Run like the wind
HUGHESVILLE – The races may only last two minutes, but those who work in the harness racing industry said that spectators can’t find any more thrilling of an event.
“It’s fast,” said Sue Brickell, race secretary and clerk at the 143rd Lycoming County Fair. “Everyone thinks they have the best, whether it’s a race car or a horse.”
The sport, in which the driver sits in a small cart behind the horse, started from small competitions men would have on their way home from church, Brickell explained.
Although the fair is mostly a leisurely experience, harness racing is anything but.
“You’re going about 30 mph when the gate opens,” said William Daughtery, who has been harness racing since 1963.
Daughtery said drivers will study the program before the race to get an idea of their opponents and to form a strategy. But, as he explained, until one gets out on the track, there really isn’t any way of knowing what will happen.
“You just go with the flow,” Daughtery said. “Anything can happen. You don’t really know until the race starts.”
Even getting the race started can be exciting in itself.
After a lap around the track behind a pace car, which acts as a moving starting gate, the pack begins to pick up speed. The horses race to keep up with the car until the car picks up enough speed at the starting line to safely pull off of the track and allow the race to officially begin.
Clarence Martin, who keeps the pace inside the car, conducts the service for all harness races at fairs in the state. As he explained during one pre-race exercise, timing is key when starting the race.
And as for the drivers of the horse carts, it takes guts to get out on the track with horses breathing down their backs and little to no protection if something goes wrong.
“There’s quite a bit of skill, especially on a small track like this,” Brickell said.
When it goes right, said race clerk Connie Holt, race clerk, it can give you goosebumps but when it goes wrong, “it’s a total disaster.”
“There’s no room for error,” Brickell added.
At one point in her career, Brickell said Joie Chitwood, known for his daredevil routine, said harness racers were the real thrill-seekers.
But like Daughtery, whose father took him to the local fair to race horses, Holt said racing often is handed down from generation to generation.
“I think most of the people that you’ll see out there racing, it’s their ancestry,” she said. “It’s in your blood.”
Despite the intense heat that’s been affecting most fairgoers, the horses don’t seem to mind it as much as the drivers.
“The horses don’t mind it,” Brickell said. “The trick is to cool them down right after the race.”
“It’s amazing. They seem to be able to take it better than us,” Daughtery said, adding that once they began driving, the wind would help.
The fair’s harness racing will continue today at noon as the 2-year old horses get out on the track.