The 88th running of the Hambletonian is Saturday. Odd that such a horse crazy state would read that sentence and say, “What’s the Hambletonian?” But a lot of you just did. Harness racing’s Kentucky Derby for trotters has been called, “The greatest horse race many people may not have heard of,” by Hambletonian Society President Tom Charters.
At least they know they have an image problem.
The first horse race I ever attended was a harness race. My friend Kevin and I used to spend a couple days a week at The Red Mile in Lexington one summer in college. I cut my teeth on $2 show bets there and even walked out a winner a couple of times.
The only bad part was a nesting Canadian Goose would attack us when we returned to our car in the late afternoons. We parked in the same spot and apparently never learned – even when it pooped on Kevin’s windshield one day while we were at the track.
I’ve always enjoyed harness racing because there’s a little more strategy involved than the thoroughbreds. Think about it. The horses are all trotting at about the same speed. So it’s more finesse than speed or power. On Saturday the entrants will have to race twice in one day to win. It sets up a day of drama, speed and endurance and is quite unique. Because of the common pace, the last quarter mile of almost every harness race is as exciting as the best thoroughbred races.
And unlike thoroughbreds who don’t go much faster than they did a generation ago, trotters continue to drop in time as the breed improves. Expect that they’ll do a mile close to 1 minute and 50 seconds on Saturday, or 40 seconds faster than the standard of 1879 (and about 200 lengths difference).
Thoroughbreds and harness racing also have something else new in common. They’ve launched new social media marketing efforts to help introduce the sport to a new generation of fans. Applying social media to such ancient sports is really quite compelling and it will be interesting to see how it plays out over time.
In fact, the team that working on social marketing for The Hambletonian reached out to me last week to see if I would be interested in helping them spread the word about the race. Being in Kentucky, I thought it might be an easy job. We love our horses, even when they aren’t champions. On Saturday, we can watch one three-year-old become one and expand our appreciation for the vast world of horse racing – the one that exists beyond the first week in May.
The Society is rolling out trivia on Facebook and Twitter (follow them @hambletonian13), a Tumblr blog (http://hambletonian2013.tumblr.com/) and an Instagram account (http://instagram.com/hambletonian2013). You can follow the conversation by searching Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr for the hashtag #hambo13, too.
And on Saturday, ask the barkeep to throw it over to the CBS Sports Network from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. ET and give the race a watch. Or dial it up online! I’m laying some dollars on Smilin Eli. And not some silly $2 show bet, either.
Sure, we’re thoroughbred folks for the most part here in Louisville. And it’s no secret that horse racing of all types could use some attention and visibility as well. Perhaps one of these days both sports will recognize they have more in common than not, and partner together to benefit the brand of “horse racing” overall.
And if you do love horses, as I do, the Hambletonian is one of those sports traditions that us horse fans ought to get behind each year. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Except when referring to Canadian Geese. They suck.
IMAGE: Smilin’ Eli (Mike Lisa photo from Hambletonian.org).
August 1, 2013