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One is the Loneliest Number
Friday, January 22, 2016 - by Tim Bojarski

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Sulkies have been around for hundreds of years and it seems someone has always tried to make them better. The first patent ever awarded to this item went to William A. Ostmire in 1883. But arguably the most interesting subsequent patent for a new sulky went to Joe King Jr. in 1971.

In the application of patent No. US 3847408 A, the advantages of the new product are outlined as “having a streamlined shape to reduce wind drag, will eliminate interference with the horse’s motion and will convert the forces of the horse, driver and sulky into a forward and upward thrust during the portion of the horse’s stride that his feet are not touching the ground.”

What made the new sulky revolutionary was that it consisted of a single shaft.

Joe King Jr. was an aeronautical engineer in the Army. He first got the idea for the single-shaft bike while in the service after he saw horses hooked to single-shaft wagons, pull out jeeps that were stuck in the mud. He kept the idea in mind when he got out of the service and then applied it to harness racing. 

USTA/Ed Keys photo
Joe Marsh Jr. used a single-hitch sulky at the Ohio State Fair in 1970, the year they were first put into regular service.

Many recall the single-shaft sulky as a fad of the 1970s, but Levi Harner had used one of King's carts back in the late ‘50s when he produced the original prototype.
Best described, the single shaft arched over the contours of the horse’s haunches and along its back and then hooked to the top of the harness, rather than the sides. Proponents claimed it helped sore-legged horses by lessening the amount of weight the horse had to carry because the driver’s weight actually offset the horse’s load.
When the driver would lean back, it lifted the horse and took pressure off of its forelegs. As a result, many horses improved their lifetime marks by as many as five seconds the first time they were in the bike. 

The price of the new contraption back in the day was $900, which now seems paltry considering the cost of modern racebikes. But in conversion, that would be $5,600 in today’s dollars.

When the bike was first put into regular service in 1970, it produced such phenomenal results that it completely changed the way people bet. If they saw a single shaft sulky in a race, that horse automatically became the favorite, regardless of how it looked in the program. The reason was simply because of the numbers.

In 164 races, the single-shaft sulky won 94 times (57 percent). And horses that were hooked to it for the first time won 59 out of 85 starts (69 percent). It’s no wonder conventional handicapping went out the window and pools became sharply slanted toward horses sporting this new gear.

Bill Hicks was the first driver to use and win a race in Canada with the single-shaft sulky with a pacer named Meadowview Ben at Garden City Raceway in St. Catherines, Ontario. Although he saw the advantages, he also expressed some concerns.

In a Montreal newspaper interview, Hicks said “It (the sulky) doesn’t follow straight behind the horse and if you pull out, it doesn’t necessarily follow you.”
Hicks wasn’t alone in his assessment. Top Grand Circuit drivers like Joe O’Brien, Herve Filion and Billy Haughton all echoed his concerns.

In the same interview, Haughton commented “Somehow, you don’t feel like you’ve got as much control, sitting there with your feet together like that. And there is a much different sensation in the turns; a tendency to a little bouncing effect.” 

Probably the biggest fear everyone had was the fact that a horse could turn completely around and look the driver right in the eye at any time because of the pivoting hitch system.

The beginning of the end of the single shaft sulky came in 1973 when the Canadian Trotting Association (CTA) banned the use of the bike at all tracks in Canada. In a statement, Publicity Director Gordon Pepper of the CTA noted "Only the conventional dual-shaft sulky attached to both sides of the horse, the horizontal level of which shall never be greater than the height of the horse's withers shall be in use.  We are not satisfied with incomplete statistics as to the safety factors on all varieties of the single hitch sulky.”

Raceway Park and Rockingham Park were the last two tracks in the U.S. that allowed their use before they were unilaterally banned in 1974.
At that point King was down, but not done changing the sport. In 1975 he introduced the dual-shaft “modified sulky” which used the same principles as the single-shaft sulky, but was designed within the rules as they had been laid out. It became so successful that the bettors demanded a designation on the program so they knew who had them.

Over the years, King’s modified bikes sped up the sport like nothing else had before and their application and design have been copied and evolved ever since.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.