Understanding Thoroughbred Racing versus Harness Racing

Understanding Thoroughbred Racing versus Harness Racing


Thoroughbred racing is by far one of the most popular types of horse racing. In addition to Thoroughbred racing there is harness racing, Arabian racing, Mongolian Horse racing, Quarter Horse racing, and a few other types/breed specific racing that most are not aware of. Thoroughbred racing of course only has registered Thoroughbreds in their races, and harness racing, at least in the United States only has registered Standardbreds.

A major factor that sets harness racing and Thoroughbred racing apart is the fact that harness racing uses a sulky, also known as a race bike, which is a lightweight cart that is attached to the horse. The sulky has only two wheels and has a seat in which the driver sits to steer their horse. Another distinguishing factor between these two types of racing is that Thoroughbreds only use one four beat gait (the gallop) when racing, whereas harness races either allow trotting or pacing. Trotting is a two beat diagonal gait where the legs move together in diagonal pairs. The other allowed gait in harness races is the pace, which is a two beat lateral gait that occurs when both legs move forward together. During harness races, if the horse breaks their gait and accelerates into a canter or gallop they have to be slowed back down into their correct gait or they will be disqualified. When a horse “breaks” their gait, this simply means that their pattern of footfall has changed. For instance the trot is a two beat diagonal gait, and if the horse goes from that two beat diagonal gait to a three beat gait, they have broken their gait. The “beat” of a gait simply refers to the footfall pattern, a two beat gait has two feet hit together at the same time and a four beat gait will have four feet hit the ground at the same time. The pace is a faster gait than the trot, and a majority of the horses that compete in harness racing are pacers. In regards to the actual speeds that these horses achieve during races, Thoroughbreds run at about forty to forty-five miles per hour, and Standardbreds run about thirty miles an hour.

As far as the race itself goes, harness races are run on either dirt or clay surfaces, as opposed to Thoroughbred races that can be on dirt, turf, or synthetic surfaces. Harness races are typically one mile long and require their competitors to participate in a qualifier. A qualifier is simply a one-mile race that the horse has to complete in a set amount of time. In comparison, Thoroughbred races can be anywhere from four and a half furlongs (just over half a mile) to twelve furlongs (mile and a half), and while the horses do not partake in qualifiers, they do have to be cleared by officials that they can break from the starting gate before starting in a race. The use of the starting gate is also very different amongst these two kinds of racing. Thoroughbred racing has their horses break from a standstill inside of their starting gate, whereas harness races (in the U.S.) utilize a motorized starting gate that the horses are running behind.

Another area of difference between these two forms of racing is how frequently their horses return to race. In harness racing it is very common for their horses to be entered in races weekly, racing three to four times a month. That is far less common in Thoroughbred racing, where the average time between races is approximately three weeks. The purses for harness races are sometimes as much as three times less than that of Thoroughbred races.

Although these two types of racing have their differences, at the end of the day they are showcasing the athleticism of the horses that are competing in these races and the skills of the jockeys/drivers and trainers with which they are connected.