HARNESS RACING was never meant to be the sport of kings.The mere fact that a trotter or pacer pulls a two-wheeled wagon (sulky, to be correct) makes it possible for anyone with a taste for horses and competition to test his animal against all comers. Weight, age or sex of the driver is rarely a factor.
"You can participate in harness racing," said David Rodger of Alexandria, who like many horse lovers trains his own two-horse stable. "I obviously can't sit on a thoroughbred for work outs or race one. All I can do with a running horse is watch it and pay the bills. In any racing sport, I think the ultimate goal is to try it yourself. I can do that with harness horses."
Owners still race their own horses at many county and state fair tracks. There aren't that many chances for city folks, so the 35-year old Rodger is a rarity in these parts. Almost all the horses at Laurel and Rosecroft Raceways are handled by professional trainers.
"I first got horses when I had a construction company out in Oregon," Rodger recalled. "I built some farm buildings and from that I got interested enough to buy a share of a couple of thoroughbreds. Then, when we moved to Alexandria three years ago, my wife pestered me to get a hobby. Horses, harness horses this time, are it.
"I liked to go out to Rosecroft during the off-season, watch the horses and calculate bids on jobs," he said. "They let you wander in the stable area, too. That really did it. I overheard a man say he would sell his horse for $500. I figured for that, I could take a flyer."
A flyer isn't what he got. They 5-year-old pacing mare, Camdon Lisa, has yet to start a race.
"True, but remember Goldsmith Maid didn't get to the races until she was 8," argued Rodger, referring to the great trotting mare that raced from 1965-77. More promising is Afton Flymore, a 4-year-old gelded pace that Rodger purchased later for $600. Afton Flymore needs some additional schooling, but has raced.
Rodger admitted he was "scared to death when I first got into the sports. The deeper I got, though, the more I saw harness horse training is really hunt and peck. You don't have to be an old timer in this business. Even experts make mistakes.
"You can laugh all you want about going by the book, but that is what I do," Rodger added. "I follow what everyone calls the green book. It's 700 pages long, about the care and feeding of harness horses, and it's worked for me.
"Once you get into harness racing everyone wants to give you advise, but I stick to the book. People are really very helpful, though. They won't throw you a race, of course, but if you need a piece of equipment or some guidance, they will help."
The Rodger string is now at Rosecroft, having moved back to that track when the current Laurel meeting opened.Because his horses aren't racing, Rodger must stable then at the inactive local track. Stalls go to racers when tracks are open.
"That suits me," Rodgers said, "I can get there three or four times a week to help out 'Foots' Rainey, who handles the day-to-day training. I muck out the stalls, clean the equipment and jog the horses."
Jogging is taking a horse the wrong way around the track at an easy pace.
"Working" is going around the correct way at close to racing speed, but Rodger hasn't progressed to that point yet.
"I still get a big kick out of jogging, which most horsemen find boring," he said.
Rodger spends about 90 minutes with each horse when he takes one for a jog. After the workout, he cools the horse off, sponges it down and returns it to its stall. Mike, Rodger's 11-year-old son, helps with the mucking out.
"Standardbreds (harness horses) are just as weird as thoroughbreds, but not as skittish or high-strung," in Rodger's view. "Lisa likes to get out regularly and if she doesn't get her jogging you have one grouchy mare on your hands. Afton is lazier, more docile. Once he gets going he pulls pretty hard, which is a bad habit. The challenge it so see if you can cure a habit like that."
Rodger said both horses have been in good health, but warned, "you have to do some of your own doctoring, which most people aren't used to. Swabbing a horse's throat is really an experience."
Sick or well, "cheap horses eat as much as champions," Rodger observed. "I figure it costs about $75 a week to maintain each horse, but I do a lot of my own work. A rule of thumb is $10 to $15 a day to keep a horse for a small stable, up to more than $25 a day for big-time operations. Shoes, for example, cost $26 to $30 a set."
Rodger estimated his investment, besides the horses as "not more than $1,000 for a used jog cart, suits of harness for each horse and a share in a racing sulky."
He said the horses have become a family project for his wife and their three children.
"Horses become big pets. The key is that all of us become personally involved with our harness horses. All Seattle Slew's owners can do is look at him."