Local standardbred horses to race for state title in Monticello

Julie Lewis | The Daily Star Hillary Hartnett, of New Berlin, races down the stretch aboard Akhenaton, in the one-mile race under saddle event in the New York Sire Stakes, at the Otsego County Fair on July 30 in Morris. Akhenaton placed first in the event.

It is not often that a championship race is comprised of four local horses with a guarantee that one will come home as this year’s statewide winner.

The four horses, two that are stabled in Edmeston and two in New Berlin, will compete in a non-wagering racing under saddle exhibition in Sullivan County on Thursday, Septy. 5.

Two of the horses, 6-year-old Railroad Lane and 15-year-old Choke Hold, are owned by Milford resident Michelle Miller, president of Racing Under Saddle-New York, named for the discipline in which its members compete.

Also known as monte racing, racing under saddle is a hybrid between harness and thoroughbred racing in which riders race at a fast trot behind a moving starting gate similar to harness racing, Miller said.

“We race at several county fairs and travel all across the state to compete,” she said.

The series final will be held Thursday in conjunction with the New York Sire Stakes County Fair Finals at the Monticello Raceway, which will fund in part the $600 prize for each of the participants who qualified for the final race, Miller said.

Miller said only having four horses qualify and having them all be located within the same area is a rarity. In order to participate in the championship race, horses must compete in a minimum of three races out of 10 included in the series.

RUS-NY was formed in 2014 to increase interest in Standardbred racing and showcase the versatility of the breed, according to Miller.

“The goal of this series is to give horses another shot at a career,” she said. “And we want to show they can do other things besides race.”

Standardbreds are an “overlooked breed, especially for rescuing or re-homing,” Miller said. “A lot of them end up pulling Amish buggies, or much worse, in slaughterhouses.”

Miller said she takes a special interest in taking on the older horses that have had to retire or are not as competitive at the harness tracks anymore. Choke Hold is one of those horses. He had to give up his harness career in January but was given to Miller to use because there is no age limit on racing under saddle, as opposed to harness racing.

“There can be a stigma that owners do not care about their horses once they are no longer making profits. However, there are many owners that deeply care about the well-being of their horses and what happens to them once they can no longer keep them,” Miller said. “There are bonds made. You cannot work around a horse every day and not somehow get personally attached.

“Not only can the horses keep doing what they are bred to do and love, but our events let us showcase the ability that Standardbreds make good riding horses and that can help them find better homes after their racing careers,” she said.

Now in its sixth season, the series was awarded a $7,500 grant for initial purse money from the Agriculture and New York State Horse Breeding Development Fund.

“The New York Sire Stakes program congratulates the riders and horses who competed under saddle on the county fair circuit this year and wish them all well in the final,” said M. Kelly Young, the organization’s executive director.

For Miller, racing horses has always been a family affair: her father, brother, uncles and grandfather all drive or train, and some of her fondest memories include accompanying her parents to the track and riding their horses after they finished racing.

The other two horses, 9-year-old Akhenaton and 4-year-old RC’s Ready, are co-owned by Hillary Hartnett of New Berlin.

Hartnett is a breeding manager at Leatherstocking Equine Services. Despite having no background in racing before her start in 2015, Hartnett was named top rider of this year’s series, earning 450 points through her participation in every fair race and edging out Miller, who placed second with 157 earned points.

“I was no stranger to the Standardbred breed because of my educational background, but every aspect of harness racing was a new learning experience for me,” she said.

Hartnett won the series final in 2017 and her horse, Akhenaanton, is a clear favorite for this year’s event. The French-bred gelding went undefeated going 6-for-6 on the fair circuit and has a history of racing internationally under saddle where the sport is much more popular with wagering allowed.

To learn more about racing under saddle and RUS-NY, visit rus-newyork.com.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213.

Editor’s note: Michelle Miller is a copy editor and page designer at The Daily Star.

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