Harness racing, the "wholesome trottin' race" of You Got Trouble from The Music Man, is a genteel form of horse racing, in which a horse pulls a sulky, a light, two-wheeled cart, at trotting speed. There are two primary types of harness racing horses: the trotter, which moves its front and rear legs of opposite sides together, and the pacer, which moves front and rear legs of the same side together. The two do not compete in the same races, having their own divisions.
Harness racing can trace its origins to the use of chariots for war and hunting, as far back as Assyria, 1500 BC. In his epic poem, the Iliad, Homer describes a chariot race. The Olympic games in 7th century BC Greece featured four-horse hitch chariot races. Chariot racing really came into its own in ancient Rome, where it was a popular sport; companies sporting colors raced chariots from sun up to sun down. The sport was attended by the same problems that racing authorities contend with today: gambling abuses, accusations of doping, disputes over race results. With the decline of the chariot as a military vehicle, chariot racing also faded away.
Horses were bred and raced as trotters in Europe as early as the mid 1500s. Over the years, trotting as a sport was developed and spread throughout many European countries. In the United States, by the early 19th century, trotting tracks dotted the country; by 1840 it was an organized sport. The number of tracks grew rapidly and the sport became more widespread, especially as an event at county and agricultural fairs.
The pacer horse, previously scorned, also gained popularity in the late 19th century, giving us the two distinct types of harness racing we have today. The most famous pacer was Dan Patch, racing from 1900-1909; the fame of this celebrated horse is as much due to deliberate promotion on the part of his owner, as it is due to his record-breaking speed.
The Fall and Rise of American Harness Racing
Corruption arising from gambling abuses led to a decline in harness racing's popularity following its heyday in early 20th century America. This was turned around by the introduction of night racing under lights, the use of a mobile starting gate allowing all horses to get off to an even running start, and the consolidation of governing bodies into a single regulatory organization, United States Trotting Association. The USTA oversees licensing, overseeing rules & regulations of racing, breed registry and the promotion of the sport. Each month the USTA names a Horse of the Month and annually honors an outstanding harness racer as the Dan Patch Harness Horse of the Year.
Source: Enyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com
United States Trotting Association http://www.ustrotting.com