THE FIRST AMERICAN “SPORT HORSE” BREED
Equus|Autumn 2020
THE FIRST AMERICAN “SPORT HORSE” BREED
The very name of the American Standardbred reflects the performance requirement established at the inception of the breed. Here’s how genetics, conformation and training came together to create horses that could trot a mile in 2:30 or less, or pace it in 2:00 flat.
Deb Bennett, PhD

Rarely do those involved in events of major historical significance realize just how far-reaching their actions will turn out to be. When in 1867 the famous Morgan stallion Ethan Allen was matched against Dexter, the Hambletonian speed merchant, the contest captured the public imagination. On June 21st, more than 40,000 people turned out to see the two harness racers, both of whom had previously set world records, battle it out at the Fashion Course on Long Island, New York. The fans were boisterous, opinionated and ready to lay money on their favorite; more than a quarter of a million dollars in wagers reportedly changed hands that day.

The match was set for $2,000, best three out of five heats. Odds ran two to one in favor of Dexter, who, it was believed, had more “stick”--- the old word for stamina.

Such a spectacle would never be allowed today. Without question it was an uneven contest because while Dexter pulled his high-wheeler singleton, Ethan Allen went in double harness with a “running mate” who was allowed to gallop. But in those freewheeling years just after the Civil War, there were no rules or regulations to prevent such a contest. Further, most people in the 19th century were not trained in physics or engineering and the equestrian press was filled with endless arguments concerning the nature of horse gaits as well as the supposed advantages of various styles of hitching. Slow-motion film did not exist in 1867 and the photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge, which helped to resolve most of these controversies, were still a decade in the future. Today, most people would recognize that the galloper, trained to go just slightly faster than his trotting harness-mate, took almost all the weight of the vehicle, allowing the trotter to go in a floating frame that both relieved him of the work of pulling while also encouraging him to trot faster than normal in order to keep up.

This is not to disparage the Morgan champion, because it takes special talent to work at racing speed in this kind of hitch. It goes against almost any horse’s grain not to match strides with a companion in harness or when running in a herd. But Ethan Allen was by all reports an exceptionally intelligent, sweet-tempered and highly trainable stallion. He had the further advantage of being in the experienced, skillful and sympathetic hands of Dan Mace, his co-owner, trainer and driver.

Mace picked out a young Thoroughbred mare, Charlotte F., and trained her to run evenly in harness with Ethan Allen and at just the right speed. Mace made sure that Ethan Allen got plenty of experience trotting fast in double harness. This was not difficult, because contests between teams of two hitched double to a wagon were quite common at the time. A month before the match with Dexter, Ethan Allen and Charlotte F. had gone against a horse called Brown George and his runner, beating them in three heats---the third in the very fast time of 2 minutes, 19 seconds. “This,” averred Dexter’s owner Hiram Woodruff in recalling the circumstances, “led to the match with Dexter.”

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Autumn 2020