An Introduction to Harness Lingo

HarnessRacing030817cIn my everyday life, I have a difficult enough time attempting to communicate my thoughts to others, so I recognize that my harness jargon in this thoroughbred world reads like Cantonese to a Mandarin. Yet Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of the same language. Hence, there is no reason you, the thoroughbred player, should not be able to understand the Standardbred lexicon, unless you truly do not care to, which I understand.

Open the flood “gaits”

Unlike thoroughbreds, Standardbreds do not “run”; they maintain a structured stride as they race. There are trotters, whose legs move forward in a diagonal pattern, and pacers, who move their right legs forward followed by their left legs and so on. Pacers also tend to be faster than trotters.

The term “run” in harness racing refers to a horse losing this stride and moving with a gallop instead, also known as “breaking” or “jumping”. Galloping is not allowed in harness racing, so it’s bad if a Standardbred tries to emulate his more popular cousin.  All harness tracks have rules in place whereby, if a horse begins to run, it is forced to move outside until it regains its stride. Moreover, if a horse breaks passing the finish line, the stewards will often disqualify it since the gallop provides more speed than the standard stride.

Let’s go on a trip 

In a typical harness race, every horse will attempt to line up behind the other in an effort to save ground, since, like thoroughbreds, Standardbreds also race in circles. Because the horses are lined up in single file, the only way to gain ground on a leader is to move to the outside of the line.

The first horse to tip to the outside of the innermost-line is said to be making a “first over” move, which is also known as the hardest trip in the sport. Being first over means a horse must travel faster, as well as bare the air resistance of such motion. He leads what is also called the “two-wide flow” (“two wide” since he’s racing in the second line of horses and “flow” because that line is supposed to advance towards the leader).

Following a first-over horse is called — surprise, surprise — racing “second over”. Horses that race from second over are often in the best position possible in a race, since they are able to draft behind the horse in front of them and also be allowed to gain momentum moving into the final parts of a race. These rules also apply to a horse who “sits the pocket,” the position right behind the leader closest to the pylons. Sitting the pocket is better than racing first over at tracks that have a passing lane, since, around the turns, horses have to travel less ground.

Remember how I said a flow is supposed to move? I use the phrase “supposed to” because there are many instances in which a horse, unable to find a position on the inside, is forced to sit on the outside. When these horses do not advance and sit wide of their competitors, we say that they are “parked”. However, harness also uses “parked” as a general term to refer to a horse racing to the outside of other horses. For instance, the phrase “parked the mile” means the horse never raced near the pylons the whole mile.

So, to summarize: parking the mile is bad and being first over can be bad, too.

Harnessing the… I’m out of puns 

To cap off this article, I will run through some miscellaneous terms and/or concepts in harness racing:

TRACK SIZES – Most thoroughbred tracks are the same circumference. In harness racing, tracks vary in size, which also influences how races are run. There are half-mile ovals, where one mile is two laps; five-eighths ovals, where one mile is about one-and-a-half laps; seven-eighths tracks, where a mile is generally one lap with extra distance heading to the first turn; and, of course, there are one-mile tracks. The only anomaly is Century Downs in Alberta, which is an 11/16- mile track (basically five-eighths).

When a horse moves from a half-mile track to a mile track, I use the phrase “stretching out,” since horses race around fewer turns with longer straightaways. (I say “I use” because it isn’t accepted into the racing dialect yet. It will be proposed at the Standardbred Vocabulary Assembly at its next meeting in 2027).

CLASS LEVELS – While all harness tracks have a different scale for their racing conditions, nearly all follow the same basic construct. Harness has claiming events that function like claimers in thoroughbreds. However, some tracks offer claiming handicaps, where horses are assigned a post position based on their claiming tag (lower tags to the inside, higher tags to the outside).

Aside from claimers, the majority of harness conditions relate to “non-winners” events. These can range from non-winners of a specific number of races to non-winners of a specific dollar amount over a specified number of starts. The general rule for the hierarchy of these classes is the higher the numbers and/or money involved, the tougher the competition.

POST POSITIONS – Harness horses line up behind a mobile starting gate. Most races will feature all starters with their starting position right behind the gate. However, in some cases, a horse will start behind another entrant. This is known as racing from the “second tier.”

EQUIPMENT & MEDICATION – Harness horses take Lasix, just like thoroughbreds.

The only major piece of equipment to be familiar with is the hopple. Hopples are an important piece of equipment for trotters, as it will help them maintain their stride as they are more likely to break into a gallop than a pacer. Nearly all pacers wear hopples, but some race “free legged,” which is not very important in terms of handicapping.

I’m still out of puns, but this is the conclusion 

Before this article, my harness racing previews were generally geared to more experienced players who understood the jargon spewing out of my fingers and onto my keyboard.

Now, you (the thoroughbred handicapper, the horse enthusiast or the person who didn’t mean to click on this link but read the article anyway) can understand what I’m expressing and, maybe, even go and speak some harness jargon to your buddies, your coworkers or a family of four waiting in line in front of you at an Arby’s.

The world’s the limit from here!

Ray Cotolo
Ray Cotolo is a seasoned handicapper and harness writer. At 17-years-old, he has worked in the harness racing industry for approaching a decade. Known for his creativity, humor, and eccentric personality, he works to promote harness racing while also entertaining. He is also known as the son of harness-racing guru Frank Cotolo and focuses primarily on the pari-mutuel side of the sport, invested in seeking value.

Ray hosts the weekly radio show “North American Harness Update,” which combines his talents to both entertain and aid the public in discovering overlay contenders from the highest-stake harness races to the cheapest overnights at Truro Raceway. He strives to put on the greatest show possible for all audiences along with his co-host, Mike Pribozie. It airs from 9-11pmEDT on SRN One.

Outside of racing, Ray is a playwright, writer, and, debatably, a comedian. He has performed and written sketch comedy while attending high school, as well as plays and varying side projects. He continually updates his Twitter account, @RayCotolo, with thoughts either pertaining to or not pertaining to harness racing.

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