A leisurely ride down Route 207 in Orange County will take you to the region’s one and only historic harness racing track, commanding more than 20 acres in the middle of the village of Goshen. It’s reputed to be the world’s oldest harness track and training facility, open year-round and boasting a full slate of harness racing in June and July.
What you might not know is that the Goshen Historic Track, with its 2,000-seat grandstand, is a unique location for events of all kinds. Can you imagine staging a wedding at a track founded in 1838? Or holding a fundraising walkathon, or attending concerts and auto shows there? The refined atmosphere is like something from another era.
I took advantage of the Track’s “self-guided tour” recently and caught a workout session of a few stunning Standardbreds. Five two-wheeled carts (called “sulkies”) were on the track being pulled by five stunning animals, making their way around it in a very civilized, polite sort of manner. That’s the impression I got of the sport, too, when watching a harness racing video – until the last few yards of a race, that is, when the horses let loose with their most strident efforts to win. The Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame holds two theaters, one of which, the Amateur Downs Theater, features a 3-D simulator that puts you right in the driver’s seat behind a horse: a vantage point that is rather thrilling.
The Standardbred is built for clipping around the hard-packed oval track. With two distinct gaits actually bred into the animals, trotting or pacing, they are naturals at pulling the lightweight sulkies with evident ease, grace and speed. They can move at up to 30 miles an hour without “breaking gait,” if properly trained. They have shorter legs and longer bodies than Thoroughbreds, and are known to have a more placid disposition. Almost all Standardbreds in North America come from the breed line of Hambletonian 10 (1849-1876), whose racing prowess was renowned.
The Goshen Historic Track is expertly maintained and is surrounded by trees and a quiet residential area, providing optimal training conditions for the lucky horses who work out here. Boarding in a modern barn is also offered. Built in 2011, it features secure, pristine stalls and horse-sized bathhouses, and a new cold saltwater equine spa for on-the-premises therapy sessions.
Wandering around, I strolled into the blacksmith shop just when a gorgeous three-year-old was led in for reshoeing. Gary Smith, the in-house farrier, has been working with horses since 1980. His shop has a firebrick forge and a smaller gas-fueled forge, along with all the other tools needed to make and fit the unique aluminum horseshoes used on Standardbreds.
The Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame sits right next door in a Tudor-style stable, where, since 1949, the organization has maintained more than 40,000 harness racing artifacts, works of art, historic memorabilia, exhibits and films. It also holds the world’s largest collection of Currier & Ives trotting prints. Dedicated to the protection of harness racing’s memories and to the support of the Standardbred industry, the Museum welcomes more than 20,000 visitors each year. And free traveling exhibits are shown all over North America and Europe. Through documentation, preservation and display, the history and traditions of this American-born sport are kept alive.
Outside, a Walk of Fame honors famous horses and their owners and leads to the entrance. Docent and gift shop associate Missy Gillespie greets visitors with clear enthusiasm for her job, pointing people towards At the Gate, a 25-person theater on the first floor where a film introduces the beauty and excitement of harness racing. She talks about the 1996 capital campaign that allowed for a $6 million expansion and renovation. The back of the original stable was left intact in a two-story concourse and now shows what it might have looked like back in the day. Inside, each stall holds life-sized dioramas of scenes depicting the 160-year history of the sport.
Behind the old stable, a new wing holds numerous display spaces, as well as the William R. Haughton Memorial Hall, the Currier & Ives Gallery, the Historic Clubhouse, the Peter D. Haughton Memorial Library and Hall of Immortals (we’re talking horses and owners here). The Goshen Historic Track and the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame are veritable repositories of the sport’s lineage. Any significant item or record is kept to provide for research, educational programming and exhibitry. It’s an internationally acknowledged treasure, an example of living history, right in our own backyard.
The Museum Galleries & Gift Shop are open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information on booking the Historic Track for a special occasion, call (845) 294-5333 or stop by during the week to take a look around and speak with Missy. Stroll around the grounds to get a sense of a once-genteel lifestyle. And drop by the blacksmith’s shop and watch Gary in action!
Goshen Historic Track, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., 44 Park Place, Goshen; (845) 294-5333, www.goshenhistorictrack.com/events.
Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame, 240 Main Street, Goshen; (845) 294-6330, www.harnessmuseum.com.