The History Of Harness Racing

The competitive racing of horses is one of humankind's most ancient sports, having its origins among the prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia who first domesticated the horse about 4500 BC. For thousands of years, horse racing flourished as the sport of kings and the nobility. Modern racing, however, exists primarily because it is a major venue for legalized gambling.

The National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders agreed in 1879 upon standards to define horses eligible to the Trotting Register. John H. Wallace had initially started the Trotting Register in 1869 to record the pedigrees of trotting horses. One of the rules stated that a stallion was required to trot a mile in two minutes and thirty seconds, or faster. The high standards required for registry led to the name we know today: Standardbred.

          All Standardbreds trace their ancestry through direct male line to the imported stallion Messenger, an English Thoroughbred who was brought to America in 1788. The modern Standardbred owes its existence to a rather homely grandson of Messenger named Hambletonian. The story of Hambletonian is a fascinating and well documented one, and set the precedent for this breed being one for ”everyman” and not just a wealthy person’s sport. Hambletonian was bought as a foal by his caretaker, an illiterate hired hand named Rysdyk, and eventually made his owner a fortune.

        Hambletonian’s sons and daughters were the first to meet the standards of the new trotting breed, including Dexter, the horse you see on every antique weathervane, and Lady Suffolk, the “old gray mare who ain’t what she used to be”.

       Canadian influence was strong in the new Standardbred, with the emergence of sires like Pilot, Pliot Jr., and the early pacers which were brought out of Canada like Copperbottom, founder of the Hal family.

         In 1881, the first World Champion was a pacer of the Hal family, and the most prestigious pacing race in the United States, the Little Brown Jug, bears his name. Originally denigrated as “bush-bred” and considered a poor man’s horse, today’s pacer is making many people rich.

         In 1909, the Canadian Standardbred Horse Society was incorporated for the primary purpose of maintaining the official registry of Standardbred horses in Canada. In 1939, the Canadian Trotting Association was formed to become the record-keeping and licensing body. In 1998 the two organizations were amalgamated to form Standardbred Canada. Computer terminals connect racetracks across the country to Standardbred Canada’s central data bank in Mississauga, Ontario.

         Harness racing reached the early zenith of its popularity in the late 1800s, with the establishment of a Grand Circuit of major fairs. The sport sharply declined in popularity after 1900, as the automobile replaced the horse and the United States became more urbanized. In 1940, however, Roosevelt Raceway in New York introduced harness racing under the lights with pari-mutuel betting. This innovation sparked a rebirth of harness racing, and today its number of tracks and number of annual races exceed those of Thoroughbred racing. The sport is also popular in most European countries, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Canadians have gained international recognition in the sport at all levels. John Campbell, Ron and Keith Waples, Michel Lachance and Bill O’Donnell are legends in the sport and are all Canadians. Armstrong Bros. of Inglewood, Ontario, is annually one of the top three breeding farms in North America, and horses bearing the “Armbro” prefix have won virtually every major stakes race.

The award of excellence in Canadian racing today is the O’Brien Award, named after the late, great Maritime-born horseman, Joe O’Brien. At the conclusion of each racing year, voters from across the country make their selections of the horses they feel deserve this honour, as well as the Horse, Trainer, Driver and Broodmare Of The Year. The winners are announced each year at the O’Brien Awards, hosted by Standardbred Canada.

Industry Information


Important annual races include the Hambletonian for 3-year old trotters, the Little Brown Jug for 3-year-old pacers, and the Breeders Crown series of twelve races covering each of the traditional categories of age, gait and gender. The Hambletonian is part of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Trotters and the Little Brown Jug is part of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Pacers. Important Canadian races include the Gold Cup and Saucer at Charlottetown Driving Park, North America Cup (for pacers), the Canadian Pacing Derby, and the Maple Leaf Trot.

The most notable harness tracks in North America are the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey, The Red Mile in Kentucky and Woodbine Racetrack and Mohawk Raceway, both in Ontario. Since 1947, the "United States Harness Writers" Association annually votes for the "Harness Horse of the Year." Since inception, a pacer has received the honor 31 times and a trotter 26 times.

Ontario Horse Racing Industry
There are 18 racetracks in the Province of Ontario. Of these tracks, 15 are Standardbred; one is Thoroughbred; one is Thoroughbred and Standardbred combined, and the other is Quarter-horse. Ontario has more races dates than any other jurisdiction in North America. Horse racing is a year round sport, with both live racing in the Province and simulcast racing brought in from other jurisdictions.

Regulatory Controls

The horse racing industry is regulated both provincially and federally. The Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) regulates racing, while the Canadian Pari-mutuel Agency CPMA regulates pari-mutuel wagering.

Horse Racing is an important agricultural industry which generates significant employment, particularly in rural Ontario, with economic benefits to the overall provincial economy. The horse racing industry employs Ontarians in the equivalent of 30,000 full time jobs. The industry spends over $1.2 billion a year and is Ontario’s third largest agricultural industry. It is also part of the gaming sector, competing with government-operated lotteries and sports betting and government-sanctioned casinos and charitable gaming.

The Ontario Sires Stakes Program
To be eligible to the Ontario Sires Stakes Program, foals must have been sired by a stallion standing in Ontario and registered with the program. These stallions must either be owned or leased by an Ontario resident. The number and quality of sires standing in Ontario has improved considerably and has led to the development of breeding establishments which are now competitive on a world class level.

The Ontario Standardbred Sires Stakes program is recognized as the leading breed program in North America. Its success is evident by the demand for Ontario sired Standardbred horses both inside the Province and in other jurisdictions.

Eligibility to the Ontario Sires Stakes is restricted to progeny of stallions standing in the Province and registered with the Ontario Sires Stakes. Yearlings must then be nominated by May 15th of their yearling year and sustained to race either as two year olds or three year olds. Nominations and sustaining fees are collected and distributed together with the Horse Improvement Program funds in the form of purses.

The foundation of the Ontario Sires Stakes program is the stallions registered with the OSS program. To be eligible to the program the stallion must be owned by an Ontario resident or leased to an Ontario resident. Any foals resulting from a breeding to a registered stallion area is eligible for nomination to the Ontario Sires Stakes. 


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