Bonner Day: Harness racing is not for everyone

Bonner Day

Wednesday was opening day for harness racing in Woodstock, and I was there with the wife. Though the day was hot, the shade of the grandstands was comfortable and filled.

Men and women negotiated the stairs with walkers. The dress was country, with the hot weather in mind. Kids were eating various snack foods that were so fattening the aroma began to clog my veins.

The mood of the fair – excitement – prevailed in the stands. I couldn’t wait to show my expertise at handicapping races. Many years of experience had taught me to study the jockey records, the horse records and the trainer records. It’s a complicated calculation that leaves little to guesswork, but had served me well in the past at thoroughbred races.

The first disappointment was there was no betting. After the fair is over, racing, with betting, will continue at the fairgrounds. The racing session will be from Sept. 10 to Oct. 9, each Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.

I had a tip that Scott Woogen was a good, experienced driver (they are not called riders in harness racing).

So I made a pretend bet with my wife. I liked the name of the horse, too, “Nitty Gritty.” It was an exciting race. The grandstands erupted in applause and cheers as the horses crossed the finish line.

But my horse, of eight pacing, came in seventh. A South Carolina horse, “Vertigo Hanover,” won.

So I decided to abandon my tip and rely on my luck. My family is famous for its luck. When there is no hope and we are overmatched in skill, luck often prevails. I chose “Holy Ghost” owned by Emily Dysart, of Woodstock. Ridden by Betsy Brown, the horse trotted to third. And the jockey I had abandoned, Scott Woogan, drove his own horse “Pixel Queen” to come in first. And to rub it in a bit, the Northern Virginia Daily, which I write for, was sponsor of the race.

People who live on luck watch all these signs closely. Should I bet the third race or call it quits? Not only was I losing my allowance, my so-called expertise at the track was not impressing my wife, to say the least.

Harness races use a different horse, a standardbred. They have shorter legs and longer bodies than thoroughbreds. This despite being descended from a thoroughbred brought from Britain in 1788.

Standardbreds are more even tempered and I think smarter. After all, they not only run as fast as they can, they learn to run in a special way.

The trotter moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs (right front and left rear. The pacer moves its legs laterally (right front and right hind legs together).

In Europe only trotters are raced, but here in America we are more democratic. One reason may be that horses run faster when they pace. More than 80 percent of the races in America, in fact, are for pacers.

So I am looking at the third race. Was the first race, where my tip lost, a fluke? Or was the second race, where my tipped driver came in first, the fluke?

After careful consideration, I voted on my home town, Maurertown. The trainer, Alvin M. Lineweaver, had entered “Dinger Four.” Maybe luck and the hometown advantage would come together for me. Instead, “Paulimoney,” driven and owned by Scott Woogen, won. My horse came in third. Respectable, but no sign that this was my day at the races.

Now I have mixed feelings. I hope harness racing is a success at the Shenandoah County track. It should bring in more jobs and tourist dollars to the area. There is no doubt that the drivers and their beautiful horses are a sight to behold.

But I don’t know the name of my tipster and I don’t know if I can find him before the track starts taking bets.

Bonner Day has lived in the valley for the past 14 years. He confesses to a healthy share of prejudices.