Friday, August 23, 2013

The Standardbred

 North America's earliest harness racers were the Narragansett Pacer and the Canadian Pacer. The Thoroughbred was crossed with the Canadian Pacer, as well as Morgans, Norfolk Trotters, and Hackneys, creating the Standardbred, which today is known for its distinct racing gaits.

Back in the eighteenth century, trotting races were done under saddle in simple fields. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, farmers began to take the trotting races seriously, and they ungraded to doing them on racetracks with their horses pulling small carts, called sulkies. At the same time, a trotting legend, Mambrino, lived in England.

 In 1788, Mambrino's son, a grey Thoroughbred stallion by the name Messenger, was sent from England to Henry Astor in America.  He proved an excellent sire, producing fast trotters and racehorses with great leg action and heart for the next 20 years. In fact, he is the noted ancestor of many of America's greatest racehorses from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, including the legendary Man o' War. Every Standardbred is somehow related the the amazing Messenger.  

 One of his greatest descendants was his great-grandson, Hambletonian, the son of a crippled bay mare and an ungainly, belligerent stallion name Abdullah. Hambletonian was sold as a castoff after his birth in upstate New York in 1849. He shocked everyone when he became one of the fastest trotters of all time, producing equally talented offspring.

 Standardbreds are a picture of strength and beauty. Standing 14.2 to 16 hands high, they are slightly shorter than their cousins the Thoroughbreds. Even so, they have the same long legs, powerful build, muscular shoulders and hindquarters, and long, sturdy backs. Their profile is straight, sometimes even squarish. Most often, they come in bay or brown, but some are strawberry roan, chestnut, or grey.

 Racing Standardbreds are recognized by their two unique gaits: the trot and the pace. The pace, a lateral gait, consists of moving the two legs on the same side in unison. The trot is similar, except the legs move in diagonal pairs. Standardbreds are trained to trot in their unique way using hobbles the make the legs move in unison.

Standardbreds in a trotting race.

 Standardbreds are the fastest trotting horses in the world, and have improved upon many other trotting breeds. Today, most trotters can trace their lineage back to Hambletonian, the remarkable son of Abdullah. 

 Standardbreds were first called by that name in 1879. At that time, the harness racers had to trot a mile within a standard time of two minutes and thirty seconds in order to be registered, and were consequently dubbed Standardbreds. Today, Standardbreds can race a mile in as little as one minute and fifty seconds.

 Standardbreds are not only used as racehorses. Much like Thoroughbreds, they are often faced with the plight of early retirement, and can be used as pleasure horses for years after retirement. The can also be used in disciplines other than racing.

 Fun fact: Marguerite Henry writes Born to Trot, a book about a kid dreaming that his Standardbred filly would some day become an excellent trotter.

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