by Joe Faraldo, USTA Chairman of the Board
Celebrating a long history; making a difference today
Over the course of the last several decades, amateur racing has grown to play an important role in worldwide harness racing. In many places, amateur racing has been a fixture for quite some time.
In September, the Italian Centennial Competition of amateur racing took place. It was comprised of three nip-and-tuck races that went down to the wire between the USA and Spain, with Ohio’s Larry Ferrari coming out victorious. It is a record the USA will proudly hold for 100 years in Italy.
Harness racing’s antecedents are said to be ancient, with some asserting that the racing style goes back to the Assyrian kings of 1500 B.C. Closer in time, our horses literally made this country, working in tandem with those whose hard work settled this nation, serving in agriculture and transportation before the advent of the automobile.
After a while, people became so proud of their steeds that they began to challenge their neighbors to see if their horse was better than the one next door. That followed with a little wager on the side between neighbors, and then others who wanted to back one’s horse versus another—the advent of the purse and the wager, respectively.
There were certain places, like the famed Harlem River Speedway, built by the City of New York in 1898, that became recognized for what we know to be our sport. This experience was not unique to New York, with many states and municipalities doing the same thing. Many big names were associated with harness racing on a non-professional basis, the most notable being President Ulysses S. Grant, who was captured in a Currier and Ives depiction driving Dexter.
Indisputably, the most notable amateur driver was Cornelius Kingsley Garrison (C.K.G.) Billings, an American industrial tycoon and noted horseman and horse breeder.
In later years, an idea to formally structure an amateur racing circuit was hatched by Delvin Miller, Jerry Monahan, Phil Pines, Vincent Bergamo and others, and the Billings Series emerged. Soon after, the North American Amateur Drivers Association (NAADA) was born.
The Billings was considered the Grand Circuit of amateur racing because the races traveled from track to track. The North American Club was more of an overnight version stationed at one or two tracks.
From these beginnings, American amateur racing greatly expanded. The USTA now records 14 amateur clubs stretching from Maine through the Midwest.
In the early days, it was difficult to convince anyone that amateur racing would grow to be the asset it has become. Originally seen as a negative, the industry began to recognize the value of these events. First, the amateurs brought people to the track; second, the amateurs were active in buying horses to drive. Despite limited opportunities, most were welcome additions to the industry’s horse population to the delight of racing secretaries, as well as our professional trainers and drivers. As the industry’s horse population decreased and the amateurs began to hone their skills, they were welcomed by tracks in need of horses to fill races. This also expanded the amateur movement.
Some amateur clubs adhere to strict criteria and protocols long established in Europe, while others have morphed into driving clubs letting in some older—and not so old—pros, mixed in with amateurs. There is enough room for both types of clubs knowing the important role served by each: that being to buy horses and make them available to fill races.
The GSY Club conducts a regular series at the Meadowlands and generates the highest handles of any club in the arena. The American Harness Drivers Club, a more traditional amateur club, conducts events at Freehold, Pocono and Philadelphia and has been a complement to the racing programs at those tracks. The NAADA, another more traditional club, conducts its races at Yonkers and Monticello, while the Great Lakes Amateur Driving Association operates in the Midwest. The Florida Amateur Driving Club conducted its races successfully at Pompano Park and donated much of the five-percent drivers’ fees to worthy charities. Charitable contributions are constants for most, if not all, of the clubs operating today.
The USTA has always appreciated the value in these clubs and for years conducted a driving school to help the amateur movement flourish. With only the pandemic curtailing this valuable event, hopefully it will soon resurface.
It is rewarding to have played a role in the development of some of these local clubs and to have raced against some of those amateur drivers who are now top professionals. Think Stratton, Bongiorno and a host of other big names. The movement seeks younger entrants, but when they excel, they quickly leave our ranks, like the recent emergence of Johnathan Ahle.
Amateur racing is an asset to the business. Its expansion into Maine, Florida and to the Midwest will hopefully continue into the future as a fixture in our game, and with the aggressive style that draws interest from fans and fills races. These events are a complement to the great professionals in our sport.
The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at email@example.com.