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First impressions
Thursday, June 20, 2013 - by Dani Wedemeyer

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My first day interning at Hoof Beats magazine proved that I knew a little more than nothing about the sport of harness racing, but not by much.

I had watched a couple races at our local track, Scioto Downs, but I couldn’t have picked a pacer from a trotter, and don’t get me started on equipment and statistics.

But I’m learning.

What jumped out at me was just how much money is involved. The purses are rich—-the $1.2 million purse for the Hambletonian this August is nothing to scoff at—-and the costs to own and train a horse add up as well.

Hoof Beats intern Dani Wedemeyer said she is impressed with the passion that racing participants show in the sport.

Each horse needs its own stall and open space to stretch its legs. Some horses eat special hay cubes with varying amounts of protein and fat depending on how you want your horse to perform and what its deficiencies are.

In addition, many owners then hire trainers, whose fees vary, but are not inexpensive. Equipment for each horse and medications add up as well. Medication also can have unexpected consequences on the horses.

These costs are so high and the procedures so time-consuming that I can’t blame those who only partially own horses, so that someone else can worry about the details and they can just enjoy the races and feel a little more involved.

Aside from the steady flow of cash exchanging hands, harness racing faces a definite struggle to keep up with the times and attract new followers. Hoof Beats has shrunk quite a bit since the 80s, a mark of the shrinking audience for the material. Racinos have come about to support local tracks, increase purse sizes and make the races more exciting to bettors.

Gamblers are fickle people, both in racing and otherwise, and keeping their attention can be tough when they’re in it for their betting money and not because they are truly interested in the sport or the horses. I recently read a 1988 interview of the late Dunbar Bostwick, who said what a shame it is that bettors “don’t give a damn about horses,” and he couldn’t be more right.

Once I started talking with people in the sport, I quickly realized that most people think of their job more as a way of life and less as a career. These people fall in love with horses and end up spending all their time in the stables, dedicating their lives and sometimes their livelihoods to the animals that make them who they are.

The really great thing about racing is that people of all ages can get involved. Children can attend races with their families, teenagers can race in small fairs and gain experience before they get their official racing license and adults can bet on the races, adding an additional rush of excitement if their favorite horse wins.

Harness racing also appears to be a family-oriented sport, with many “racing families” in driving and training. Most people I’ve talked to or read about mention someone else in their family who inspired them to work with horses.

The racing industry has made a big impression on me so far, and I am excited to continue learning and furthering my understanding of the sport. If I’m feeling ambitious, I might start working on handicapping. That’s related to betting … right?

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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.

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