Monday, May 24, 2010
Attending Driving School
Harness Racing in the USA is governed by the US Trotting Association (USTA). Each year the USTA hosts the “Standardbred Driving School” which we attended this year.
The class had 41 students from 16 states and 1 from Canada. Among the students were 2 veterinarians, a US Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer, a zoo keeper from the Los Angeles Zoo, a retired municipal bonds trader, and Charles - a 16 year old African-American youth from the inner city of Detroit who had attended harness races and decided that this is what he wants to do as a profession and he had the guts to make calls and contact people who have now sponsored him and are ensuring that he get the best entry into the sport possible.
Our goal in attending the school was to learn more about the sport and to have fun. However, most of the attendees had the goal of becoming licensed drivers and trainers. In the 12 years since the inception of the school, school graduates have accumulated more than 2,500 wins as trainers and drivers.
Topics covered care and conditioning, stable management, driving and racing strategy, amateur driving, veterinary care, shoeing, and equipment. All of the classes were taught by true professionals and the top names in the business. The the highlight for many of us – we each were allowed (with a licensed driver) to jog a horse around the famed half-mile oval at the fairgrounds that is home to The Little Brown Jug. The Little Brown Jug is the second leg of the pacing Triple Crown, the premier pacing classic for three-year-old standardbreds and carries a purse in excess of $600,000.
We found out that this is very much a family sport. The majority of owners/drivers/trainers all have family involved in the sport and for many of them the involvement goes back several generations. One of our classmates, Garrett Mosher from Maine, is the son of Gary Mosher and nephew of Yannick Gingras – two of the nation's top drivers – between the two they have almost 10,000 thousand wins (yes that says ten thousand). And Garrett is just one example of family involvement.
As I said, jogging the horses was supposed to be the highlight of the school, however, for us it got much better than that. The last night of the school we all attended the harness races at Scioto Downs in Columbus. Earlier that day both Monte and Shelley had had our names drawn for getting to ride in the starting gate during the races. Monte rode for races 1&2 and Shelley was in the gate for races 5&6. Words cannot describe how totally amazing the experience was. We agreed that is is in the top 10 fun things we have done in our lifetimes. The sounds of the pounding hooves, the looks on the horses faces which are literally inches from yours, the looks of intense concentration on the faces of the drivers, these are things you just cannot see & hear from the grandstands. I know how over-used the word “awesome” is but this truly was AWESOME! The starting gate is going between 38 & 40 miles per hour when they let the horses go, the average speed of the horse during the race is around 30 mph. These guys are flying! The driver of the car only steers, the speed of the gate is controlled by the starter who is in this little cubical (we were crammed in with him) looking backwards. The starter calls the drivers to the gate, and as speed is picked up he gets to just the right spot, announces a simple “GO” and swings the gate out of the way and they're off. The race is one mile and about 1 minute and 55 secconds later, it's all over. The starter was a real interesting guy who used to be a driver and said that he had not only raced against some of the current drivers but their fathers, grandfathers and in one case the current driver's great-grandfather (the Starter could not have been much older than Shelley).
Check out the video Shelley took in "View from the Starting Gate"
So, that was our trip to Delaware, Ohio. We hope to come back in September some year to watch the Little Brown Jug.