MONTICELLO, NY — According to Phillip A. Pines, former director of the Hall of Fame, the storied history of harness racing in the United States can be traced to the arrival of Imported …
MONTICELLO, NY — According to Phillip A. Pines, former director of the Hall of Fame, the storied history of harness racing in the United States can be traced to the arrival of Imported Messenger from England in 1788. “Almost all harness-racing horses today are his descendants,” he said, noting that the famous Standardbred was the founding father of trotters and pacers.
Though harness racing has long been considered a male-dominated sport, in recent years, women have made significant strides in the sulkies, in addition to their more traditional roles as owners, trainers and grooms—plus a veteran track photographer.
In an article published in 1929 in the Australian Trotting Record, the author penned, “Women drivers are still sufficiently scarce to be a novelty.” The author cited the accomplishments of Alice Laidlaw, a ground- and gender-breaking driver of her time.
Fast forward a bit, and the names of Karryn Manning, Lauren Tritton and Jacqueline Ingrassia were added to the record books.
These are three short stories about dedicated and passionate horsemen, regulars at the Monticello Raceway.
Victoria Stratton trains Standardbreds, while her husband Cory sits in the sulky seat.
Originally from Ontario, Canada, the trainer said they train horses at Mark Ford Stables in Middletown. “We both train and he drives. I drive a little bit, but I’m not very good.”
Asked what she likes about the sport, Stratton replied, “Everything about it: watching the babies develop, going from really nothing to blossoming and going to the races.”
She knows “a lot of people here at Monticello. They are nice; it’s quiet and friendly—a good atmosphere,” she said of the local track.
Stratton’s take on the role of women in the sport:
“As a female, it can be a little more difficult because it’s kind of a male-run sport, but I’ve always liked the business part of it.”
As to the future of harness racing, she explained that in her opinion, “It’s evolving, hopefully going in the right direction. I think we can do a lot better as far as promoting, getting younger people to come here and see what it’s all about… I think we need to get younger kids involved.”
Cory Stratton has been in harness racing his whole life, following in the hoofbeats of his folks David and Jeanie.
“It’s all I know. It’s not really a job; it’s a lifestyle… We race a lot at Yonkers, but coming here is easier, instead of going all the way down to the city.”
And of the future of harness racing, he echoed his wife’s sentiments. “I hope the sport keeps going up, because we’re in a decline right now. We need to come up with something to get more fans and the younger generation involved.”
Victoria Stratton had the last word while standing next to Paduka N., a claimed horse imported from New Zealand.
“I’ve just always loved the horses. Going to the barn usually makes my day brighter. Even if I’m having a bad day, certain horses are special. I’ll go in their stall, and they make it better and put a smile on my face.”
Ashley Eldred and her husband Jared Bako met at the Mighty M after she moved down from the Great White North a few years ago. On October 26, Bako piloted Ideal Chance into the winner’s circle of the fifth race of the day, taking the $3,000 purse in a 1-mile pace.
Eldred hails from Burlington Flats, NY, but now the harness-racing couple reside near Shawangunk, NY, where they just bought a farm.
“My family’s done it for years; my grandfather, father and mom did,” she said of harness racing. “I grew up having to go to the barn doing chores. I actually hated it, then went off to college, and found myself with a nice horse, and now I’m hooked.”
These days, Eldred doesn’t train all that much anymore, leaves the driving to her other half, and focuses on grooming and races “under saddle.” That’s when you put a “saddle on a Thoroughbred trotter, and race ‘em the same as in a cart, but only on horseback.”
In talking about the sport and its future, Bako said, “I think we could do a better job marketing things to attract people to come back to the racetrack.” He noted that while these days he sticks mostly to training, he drove his wife’s horse into a first-place finish.
“At Monticello, the atmosphere is phenomenal; the track’s always in pretty good shape… We compete at a pretty high level already and have some of the best horses,” he said. “We hope to transition into a grand circuit in the near future.” In closing out the in-paddock interview, Eldred said, “I enjoy the problem horses: fixing their problems, training ‘em into nice animals.”
And of the sport today?
“To be honest, it doesn’t look very good… not enough horses and too many bad trainers,” she said. And as a solution for change, ”I don’t know. Just keep going until we can’t,” she said.
But what about “forever horses,” those steeds who may be past their best days on the track, those hallowed horses you can’t forget?
“We probably have too many, maybe about 50, but we kind of lose track,” said Ashley Eldred.
Monticello Raceway’s official track photographer Geri Schwarz has been around harness racing for a while. She started in 1998 at the Goshen Historic Track, which was established in 1838 and is now a National Historic Landmark. Now she has been taking pics in the winner’s circle at the Mighty M since 2008.
But Schwarz has been a familiar presence at Monticello Raceway since 1981, documenting conventions, weddings, dog shows and horse shows, but according to her website, her main interest has “been the love for the Standardbred horse.” The site notes that much of her “picture money” has gone to support her retired Standardbreds, including Belle Jay Jigger, her riding horse for many years.
Unfortunately, as with all living things, her beloved horse passed away at the age of 31, and is interred in her front lawn, gone but never forgotten.
Asked what she likes about the sport of harness racing, Schwarz said, “I really love these people, the trainers, the drivers, the grooms—and whenever I go into the paddock, I wish I worked on that side… As I learn more about it, I like it more.”
She just “wanted to be around horses,” she explained of combining her passion for photography and harness racing, “I like it because of the people and the animals.”
As to the future of Monticello Raceway, Schwarz said, “I keep thinking in my unrealistic mind, that if somebody bought the place and put some money into it, it could be great again. I don’t think it should be on the downhill if you cleaned it up.”
On the topic of women in the sport, she said “I get excited because it’s wonderful. There’s no reason women can’t do it just as well as men.
“They’ve proven it, drivers like Lauren Trout, MacKenzie Sowers and Betsy Phillips, who was a guiding light because she was here in the old days.”
In photographing harness racing action, Schwarz looks for that singular shot, the one that captures the emotion of the sport, or the unusual.
“I try to get in the best position possible, something different, something funny like when a driver is yelling with his mouth wide open,” she said.
Or back in the day when John Manzi was at the helm of the Mighty M’s publicity department.
“When he was here, we had fun with pictures,” recalled Schwarz. “There was a cat crossing the track during a race, and it looked like he was in front, but in no danger of getting squished.
“John was fantastic, always doing crazy stuff. The ultimate PR guy. A bit of a misogynist, but he kept things going and brought the crowds in,” she remembered.
To contact Schwarz or see examples of her work, email racephotobygeri.com or visit her Facebook page.
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