Harness Racing, Up Close

During the spring and fall Thoroughbred meets, I live at Hawthorne.  When the Thoroughbreds move north for the summer, to Arlington, I follow.

However, in the last two summers, Hawthorne has hosted live horse racing in the summer as well.  Once the Thoroughbred meet ends, the heavy machinery comes out to remove the dirt and lay down finely crushed limestone instead.  Workers pull out the rails, and instead space pylons around the inside of the racing surface.  By the middle of the following week, the track has been turned over.  It's Standardbred season.

I had seen harness racing live a few times before, both at Hawthorne and even once at Maywood before it closed.  I had seen Standardbreds working out in the mornings, pulling their drivers in the exercise bikes behind them, on a few early-morning CANTER visits to Hawthorne last January.  The Hawthorne summer meet began May 11, but I had been a stranger.  I had caught a few races on simulcast earlier in the week, but that was it.  With Arlington dark Sunday afternoon, but a full card scheduled at Hawthorne, it was a good day to meet some friends for harness racing at 35th and Cicero.  We got there about two hours before the races, and got to see harness racing up closer than I ever imagined I would.

Sunset Dreamer gets tacked up before our drive. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Sunset Dreamer gets tacked up before our drive. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

We met up with Jim Miller and walked around to the backstretch, where we met trainers Angie Coleman and Rob Rittof.  Soon after we got there, they brought six-year-old gelding Sunset Dreamer out of his stall, secured him in cross ties, and began to tack him up.  We asked about the equipment he wore.  There were pieces coming out from his bridle, near his eyes, analogous to blinkers that Thoroughbreds wear.  A blind bridle, it's called.  Just like with Thoroughbred blinkers, some horses wear them, some don't, but they are parts of the bridle since there are too many other straps and parts to make hood-style blinkers practical.  Angie also pointed out other pieces of equipment that might be used during races that Sunset Dreamer would not be wearing this afternoon: headpoles to keep his head and neck as straight as possible, hobbles to help him hold his pacing gait, knee boots and tendon boots to protect his legs at high speeds.

In a stall near Sunset Dreamer's head, a brown head with a little white star and big ears poked out.  That was Dandy's Phoenix, an unraced two-year-old who they hoped to get out to the races later in the Hawthorne summer meet.  He loved people: people he knew, people he didn't know.  Anyone near his stall, he was happy to give them a nuzzle, a kiss, and a hopeful request for some treats.

Once Sunset Dreamer was all tacked up, Rob attached the bike, and we headed out of the barn to the track.  The bike was a bit different than the ones you see in races: heavier of frame, and the seat comfortably fit two people.  We took turns going out for a lap in the bike with Rob; those of us who were not riding along stayed back with Angie to discuss their stable, a little more about equipment, and how working around horses beats being cooped up in an office any day.  That's the heart of racing, no matter the breed: horses get into you.  In a visceral sense, you need to be around them or else something feels missing.

Rob Rittof and I return toward the barn after a lap around the Hawthorne track. (Photo Credit: Jim Miller)

Rob Rittof and I return toward the barn after a lap around the Hawthorne track with Sunset Dreamer. (Photo: Jim Miller)

I had never driven a horse before, and thinking about it made me a little nervous.  Still, as the last one to get in the sulky, I was encouraged by Sunset Dreamer's behaviour both while being tacked and during his previous trips around the track: even, calm, controlled.  I climb into the bike, helmet and sunglasses on, and grab hold of the rope in the centre of the bike.  Rob takes the reins, gets Sunset Dreamer going again, and explains the basics of driving to me.

A rein goes in each hand.  I expected arcane instructions for controlling the horse, but instead they were intuitive.  Pull the left rein to steer left; pull the right rein to steer right.  Tighten the hold to slow him down; give him rein to let him go faster.  Keep the horse in the centre of the track.

I took the reins as we went through the clubhouse turn, early in our clockwise jog around the Hawthorne oval.  I wondered how I would handle the turn, but I had nothing to worry about.  Between the clear instructions and the unflinching confidence Sunset Dreamer had, we made it around the turn and into Hawthorne's long stretch.

I had seen Hawthorne from so many angles over the last few years: the apron, up high in the grandstand, the backstretch fence, the rail of the turf course.  But, this was a new view.  I saw Hawthorne from the racetrack, reins in my hand, rhythmic horse hooves carrying us forward.  The vast Hawthorne stretch opened up before us, with the Chicago skyline peeking over the horizon, off to the left.

As we rolled along the track, we talked about racing ages of Standardbred horses.  At six, Sunset Dreamer had a few years of racing behind him, and he knew his job well.  Rob let me know that Standardbreds who make it to the racetrack often start racing at age two or three, depending on how they're built and how they grow.  That sounded familiar from what I had seen in the Thoroughbred world, too -- both with respect to the age when a horse begins to run, and to the uncertainty of a horse making it to the races.

Through the far turn and into the backstretch, the wind made itself known.  Back on the home stretch, going the same direction as the wind, I hardly noticed it.  Going the opposite way, it howled.  However, it only sounded faster.  Yet, the motion felt similar: a comfortable jog.  Rob explained that we were going ten miles an hour, at most...yet at racing speeds, they will go over thirty.  As we continued down the backstretch, I wondered just how much louder the wind would be at those speeds.

As we approached the gap in the back fence, where we started, I turned the reins back over to Rob to guide us off the course and back to the barn.  Angie gave Sunset Dreamer a rinse, and brought him back to his stall.  Dandy's Phoenix was glad to see people back in the shedrow, and enjoyed having a few more minutes of attention and treats.

After a few more minutes in the barn, it was time to head back to the front side.  First post was coming up in less than an hour, and it was time to let Angie and Rob make their final preparations for the horses they had in that night.  I am thankful for the time they took to introduce us to harness racing last night: to their barn, their horses, and to the feeling of driving a horse.

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