MOUNT VERNON — By the time the average harness racing fan gets to the track, most of the drivers have run several miles of warm-up laps with the horses.
While a healthy jog gets the horse’s respiration up and warms up its legs, it also serves as a checkpoint for the driver. A driver may have to warm up several horses before a race.
New London driver Jeff Maletz was warming up Randy’s Big Girl, which was bred by Mount Vernon’s Howard Mills. Maletz knows just how to get his horses race ready.
“You’ve got to blow them out a trip just before they race just to get them loosened up and get their breathing going,” Maletz said. “I try to see how they’re feeling before the race.”
“I usually take them out an hour before they race,” explained Ashland County driver Kurt Sugg, who has 23 years of racing behind him. “I get them warmed up, loosened up — kind of like a pitcher in a baseball game. After that, they’ll be ready to go.”
Veteran driver Don McKirgan, who was warming up Trot on Water, said, “I want to see if they’re sound and how they feel. They’ve got to get loosened up — that’s the main thing. That’s what we’re taking them out there for.”
“After they come in and they’re hot and sweaty, they’ll come in and get cleaned up,” said Sugg. “We’ll put a blanket on them and keep their muscles hot and loose.”
Sometimes, a horse will let the driver know if it isn’t ready.
“You can just kind of tell,” said Suggs, whose father trained 2003 Little Brown Jug winner, No Pan Intended. “Some horses are stiff to start out with. You don’t want them to be lame. You want them to be a little excited and ready to go.”
“Sometimes they might be a little gimpy, but that doesn’t mean anything, either,” said McKirgan. “Most of the time they’ll warm up out of that. [Trot on Water] just warmed up real good.”
The horses are warmed up about half-speed, compared to how they will race as they go through their paces.
“I just want to get them loose and see everything,” said Sugg. “Some of these horses are young and it might be their first or second time that they’ve been away from their home. The majority are 2- and 3-years-old.”
“You just take them nice and slow the first couple of miles,” said Maletz. “After that, you let them run a little bit. When they get behind the gate, they know it’s time to go.”
For a sport as dangerous as harness racing, part of the preparation is making sure the driver is safe as well.
“There’s quite a bit of equipment,” said Maletz. “You’ve got knee boots, the bridle, bit, and everything has got to be on right. It has got to be in good shape. You’ve got to be alert at all times. These horses can get spooked real quick. This is the first time that [Randy’s Big Girl] has seen anything like this [the racetrack and the crowd], and she went around the track perfect.”
“We hope there’s no danger, but it is a dangerous sport”, said McKirgan before he headed back out on the track to warm up Maria SanDrina. “I’ve been busted up many a time. I’ve had my foot broken, my leg broken, my face, jaw, and both wrists broken. The biggest danger is that the guy in front of you falls down or you fall down, and the guy behind you runs over you.”
“The equipment I use is what they consider the best going right now,” said Sugg. “I try to give myself every advantage I can.”