the next auction.


A claiming race is one from which a horse can be purchased for a pre-determined price right out of the race. A qualified buyer–who must first employ a trainer–puts in the claiming price before the race, and the title to the horse changes at the start of the race. The “old” owner gets the purse and the “new” owner gets the horse at race end. Claiming is often the best option for novice horse owners, because it permits them to get in the game immediately.

Pluses: Racetrack programs are full of claiming races, making each printed racing program is like a catalog of racing prospects–priced at various levels. Also, a claiming horse is already racing, and can start in a race for you the very next week.

Challenges: You won’t have the opportunity to inspect the horse, close–up, before you claim it; your trainer’s powers of observation are the key. Also, since title to the horse passes to you at the start of a race there is a very small chance that it might be injured during the race.

Breeding Your Own

Beyond purchasing a racehorse, there is another way to enter the Standardbred business–buying a broodmare, mating it to a stallion, and raising your own horse. The top young racehorse prospects are sold at auction each year for handsome sums, which give the possibility of breeding a potential star its allure. Any profit from the sale of a yearling (if you chose to sell it), and the enjoyment of winning races and purses (if you choose to keep and train it) are a long way off. For these reasons breeding horses is often less appealing to a new owner.

The challenges of breeding include the fact that a horse can’t race until it is 2 years old, and expenses before it ever races include the payment of stud fees, stakes payments, and pre– and post–natal veterinary care. Some rewarding advantages, however, include having a hand in the foal’s destiny–from conception to his racing career, and some consider this mating, foaling, raising, training, and winning process to the ultimate thrill. Most, however, purchase a “ready–made” racehorse and get right to the business of racing and winning!

Standardbred racing is a historic American sport!

Exported World-wide!