The winner’s circle is not an unfamiliar place to one local teen.
Ashley Eldred of Burlington Flats has been there plenty of times. She grew up with family members who own Standardbred horses and has worked as a groom paddocking other people’s horses at harness racetracks. However, her goal is to get there as a under saddle rider.
The 19-year-old has just two races under her belt, and already came close. She placed second on a 5-year-old mare named First Tail U See at Vernon Downs in early September. Her first race was at Tioga Downs where she did not catch the starting gate and finished last. Her goal, she said, was to just finish the race and get experience.
According to Ellen Harvey, executive director of Harness Racing Communications, an arm of the United States Trotting Association, Racing Under Saddle (RUS) is a “hybrid” type of horse racing – combining elements of Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing. She said with riders and a saddle, not drivers and a sulky, RUS is not exactly new, though most racing fans in the Northeast have never seen such a race. In fact, she said, Standardbreds have been racing under saddle since the early 1800s, and “monte” racing, as it is called in Europe, is common.
It is something the USTA is promoting at harness tracks across the country.
“We are pretty excited about it and we will see where it goes,” Harvey said.
There is no betting on RUS in the United States so there is really no way to measure the sport’s popularity, according to Harvey. However, she said she does feel it is getting people’s attention and allows a group of people in the Standardbred racing industry to become involved in a way that they would not have otherwise been able to.
“They do bet on it in Europe,” she said. “We are just trying to give it a try right now. We have more than 30 people licensed in the United States, and I expect there might be some in Canada as well.”
“Standardbreds are very athletic horses and learn really quickly, so it is kind of a good way to show off those skills,” she continued.
According to Harvey, most of the riders have been women. She said licensing is done through the USTA, and riders must be at least 16 years old.
“Participants can be man or woman, old or young, heavy, tall or thin. Unlike the jockeys (in Thoroughbred racing) who generally only weigh about 110 pounds, we don’t have any weight restrictions,” she said. “ Also remember, these are the very same horses that race with the sulkies. We’ve had an awful lot of accomplished horses that have won thousands of dollars that have been doing this.”
Harvey said it generally only takes 20 to 30 minutes until a Standardbred is confident with a rider on its back.
“They are basically three quarters of the way there because they already got a bit in their mouths, they have a girth around their stomach and understand the commands that come to their mouth on the bit,” she said.
Eldred said training for an actual race takes a lot of work and practice.
“You have to be in shape yourself. There are so many things you have to do at once. You have to have good balance and be able to stay on. You have steer them and guide yourself,” she said.
Standardbred horses are trained to either pace or trot, and that is exactly what they do in an under saddle race. It is not as smooth as the Thoroughbred’s gate, according Eldred.
Eldred started training some of her own horses, but none were ready in time for this year. She happened to find a horse she could ride by coincidence.
Eldred said she was talking to the people next to her during a race one night when the subject of under saddle racing came up.
“They needed a rider and I needed a horse, so the next day we had qualifiers at Vernon and I just said let’s hop on and go and get qualified so we can race.” Eldred explained.
First Tail U See is owned by Stephen Mehrbach and trained by Ron Abbott. She has a mark in 1:57.1 at Vernon Downs Raceway and has a lifetime earning of about $51,000.
Eldred and First Tail U See qualified in 2:03. After that, Eldred said, she rode the horse as much as she could so they could get use to one another.
“It seemed to be a great match. I mean she was barely broke, she only had someone on her a few times,” she said.
The Morrisville State College pre-veterinary student said she was given the opportunity to race in New Jersey and Kentucky this past weekend, but couldn't go because of her sister’s wedding. The Red Mile hosted the richest American monte race, with a purse of $20,000, on Sunday.
Purses are determined by each individual race track, according to Harvey. She said some distribute it much like for the harness races and others give a lump sum to all the riders.
Eldred said she became interested in under saddle racing when she saw other girls doing it.
“I’ve always loved riding horses, so I gave it a shot and kept working at it and eventually got in two races,” she said.
Before a race, Eldred said, there are a lot of people telling her what to do and the nerves kick in.
“And then you go out there and you can hear the fans cheering,” she said. “It is like an adrenaline rush because you know that they are all watching you, and you are going like 40 miles per hour on a horse at full speed and all the control is in their (the horses) hands and you're just along for the ride.”
Eldred said she believes the under saddle racing is good for harness racing because it is something different that is bringing people to the tracks.
“We have a lot of supporters in and out of the business,” she said.
According to Eldred the under saddle races are pretty much done for the season, but she hopes to get in one more ride in Vernon before it closes in November.
“I’m here for the learning experience this year, and hopefully next year they have it more organized so we can all do it at least once a month during the season. My goal is to win a race next year.”