Harness races, in the form of chariot races, are known to have been held in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome long before horses were raced under saddle. In fact, chariot racing was a part of the Olympic Games over 200 years before racing under saddle was added. Modern harness racing, however, began in America in the late 1700's and early 1800's.
Messenger, a gray English thoroughbred, arrived in America in 1788, and sired many notable American thoroughbred racehorses, including the noted broodmare Miller's Damsel. Thoroughbreds such as Gallant Fox, Omaha, Equipoise, Sun Beau, Seabiscuit, Kelso, Assault, Blue Larkspur, Exterminator, and even the immortal Man o' War carried his blood. Yet Messenger's greatest claim to fame was as the "Great Sire" of the early American Trotter. Hambletonian 10, the foundation sire of the standardbred, was inbred to Messenger, and the great early sire Mambrino Chief was also his descendant.
Hambletonian 10, by Messenger's grandson Abdullah and out of the Charles Kent Mare, was foaled in Sugar Loaf, New York, in 1849. His breeder, Jonas Seely, sold him to William Rysdyk shortly after he was foaled for a sum of $125. Although he never raced, the records of his sons and daughters were outstanding, and standing stud in both Chester and Goshen, he sired 1331 foals, with his four most important sons being Dictator, Electioneer, George Wilkes, and Happy Medium. Today, over ninety percent of all standardbreds trace back to Hambletonian 10 in their tail male lines. Two other stallions, Mambrino Chief, the sire of many talented mares, including the great one-eyed trotting mare Lady Thorn; and Figure, the foundation sire of the Morgan, were also influential early sires of the trotter.
Pacers were separate from trotters in early history. A breed called the Narragansett Pacer was a popular saddle horse in colonial America in the late 1700's, but when the roads improved in the early 1800's, the trotter was considered to be much more fashionable. A Canadian breed of pacer, the Canuck, came into favor as the Narragansett Pacer began to disappear, since the Canuck was double gaited, working well at both the trot and the pace. Three Canadian stallions, Tom Hal, Old Pilot, and Copper Bottom were imported into Kentucky in the early 1800's. Breeding these horses to Narragansett pacers and horses of trotting blood produced the "poor man's trotter," or "sidewheeler," as pacers were called, and although trotters were favored in the northeast, the popularity of the pacer grew in the midwestern and southern states.
Horses were ridden, not driven, in early trotting and pacing races, which were mostly informal and unrecorded events, since the only racetracks which existed in America at the time were built for thoroughbred racing. Harness racing began in the New York City area, including Long Island, Southern Connecticut, and a few counties north of the city, particularly Orange County. Brushing, or informal road racing, was the earliest form of American harness racing. Whenever one driver attempted to pass another on the road, a contest was sure to begin. Horses who were most successful in brushes were often matched against one another more formally, and organized harness racing began. Its popularity increased greatly in the early 1800's, when New York and New England banned thoroughbred racing, but allowed harness racing to continue, since a race was defined as a contest in which two horses competed at top speed, and the trot was technically not a horses fastest gait. By the time thoroughbred racing returned to the north, harness racing was already established, with horses bred in New England from the blood of Figure being the most successful. The first American trotting record was set in June of 1806, when Yankee, a New England bred gelding, trotted a mile in 2:59 on the Harlem Lane Course in New York.
In 1825 the New York Trotting Club was formed, bringing some organization to the sport and helping to create uniform rules. The earliest sulkies were created by stripping down four wheeled buggies and carts. Through the use of these lighter vehicles, times were decreased greatly. Pulling an early two wheeled sulky, Lady Suffolk trotted a mile in 2:29 1/2 on October 13, 1845, in the second heat of a five heat race in Hoboken, New Jersey.
When immoral behavior by the spectators of harness racing began to give the sport a bad name, the National Trotting Association was formed to govern the sport, and its progress continued again. As equipment, tracks, and horses improved, the trotting record dropped even more. By the 1880's, the trotting record was 2:17 1/4, and its owner, Dexter, who was once driven by General Grant, was a household word. Another leap forward occurred in 1892, when the high wheeled sulky was replaced by one that was lower to the ground. The first sub-two minute mile was achieved in 1897, when Star Pointer paced a mile in 1:59 1/4 in Boston, and Lou Dillion became the first sub-two minute trotter in 1903, setting a record of 1:58 1/2.
Dan Patch, a pacing gelding from Indiana, was a legend
in his own time. He was foaled in 1896, and began his
remarkable career in 1900. He was never defeated, and he
only lost two of the 56 heats in which he was entered,
winning the second and third heats on the two occasions in
which he did not win the first. In 1903, Dan Patch broke
Star Pointer's world record, pacing a mile in 1:56 1/4,
and lowered his record to 1:55 1/4 the following year.
His record stood until Billy Direct took a quarter of a
second off it in 1938.