Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the August 8, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
At the Race Track Via Currier & Ives
In America’s good old days, people enjoyed home-made
ice cream, barn-raisings, country fairs, hoe-downs, and harness
Harness racing, for sure. We know that because, besides the fact that
it has endured and flourished ever since its official start in 1806,
harness racing was immortalized in Currier and Ives lithographs —
those 7,500 or so hand-colored images that famously captured (with
maybe just a teensy bit of idealizing) the people, events, and
of "life in these United States."
Stocked with its own vocabulary, equipment, and performers, harness
racing involves being drawn by a horse, rather than riding one, while
seated in a "sulky" — an open, two-wheeled carriage for
one — the driver. Reportedly, it started simply enough: farmers
challenged each other to a "brush" on the road, or a race
for a short distance at top speed. That bucolic pursuit eventually
grew into the sport of harness racing.
Through August 25, a collection of 36 rare, original prints that tell
the "Story of Harness Racing by Currier & Ives" is on view
at the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture, Route 1 North in North
(www.agriculturemuseum.org). The lithographs are accompanied by
objects associated with harness racing, including both an antique
and a modern sulky — the latter, one that children can sit in
to imagine the feel of driving one. On national tour, the print
is drawn from the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, in Goshen,
New York, near West Point and the Hudson River.
Early in the 19th century, a visiting English Thoroughbred,
Messenger," sired offspring who were inclined toward a new gait
that, when accelerated, produced "trotting." Goshen became
known as "the cradle of the trotter," and one of Messenger’s
descendants, Hambletonian, solidified Goshen’s and Orange County’s
fame as a center for trotting horses. With more than 1,300 offspring,
all carrying on his best traits, Hambletonian became the sought-after
"granddaddy of ’em all," effectively eliminating all other
trotting lines. Goshen’s "Historic Track," founded in 1838,
and the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, established in 1951,
bookend Goshen’s renown in the trotting world. "The
refers to the famous harness race that is now run every year on the
first Saturday in August at the Meadowlands.
Altogether, about 500 harness tracks dot the U.S. and Canada, with
many hosting year-round racing. The venerable Freehold Raceway, just
35 minutes away, starts racing on Friday, August 10, and continues
in winter and spring through Memorial Day. Accommodating 15,000
Freehold has hosted races for pacers and trotters since the mid-1860s
(www.freeholdraceway.com). Even now during the annual meet, the town
is filled with talk of what was the daily double and how much did
Two websites offer details about harness racing then and now. For
the Goshen, New York, museum and hall of fame, it’s
while the site for the United States Trotting Association is
The "then" part is, alas, long gone, both in scale and
while the association site is all-too today: filled with product ads
("Jet breath makes your horse faster"), handicapping
and race programs and picks.
Since summer is a time for nostalgia, return with us
now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when out of the past come
the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse . . . Dan Patch! (Who?)
A harness racing hero, Dan Patch was a famous horse after whom kids
and even tobacco pouches were named. In "The Music Man,"
Wilson’s hit Broadway show from the ’50s, Professor Harold Hill sings,
warningly, of "some big outta town Jasper, here to tell about
horserace gamblin’ — not a wholesome trottin’ race, no, but a
race where they set down right on a horse!" And, nearly inciting
to riot, he asks, "Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy setting
on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!"
Avoiding, at least for awhile, "the first big step on the road
to the depths of degradation," consider that harness racing
developed Standardbred horses — a cross of Thoroughbreds with
Morgans and other breeds — in races that involved either
(a horse’s gait in which both feet on one side leave and return to
the ground together) or "trotters" (the horse’s diagonal pairs
of legs move forward together in this gait, which is between a walk
and a canter in speed). The Currier & Ives images accompanying this
story could serve as a visual quiz: How many pacers, how many
how many sulkies?
Nathaniel Currier (1813-88) and James Ives (1824-95), relatives by
marriage and printing-business partners in New York City, produced
popular lithographs, or prints, that were advertised as "Cheap
and Popular Pictures" and "Colored Engravings for the
(many of whose descendants still exchange "Currier & Ives"
holiday cards today). Their subjects ran the gamut: patriotic,
sentimental, and sporting, as well as scenes of everyday life in city
and rural settings, trains, ships, race horses, historical portraits,
and, always in demand (then as now), disasters in progress.
The image that launched Currier’s career nationally, long before the
start of his 1857 partnership with Ives, was "Awful Conflagration
of the Steamboat Lexington in Long Island Sound on Monday Evening,
January 18, 1840, by which Melancholy Occurrence over One Hundred
Persons Perished." With titles like this, who needed an
The firm of Currier & Ives hired artists specializing in drawing the
lithographs in black and white. (Lithography, you’ll remember, is
the printing process that depends on the antipathy of grease, as in
ink, to water. Traditionally, the image is drawn on a flat surface
of limestone with a greasy crayon. The stone is wetted then coated
with an oily ink that clings to the design and is repelled by the
Stone-cutters and hand-printers turned out the images that were then
hand-colored on a production line — one of the country’s earliest.
Many of the colorists were immigrant German girls with some formal
art training, and in a process much like the French "pochoir"
(U.S. 1, January 10, 2001), it was one woman, one color, all working
from a master print on display. Though most prints were colored in
house, some were done by contract artists, who worked for a penny
Enough equine and art palaver. This is the good old summertime. Sink
your watermelon in the creek to keep cool, and get on up to the New
Jersey Museum of Agriculture for the story of harness racing. Someday
after that, you may want to take a country-road drive to Freehold
Raceway and still get home in time to help churn the ice cream.
— Pat Summers
Cook College, Rutgers University, at the intersection of Route 1 and
College Farm Road, is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $4 adults; $3 seniors; $2 children ages 4-12. Call 732-249-2077
take Route 33 East and look for signs at the intersection of Route
9. Admission is free, parking is $2, valet parking $3. Trotting races
are Tuesday through Saturday, post time 1 p.m. starting Friday, August
10, but the track is always open for simulcasting of (and betting
on) other races. Call 732-462-3800 (www.freeholdraceway.com).
Corrections or additions?
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