Many harness racing purists like to say that ours is the oldest sport in America, and that may be true. But aside from various forms of pugilism, it may also be the oldest form of organized sport in the world.
The first recorded acknowledgement of harness racing dates back to a reference about chariot races during the first century in Rome. It was a political event then and the stables were run by factions. These factions owned the horses and organized the betting.
|Circus Maximus in Rome hosted chariot races for nearly 1,000 years.|
Each faction was identified by the color tunic their charioteer wore: blue, white, green or red and would race between one and three horses in each event. There were many race tracks in Rome and it was one of the ways the Emperors would provide entertainment to pacify the populous.
During that time, grain was a hot commodity and prices were high for the common people. So when the government needed a way to appease the public during tumultuous times, they would hold “grain doles” where they would disperse the commodity freely to the public. Apparently this was often done at the local racetracks known as “circuses," meaning circle for the oval-shaped tracks.
Roman satirist Juvenal (circa 100 A.D.) referred to “panem et circenses” which is Latin for “bread and circuses” and went on to state “For the people now hold themselves in check and anxiously desire only two things, the grain dole and chariot races in the Circus."
With that statement, Juvenal summed up the two most important aspects of Roman chariot races: their immense popularity and the political role they played during the Empire in diverting energies of the public that might otherwise have gone into rioting.
In the 6th century B.C., the grandest of all racetracks was built in Rome and was called the Circus Maximus, as it was the biggest track. The original Circus Maximus was built out of wood, but after it burnt down a couple of times it was rebuilt using marble and concrete. It had 12 starting boxes with gates that opened when a magistrate gave the signal. The drivers wore light helmets and would wrap the reins around their waists so they could use their body weight to control the horses. The races ran counter-clockwise and the length was three miles, or seven laps of the track.
Much like today, the drivers were popular and highly sought after. The champion of all charioteers, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, left a detailed record of his career. He began driving for the Whites at the age of 18; after six years, he switched to the Greens for three years, and then drove 15 years for the Reds before retiring at the age of 42. He won 1,462 of the 4,257 four-horse races in which he competed, and his winnings totaled nearly 36 million sesterces, or roughly $95 million based on modern day gold and silver prices.
The grandstands could seat more than 250,000 people and admission was free. Anyone could attend the races including the poor and women could sit with the men, which was very unusual at the time.
And another curious thing to note is that the most important event of the year was the “Ludi Romani," or Roman games, that were tied to a religious celebration and highlighted chariot races during the month of September. These started earlier in the month and culminated on the 19th.
|The proximity between Circus Maximus and the Coliseum is strikingly similar to that of MetLife Stadium and Meadowlands Racetrack.|
The last race held in Circus Maximus was in 549 A.D., nearly a millennium after it was originally built.
It’s amazing to think that harness racing goes back to the first century of time and its form has remained almost unchanged over all those years. Look at the similarities from ancient times:
-There were many tracks around the countryside
-Tracks had forms of giveaways for the fans
-They had catch-drivers who drove for different stables
-Drivers wore colors and helmets and used whips
-Races began with a parade in front of the stands
-They used a starting gate and starting judge
-Races were run at a standard distance
-Races were run counter-clockwise
-There was free admission
-They actually kept driver stats
-Their biggest event of the year ended on Sept. 19. (I believe there is a big event on the racing calendar on that date this year, too)
The last similarity I will point out is the proximity of the race track to the Coliseum. Some things just never change.
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