How to watch harness racing (and enjoy it)

The horses will take the course this Saturday at Saratoga Harness (yeah, it’s officially Saratoga Casino and Hotel, but they’re not paying me to use that name). And for what seems like an eternity, the races will actually take place in front of fans, at decent times of the day. The track had raced in 2021 and 2020 during the day, with only a few twilight matches, to limit COVID transmission, but now we can actually go to the track on the weekend and enjoy the races in person.

One of my friends at the track – a horse trainer, breeder and fellow photographer – recently had an incident where someone asked her if she trained “real horses.” And by “real horses,” that meant the thoroughbreds that operate at the OTHER Saratoga Race Course in summertime.

Let’s get a few things straight. Harness racing uses “real horses.” The carriages aren’t being pulled by Chryslers.

But if you’re going to watch harness racing at Saratoga, let me fill you in on a few things. And hopefully I get all these correct, so bear with me.

  • All races at Saratoga are one-mile races, which requires two trips around the track. Only a maximum of ten horses can compete in any race, and the races themselves are separated by pacers and trotters, horses that use a specific measured step.
  • A harness horse must keep that step throughout the race. If the horse goes into a canter or a gallop, the driver must pull the horse to the back of the race and wait until the horse resumes a proper gait.
  • You can bet on harness racing in the same manner as thoroughbred racing – there are Daily Doubles and Pick 3’s and win-place-show. And the races occur at shorter intervals, an average of 10 minutes between each match. Saratoga will often have a dozen or so races, or a few more when their big night, the Gerrity, takes place.
  • Harness horses race in classes. If a horse wins several races, he gets promoted to a race with tougher competition. A horse that doesn’t race well in tough competition will get relegated to a race with horses of the same level.
  • Harness horses can race for years and years. They don’t usually finish at three years of age and go off to a stud farm. Heck, some of the racers for this Sunday afternoon’s matchup are horses I’ve bet on at several Saratoga sessions – Cartier Volo, Gigfy, Jeter’s Way, just to name a few. This year, I’m doing my “follow the horse each race” on a horse called Pay Me To Knight, a trotter who had a decent rookie run last year and is scheduled for the third race on Sunday.
  • Unlike Saratoga Race Course, you don’t have to spend a fortune before you even get to your first race. Parking is free, food includes hot dogs, pizza and soda, and you can watch the race from an elevated grandstand (protected from the elements) or right up at the rail. More money to bet on the horses, if you know what I mean. 😀
  • And what happens to these horses after their racing career concludes? Let’s put it this way. Many horses go from pulling a sulkey to pulling an Amish buggy without any trouble. That’s what happened to a horse I used to watch years ago at Saratoga, Just Vic.
  • Also, Saratoga Harness is one of several harness tracks in the general area. A horse that does well at Saratoga might go for a few weeks down to the Meadowlands and race there, or over to Vernon Downs and race there, or to a host of other locales. Plus, pacers and trotters have their own separate Triple Crown races for glory and honor.

So if you want something to do this weekend, check out Saratoga Harness’ opening weekend. First post on Saturday is at 5:00 p.m., first post on Sunday is at noon.