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

racing.

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

pastimes

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

Brunswick

(www.agriculturemuseum.org). The lithographs are accompanied by

historical

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

collection

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,

"Imported

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

Hambletonian"

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

spectators,

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

it pay.

Two websites offer details about harness racing then and now. For

the Goshen, New York, museum and hall of fame, it’s

www.harnessmuseum.com,

while the site for the United States Trotting Association is

(www.ustrotting.com).

The "then" part is, alas, long gone, both in scale and

innocence,

while the association site is all-too today: filled with product ads

("Jet breath makes your horse faster"), handicapping

information,

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,"

Meredith

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

fanciers

developed Standardbred horses — a cross of Thoroughbreds with

Morgans and other breeds — in races that involved either

"pacers"

(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

trotters,

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

People"

(many of whose descendants still exchange "Currier & Ives"

holiday cards today). Their subjects ran the gamut: patriotic,

political,

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

accompanying

story?

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

wet areas.)

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

a print.

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

The New Jersey Museum of Agriculture , on the campus of

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

(www.agriculturemuseum.org).

Freehold Raceway is a a 35 to 40-minute drive from

Princeton;

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).


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