When one thinks of horse racing in the United States, two events immediately spring to mind. The Kentucky Derby, one of the most historic and lucrative thoroughbred races in the world, and the Breeders’ Cup, a two-day meeting which attracts many of the world’s finest flat racers to North America.
Thoroughbred racing dominates equestrian sport in the US. However, there is a little-known branch of racing which garners a passionate following.
Harness racing has steadily grown from the humblest of beginnings into a multi-million-dollar business. Standardbred racing dates all the way back to the early 1800s, when horse-owning citizens invented the sport to compete against their neighbours. Today, harness racing takes place across America, and has even spread into racing in Canada, Australian horse racing and countries around Europe.
If you have a horse racing bucket list, then here are three harness racing venues that you simply must visit:
Know affectionately as “The Big M” by Standardbred aficionados, Meadowlands is the most popular harness racing track in the country. Situated in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the first harness race was staged at Meadowlands in 1976 and large crowds are drawn to the track whenever they stage a meeting.
The Hambletonian, the first leg of the Trotting Triple Crown, has made its home at Meadowlands since 1981. While other venues may race more regularly, for US Harness Racing fans, Meadowlands remains “The King Of The Handle”.
To increase exposure and the purses on offer, many harness racing tracks have incorporated a casino into their business. One of the first to do so was Yonkers Raceway & Empire City Casino, which was first opened before the turn of the 20th century. In 2019, it was bought by MGM in an $850 million purchase.
Thoroughbred racing has taken place at Yonkers in the past. The legendary Seabiscuit won the Scarsdale Handicap at Empire City in 1936. In recent years, though, the track has been used primarily for harness racing and, in 2006, became the first venue to host two Triple Crown races on the same card, when the Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes were both played out.
The Red Mile
The Red Mile, found in Lexington, Kentucky, is one of the countries oldest racetracks, having first staged racing back in 1875. The Red Mile has recently partnered up with Keeneland racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby, together building a £30m historical racing facility while also agreeing to house all of Keeneland’s off-track betting operations.
Along with the Hambletonian and the Yonkers Trot, the third leg of the Trotting Triple Crown is the Kentucky Futurity, which is staged on The Red Mile at the start of October. The last winner of the Triple Crown was Marion Marauder, who landed all three legs for the Wellwood family in the autumn of 2016.