The theme of today’s post is that the recent negative publicity on raceday medication and catastrophic breakdowns in horse racing has especially done a disservice to harness racing. The New York Times expose focused heavily on Quarter Horses at lower-level New Mexico racetracks, yet left the impression that the results were representative of horse racing per se. This obvious case of an amateurish error in sampling led to unwarranted generalizations (i.e., the findings had poor external validity) about Thoroughbred racing but even more so concerning Standardbred racing.

A perusal of a representative sampling of the past performances at virtually any harness racetrack will show that it is not unusual for horses to race every couple of weeks and sometimes more often. A harness horse with 30-35 starts in a year’s time is not an anomaly. Even the top-level Standardbreds race frequently, by comparison to their Thoroughbred cousins. Moreover, the age limit for a Standardbred racehorse is 14 years old. One possible partial explanation is that the Standardbred is a hardier breed.

Another demonstrable difference between Thoroughbred and Standardbred competition is that the incidence of catastrophic breakdowns is far less in the latter. It may be that the trotting or pacing gait is less stressful on a horse’s legs and/or that the lack of weight of a jockey is kinder on a racing animal. The slower speeds in Standardbred racing also likely play a role.

Both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing are dangerous for rider and driver, respectively. However, while drivers are occasionally badly injured or even killed in harness races, the number of these occurrences pales in comparison to the number of jockeys who are paralyzed or die from in-race competition.

Harness racing is plagued with some of the identical issues that shed a bad light on Thoroughbred racing and Quarter Horse racing, such as the casting off of unwanted former racehorses, slaughter, illicit drugs, and rogue trainers.

But when it comes to durability of the breed and the occurrence of catastrophic racing injuries, it is inaccurate for the media to paint harness racing with the broad brush applied to Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing. The generic term horse racing includes several breeds, and just as Quarter Horse racing issues should be distinguished from Thoroughbred racing problems, so should Standardbred racing be distinguished from them both.

If I were a Standardbred owner or breeder, I would try to recruit new owners by emphasizing that trotters and pacers race more often, are less susceptible to catastrophic breakdowns, and drivers are generally less at risk of life-threatening injuries than jockeys.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business


  1. It’s about time someone pointed this out. At my home track in Ontario the breakdowns are few and far between…and I suspect that’s so for most trotting and pacing tracks.

  2. You forgot to mention is that milkshaking, viagra positives and clenbuterol positives all came from harness racing too.

  3. Jerry B,

    See paragraph 5.

  4. righthind says

    Jerry B, attempts to circumvent the rules are not breed specific. They lurk in the hearts of all men.