The more famous Saratoga thoroughbred track may have closed for the season in early September, but that doesn’t mean horse racing has ended for the year in the Spa City.
The Saratoga harness racing track holds competition nearly year-round from late February to mid December, racing four days a week just down the road from the flat track. The harness track is currently racing in its 76th season.
The gravel track in Saratoga is a half-mile around. Most races are held at a one-mile distance, two laps around the track. Each race, unlike the thoroughbred track, is started by a pickup truck driving around the track with a gate on either side that holds back the horses with drivers, who are on seats, officially called sulkeys but informally called race bikes, until the race is ready to begin. The truck will hit anywhere from 35-40 miles per hour at the beginning of a race.
The stakes races, called the New York Sire Stakes, are held multiple times per week. Saratoga rotates these races with five other locations around the state: Yonkers, Monticello, Batavia, Tioga and Vernon.
When asked about the best moments of his career, driver Brian Cross answered, “winning the Sire Stakes races.” Cross is a top driver at Saratoga and has been driving at the track since 1986.
The horses themselves will run from around two years old to anywhere from seven to eight years old, which is much longer than thoroughbred horses due to the breed. In the realm of thoroughbred racing, it is extremely rare that a horse will run past five years old. The horses are much smaller for harness racing and have stronger legs, whereas the thoroughbred horses are much more fragile and cannot run once they hit around that five-year-old mark, when a harness racing horse may be still in the prime of their career.
Additionally, a horse will run about once a week for harness racing, but in thoroughbred racing that is virtually unheard of, and horses will run about every six-to-eight weeks, if not longer.
“It’s a different breed. We need that, our horses need that. They won’t stay sharp if you race them two weeks out,” trainer John Mongeon said. Mongeon comes from a line of harness racing trainers, and started working with those types of horses as a child. He said he is currently training around 10 horses.
Owners have a lot more input and say on what their horses do. “You can get a lot more hands-on, from an ownership standpoint,” said owner Joe Battaglia. He said he will even occasionally ride his own horses during workouts and training.
“It’s like therapy for me. It’s what I love doing,” Battaglia added.
During the thoroughbred racing season, the harness track has their post time every race day at 7:05 p.m., giving racing fans the option to go to the thoroughbred track during the day and the harness track in the evening. Currently, the harness track is running their races from Thursday to Sunday during the week. The post time for the first race on Thursdays and Sundays is 12:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.