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Monday, February 15, 2016

Days Gone By

My introduction to harness racing, what a special moment it was.

It all started with talking to my father one morning while I was looking at the racing pages of the New York Daily News.  When I was twelve I knew my parents would go to Yonkers Raceway once in a while on a Saturday evening so I knew of the existence of harness racing as a concept.  Anyway, at the bottom of the harness racing page (they covered Yonkers/Roosevelt, Freehold, Monticello, and that bastion of harness racing Atlantic City) I noticed with the Atlantic City entries with terms like Pace and Trot.  Asking my father, he explained to me they were different gaits.  I was intrigued.

Well, the next Saturday came and instead of getting someone to watch me, I was off to the races for the first time, going to Yonkers Raceway (the Meadowlands was just a concept back then) and to say I was hooked was an understatement.  Oh, the pageantry of it.  The colors the drivers and trainers wore, the regal procession of post parade, and the sound of the hoofs hitting the track and the wheels going over the track.  Before long, it was time for the race.

What a wonderful spectacle it was as the horses raced around the track.  Watching the race, it was amazing to see those three-wide moves down the backstretch the second time around as drivers like Abbatielo, Dancer, Dokey, Filion, Haughton, Insko, and Steal did their magic and the field stormed home in a thundering stretch drive with horses crossing the wire three across.

The crowds were part of the excitement as well.  Not just the sound of the thundering crowd, but the lines.  At times, winning was a curse because if you thought your horse won you had to make a mad dash to the cashing lines if you had any hope of getting on line and placing your bet for the next race.  Even if you didn't cash a ticket, you were wise to get on line quick.  People talk about too much time between races; you wouldn't have said it in those glory days.

A full grandstand at Roosevelt Raceway.  In the mid-1970s weekend
brought  full grandstands at both Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceway
(source unknown)

The visits to Roosevelt Raceway, while not as frequent were exciting as well, especially the three week period beginning with the American Trotting Championship to determine America's entry into the Roosevelt International the following week and concluding with the Challenge Cup.  To see Europe's best horses and drivers do battle against America's best was a treat.   

Technology and inaction has decimated attendance and alternative entertainment options attract racing's target audience.  What was considered speedy in those days is now considered slow.  I can't help but feel sorry for that wide-eyed twelve year old who never will be exposed to what racing used to be for it was the sights and sounds of racing up close which made me love the sport.  For most, their first exposure to racing if it happens at all will come at the age of 18 in front of a screen, reducing racing to a video game.

Oh, those days gone by.

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