My recent blogs concerning Standardbred racing in the United Kingdom (UK) have once again opened my eyes to the mysterious history of harness racing on the Isles. As I mentioned in a previous blog on the subject, when I lived and played horses in the UK, the subject of Standardbreds was hush-hush and it wasn’t until I returned stateside that I began to learn more about the sport there.
Now, the munificent exposure of most topics available through the Internet is drudging up a treasure-trove of material. Historian Don Daniels continues to point me toward UK harness history and recently he made me aware of Springfield Park in Wigan. This trotting track was built in 1897 on the sprawling grounds dedicated to “athletic activity.”
By 1900, due to a blue-collar-worker explosion in the country, workingmen were enjoying athletic activities previously exclusive to the upper class. Sporting clubs began to sprout around the countryside. Thriving among activities were Tennis, Rowing, Cycling, Curling, Bowling and Fox Terrier racing.
As Springfield Park developed, the Wigan Trotting and Athletic Club moved in to hold trotting races. Licensed bookies sprang up for wagering (there is no pari-mutuel system in the UK). The history is still spotty but it indicates that there was a contingent of trotting aficionados originating in Scotland.
Further documentation traces trotting to Scotland via Shawfield Stadium. It was a grass track, as were all Throughbred tracks, in Glasgow. In the tradition of UK sporting clubs, Shawfield also hosted Greyhound racing, Soccer, Boxing and more.
A trotting circuit was reportedly developed through the Isles, since harness racing did not enjoy the popularity of the runners or the dogs, and was included at other sporting-club venues like Greenford Park and Northolt Park, both organized by the London Trotting Club, south of Wigan.
Strangely enough, when I was in the UK I lived in Harrogate in North Yorkshire, which was a steady drive northeast from Wigan, just northwest of densely populated Manchester. I was amazed that Harrogate locals, who prided themselves for being well-versed in the history of the area, would simply shake their heads when asked about Standardbred racing in the area. I was unaware of Wigan at the time, else I may have traveled south to investigate Springfield Park on my own.
There are still many facts missing from this puzzle. With the help of Mr. Daniels, readers who can contact me through the USTA website and various Internet sources and what I learned from researching my Hervey-winning article (facts to be published in a future blog), we may be able to connect a timeline of the sport from its reported beginning in 1750 when two Earls wagered on their horses pulling carts, to its appearance around 1810 in Australasia and through the modern times in the UK.
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