Pinehurst Harness Track Stays Active
By Patricia Smith
Horse shows have been canceled over the past few weeks due to a blast of arctic air that has left the ground frozen in the Sandhills - something this area doesn't usually experience for more than a few days.
So where can a spectator go for a horse fix? Why Pinehurst, of course, where "it's always a beautiful day."
The Standardbred trainers are in residence and training goes on no matter how cold the temperature is.
Standardbreds are a breed of horse best known for their ability to race in harness at a trot or pace instead of under saddle at a gallop. Harness horses race in front of a cart rather than with a jockey on their backs.
Sitting behind a horse going at speed can get pretty chilly when the temperatures are in the 30s. So what is the one piece of clothing that trainers can't live without in freezing weather?
Mike Medors hails from Columbus, Ohio, where dressing in layers is a necessity. Medors, who has the most horses in training at the track - 43 in all - says he can't live without his silk long johns, which were a Christmas gift. But he probably didn't expect to need them in Pinehurst.
"I brought a load of horses down from Ohio last week where it was two below zero with two inches of snow on the ground," he said. "The track footing is a little harder than normal and a little dusty since they can't water it, but the track is fine for jogging the 2- and 3-year olds."
Dave Wade has nine horses in training and is from Canonsburg, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh. Wade, who was driving in a red snow suit, says his hood is the most important piece of clothing.
"Keeping your hands and feet warm is the biggest challenge," according to Wade. "It's not too bad once the sun comes out. It's better than being up north. With nine horses in the barn, the barn stays warm, so the horses don't need blankets."
Wade Ross, from Lancaster, Ohio, has six horses in training. Ross, who has come to Pinehurst for the last three years, said, "I can't live without my training suit. The track may freeze a little overnight, but if you wait a while it softens up. The guys up in New York are racing on ice."
Ross says that sometimes walkers go by and wonder if the horses are cold without blankets on.
"As long as you keep the draft off of them, they don't need blankets," he said.
Brad Crater, from Columbus, Ohio, has had frost-bitten fingers in the past, so he says gloves and his snow suit are his saving grace. Crater has been coming to Pinehurst for 10 years, and this year, he has five horses in training.
"The track has been good all winter," he said.
Tim Libby, from Maine, puts a premium on long underwear and wool socks.
Frank Harris, out of the Pole Mallar Stable, was not coping well with the cold.
"I have on every piece of clothing I own," he said.
Larry Rupp, from Pittsburgh Steeler country, seemed the lightest dressed driver, relying on ear muffs and gloves to keep him comfortable.
According to track supervisor Ray Skellington, the historic Pinehurst Harness Track is almost at capacity with 260 horses currently in residence. It will be at capacity filling 300 stalls once the 3-year old horses arrive to be conditioned for the race season.
Trainers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Canada and New York take advantage of the moderate climate to ready their 2- and 3-year-old horses from Oct. 1 to May 1. You can catch the action of horses trotting and pacing every morning Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. The track grounds also include a tack shop, the Fair Barn and the Track Restaurant, serving the best blueberry pancakes in town.
Recent Updates to the Track
The Pinehurst Harness Track is a 111-acre equestrian facility that has been a winter training center for Standardbred horses since 1915. The grounds consist of three training tracks and several center aisle barns with approximately 300 stalls, as well as several paddocks.
Horses train on either the half-mile sand/clay track, the 5/8-mile sand/jog track or the 1-mile clay track, all of which serve as ideal winter training settings.
The 1-mile clay track was reconstructed over the summer. According to Skellington, the track consultant firm of Charles E. Coon and Sons was hired to help with the reconstruction.
"It was a very large project during which the track was surveyed and set to its original dimensions," said Skellington. "We also tore out and replaced clay where needed to provide a sturdy base to the track. The Pinehurst Driving and Training Club donated 20 loads of clay for the project. We took care of some of the drainage issues that have plagued us in the past. So far we have had outstanding reviews from the trainers. We also did some things to make it look more pleasing by planting grass in the areas that would have been just dirt and by replacing the 1/8 poles. This past summer we also rebuilt three paddocks and built one new one. I could not be more pleased by how hard my staff has worked. Every day they left here exhausted."
Skellington and his crew have also tackled the job of refurbishing barns.
"We have completed four barns," he said. "That represents 85 stalls, so we are making good progress considering we only have about eight weeks a year to tackle those projects while also maintaining the grounds. My staff has worked very hard over the past two summers to get this completed. We are hoping to complete two more this coming summer, which will put us over a third of the way done. We have saved a lot of money by the track staff doing it rather than contracting this out. We did contract out to have five barns repainted this past summer. We wanted to get the barns along Morganton road done first to make the facility more pleasing to the eye for the people visiting the golf courses. We also contracted out to have done much-needed projects like having a new roof put on barn 10 that was in very bad shape and replacing the drain pipe under the half-mile track."
Skellington is also hoping to attract more horse shows in the future.
"All in all, we are making very good progress in making the Pinehurst Harness Track the best place to train and show horses," he said. "If approved in the budget, we will be adding two show rings in the centerfield of the half-mile track to provide better footing. I am hoping this will attract more shows and events to the facility."
According to the United States Trotting Association, the origins of the Standardbred trace back to Messenger, an English Thoroughbred foaled in 1780 and later exported to the United States. Messenger was the great-grandsire of Hambletonian 10, to whom every Standardbred can trace its heritage.
Standardbreds are a relatively new breed, dating back just over 200 years, but it is a true American breed.
The name "Standardbred" originated because the early trotters (pacers would not come into the picture until much later) were required to reach a certain standard for the mile distance in order to be registered as part of the new breed. The mile is still the standard distance covered in nearly every harness race.
The Standardbred resembles the Thoroughbred. However, it is often more muscled and longer in body and does not stand as tall, averaging between 15 and 16 hands.
Standardbreds are known for their docile personalities and willing temperaments. >This breed appears in varying colors, although bay, brown and black are predominant.
There are two types of Standardbreds, pacers and trotters. Pacers and trotters do not race against each other, as the pacing gait is generally faster than the trot.
Trotters have a diagonal gait. The right front and left rear will move forward at the same time with the left front and right rear moving back at the same time. Pacers move the legs on the same side of the body at the same time. The right front and right rear move forward at the same time with left front and left rear moving back at the same time.
Premier Event in April
The Harness Track is located at 200 Beulah Hill Road South off of Highway 5 in Pinehurst. The standardbred drivers have use of the tracks until 1 p.m., and people can walk the tracks after that, although walkers "should keep an eye out for the staff getting the tracks ready for the next day," said Skellington.
Harness Racing fans gather every spring for the premier event at the historic Pinehurst Harness Track - the Matinee Races. Rail parking spaces are coveted spots, held for decades by families who pack a tailgate picnic and come out to enjoy the inaugural race for young Standardbreds in training.
This year, the 61st running of the Matinee Races will be held Sunday, April 11.
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