Reporters hit the racetrack with legendary harness drivers
The Meadows Racetrack has been Pennsylvania’s epicenter for harness racing for half a century. While traditional saddleback horse racing dominates popular culture with events like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, in this corner of the state, racing in a sulky is where it’s at.
A “sulky” is a two-wheeled, lightweight cart that is pulled behind a horse. Originally designed for speedy individual travel in rural communities, the buggies found a new use in the beginning of the 20th century when they were first used for racing competitions.
Rural Washington County, with its rolling hills and open pastures, was fertile ground for the sport to take root.
The North Strabane Township racetrack that eventually became The Meadows Racetrack was originally built by the Washington Trotting Association in 1962. Standardbred horses are employed to pull the sulky carts. These animals were bred especially for their skill at racing at a trot with a harness rather than at full gallop with saddle.
Standardbred horses are broader and more muscled than thoroughbred horses and can pull a heavier load. For that reason, harness drivers can be much larger than the pint-sized thoroughbred jockeys.
Sulky carts got their names from their solo drivers who often “sulked” from traveling alone. But on a beautiful September evening at The Meadows Racetrack, legendary harness drivers Dave Palone, who holds the North American record for most wins, and John Campbell, the sport’s all-time leader in purses won, would not be flying solo because they had special guests.
Observer-Reporter staff writers Aaron Kendeall and Andy McNeil sat alongside these two renowned drivers during a 5/8-mile exhibition race, which is a half-lap shorter than the standard mile race.
“You ever been on a sulky cart before?” Palone asked.
“Nope,” Kendeall said out of the earshot of his colleague. “But I really want to win. Got a bottle of whiskey depending on it.”
The driver laughed.
“Don’t worry, I don’t crash nearly as much as I used to,” said Palone, who was subsequently injured during a five-horse pileup during a race at The Meadows in later October. He has since returned to the track.
Prior to the race, the two guest drivers were taken to the enormous stables opposite the grandstands, which act as the backstage for the real stars of the show. Dozens of standardbred trotters were lined up wearing bright, festive tack. The colorful attire the equine performers wore was reminiscent of garments found at a medieval fair.
Julie Allison, 26, was acting as a groom in the stables. She explained the ear covers the horses were wearing were functional as well as stylish.
“The hoods keep the sounds out,” Allison said. “The cones ensure they can’t hear anything so they don’t buck.”
When Kendeall was introduced to his horse, a mare named Sarah’s Ruby that was christened “Reporter” for the special occasion, the animal seemed wary. Rearing and whinnying in protest, she was chewing heavily on her bit.
When asked if such behavior was normal, Allison said, “She has some attitude.”
“I think it’s a good thing,” she added. “Most of the mares have a little bit of attitude.”
Allison knows these horses inside and out. She started out raising show horses and eventually bought a farm. Now, she is paid to turn out the horses on her property in Smithton. She said the horses’ “mini vacations” help relieve them from the stress of life on the racetrack.
“They just relax,” Allison said. “They’re stuck in stables all day. It’s good to get a vacation every once in a while.”
These animals are not just pets, they’re brawny investments that can rake in tens of thousands of dollars each year in purses.
As for their human counterparts, the reporters also met a number of harness drivers, including 21-year-old Montrell Teague, an up-and-coming racer from Harrington, Del.
A third-generation horseman, Teague said his biggest thrill so far in his three-year career was winning a race at The Meadows despite 48-to-1 odds with “Custard the Dragon,” his favorite horse.
“I had a perfect trip, say in the two hole behind the best horse in the race, and then around the last turn I went right by him,” Teague said.
In the same stable was veteran driver Dick Stillings, who started racing in 1970 and was recently voted into the sport’s hall of fame.
He credited his longevity on the track as the reason for receiving the honor.
“Like I tell everybody, the horses do most of the work, we have to do the thinking for them, that’s all,” Stillings said.
Another veteran, Bill Bercury, said he got involved in horse racing after a date to The Meadows while courting his wife more than three decades ago.
“She just fell in love with those horses, and I said ‘That’s the key,’” he said.
Now the couple has five horses and their own quarter-mile track.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful business,” said Bercury, who has also worked as a car salesman.
Meadows Standardbred Owners Association spokeswoman Heather Wilder, wife of harness driver Mike Wilder, also met her spouse through racing.
She said neither of them place bets on the races since the sport itself is a gamble because there are no guaranteed purses. Drivers generally receive 5 percent of the purse won by the horse.
“Every time, there’s a chance to be a superstar or be nothing,” she said.
Despite the ups and downs, the racetrack is home for Wilder, who grew up around racing thanks to her father and is now bringing her own children up in the sport.
As for the race between “Observer” and “Reporter,” Kendeall was made one bottle of spirits wealthier as he and Palone passed Campbell and McNeil while coming down the final stretch.
Given the fact that the latter’s horse may have been weighed down with treats thanks to its sweet tooth, a rematch may be in order, which would undoubtably be welcomed by both newsmen.