A primer on how the other breed lives

Some of our thoroughbred brethren still know very little about us. Here’s how they can understand us better.

by Dean Towers

How some in thoroughbred racing view harness racing never fails to confuse me.

A couple of weeks ago, a summary of a conference topic featuring a quote from a thoroughbred participant, caused some waves on the social media machine:

“We’ve seen demise of the standardbred as the result of artificial insemination. Fortunate to have live cover in TB industry.”

Say what?

Sure, foal crops are not as big in number (like in thoroughbred racing) as they once were, but this is a whole lot of hooey. Small time breeders, big farms, small owners, or big owners have a ton of choice. We can buy a well-bred yearling with a shot for $25,000, or $250,000. We can pick and choose from literally hundreds of sires. The market, considering what the sport is going through, is very strong.

I like thoroughbred people and I know many of them. I happen to believe most thoroughbred people don’t buy into a lot of the nonsense and understand harness racing perfectly fine. But for gosh sakes, I think it’s pretty clear that at least some simply don’t get harness racing.

For them I’ve developed a short primer. Please allow me to share it with you.

First off, we might as well get this out of the way, because we see it so often from some on the runner side — you should know that all standardbred racehorses are not on “drugs.” That story you read about trainer “X” and his string of drug positives is one person, in a sport with thousands working every single day with horses. Plus, harness horses races very frequently which ups the chances (this is simple math) of catching an overage on something.

Standardbred trainers and thoroughbred trainers have many of the same vets, who treat horses with the same problems, because, of course, they are of the same species. It’s not like Todd Pletcher is training a horse and Ron Burke a parakeet. Yes, there are bad people in harness racing who have or are doing bad things, but if it’s happening in harness racing, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s happening in thoroughbred racing, too.

I read in some quarters that not using Lasix on a horse is ‘cruel’ because they naturally bleed, and Lasix needs to be used like they do in thoroughbred racing, i.e. on almost every animal. Harness trainers, on the other hand, use Lasix as sparingly as possible and only on animals who exhibit bleeding. I find it a little hard to swallow that this is somehow cruel, but hey, if it makes you feel better, more power to you.

“Those harness racers sure like to cheat a lot in races” has been a narrative that’s been heard since the Roosevelt (the first one) administration. With horses who race a lot it can look that way at times – every horse can’t be on go every race – but it’s frankly pretty silly. What I find most interesting about hearing this from the runner side from time to time, is that sport condones the use of “rabbits” to kill off another horse’s chances. If you sent a horse out with the sole purpose of eliminating another person’s chance in harness racing, there would be an investigation. Or worse, it would be settled behind barn six after the races.

I’ve seen in a few spots that some on the thoroughbred side are confused that stakes colt harness racing trainers “don’t seem to care if they lose a race.”

There’s been a sea change in thoroughbred racing that’s been well-documented over the years – trainers of Grade 1 horses don’t seem to want to put their horse in a situation where he or she may not convert. Win percentage is a selling point — the higher the better — and some think it’s a big reason why season starts have fallen, and why we see so many pick their spots. A loss is like some sort of affront to them or their horse.

In harness racing you can bet your last dollar that Jimmy Takter or Ron Burke wants to win every single stakes race they enter. They just realize that stuff happens. Their horse could get a bad post, a bad drive, have traffic trouble, spike with a high white count after the race, or simply might not be good enough. It is what it is, and I don’t think it’s a weakness for a sport, but strength.

I clearly have had a little fun above, needling some folks in the thoroughbred industry. But, there’s a heck of a lot more in common between the participants in the two sports than there are differences. There are a great many competitive people in both sports who deal with the same issues day in and day out – the horse off his feed, the curbs, the vet work, the sleepless nights; the joys, the disappointments, or the head-scratchers when you expected a big win and finish up the track. We’re the same, but different, and that’s just fine.