Standardbreds shine in the roadster show ring
story by Kimberly French
They round the turns in the show ring much like they once did on the racetrack, but the turns they now encounter are not banked and not nearly as spacious. Stride and speed are essential for a quality performance, but so are beauty, behavior and those indefinable attributes such as “vibrancy” and “radiance.”
These stars of the show ring are referred to as roadsters or road horses, and Standardbreds have been involved in this type of competition for more than a century. In fact, some Standard-breds who are no longer able to compete on the racetrack have become champions in the show ring. Although speed is essential to win races, style, form and grace are what win blue ribbons in the roadster ring.
“I think the first-known records of roadster horses (in the show ring) were from the early 1900s at the Kentucky State Fair,” said Larry Jenkins, former president of the American Road Horse and Pony Association (ARHPA), the national organization which oversees road horses and ponies in conjunction with the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).
But the history of the two sports has been intertwined for far longer than a century. For in-stance, the trotter Ethan Allen, born in 1849, was named as an Immortal in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1999 for his achievements as a racehorse, yet he was also a champion as a road horse.
Greyhound, another Immortal in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and one of the most iconic Standardbreds of all time, was under the watchful eye of R.C. “Doc” Flannery during his retirement. Flannery ruled the roadster classes for more than two decades.
According to the USEF, prior to April 1, 2014, any horse showing as a road horse was required to be a registered Standardbred. Since that date, roadsters are now classified as a “Standardbred or Standardbred type.”
In Jenkins’ opinion, however, only a Standardbred, typically a trotter, will suffice for the show ring.
“I become involved with roadsters with my father,” he said. “All of our horses have always been Standardbreds and have always come from the racetrack. It’s a challenge to watch them training on the track and imagine them as a road horse because they are not checked up.”
There are also very specific parameters a road horse trainer seeks when envisioning a future blue ribbon winner.
“You are looking for a smaller head, with smaller ears and a horse that is rather high-headed,” Jenkins said. “You want an arch in their neck and motion or action up front. The horse has to be tight behind, and trotters are preferred because you don’t want them to break stride going around those turns in the ring.”
Hall of Fame roadster trainer and driver Raymond Shively concurs with Jenkins’ assessment, but had a bit of his own information to add.
“They’ve got to look the part,” he said of the horses. “They’ve got to carry their head and neck right. An ugly horse won’t work in our business. He’s got to have action.”
Sam Brannon, another Hall of Fame road horse trainer, expounded upon several other traits a quality roadster must possess.
“A road horse has to use his ears,” he said. “He’s got to go with a high head, and he’s got to keep his hocks underneath him when he goes.”
The roadster horse is shown in three specific formats or classes: to the bike, to the wagon and un-der saddle. To the bike, which collects the most participants, involves a small, two-wheeled vehicle which resembles a jog cart. To the wagon utilizes a small, four-wheeled vehicle and under saddle involves a rider.
During each class, the horses are required to trot at three different speeds: the jog-trot, the road gait and full speed. The jog-trot is a slow trot, while the road gait is a modestly rapid trot at a speed capable of traversing long distances without exhausting the horse. Full speed, or the trot at speed, is the swiftest a horse can perform.
Roadsters must enter the ring clockwise at a jog-trot, then engage in the road gait prior to turning counter-clockwise at the jog-trot, return to the road gait, and then trot at full speed.
Road horses also must trot strongly down the straightaway, as well as around the turns, while being examined according to their appearance, balance and style.
“To be a good roadster, the horse has to have the right attitude,” said trainer Merrill Murray. “The horse needs to have its ears up and be happy with a show-horse attitude. It needs to be a line-gaited trotter that not only has quick motion, but that also looks pretty.
“They need to stay on their gait and should be in form at all times. Form is defined when their chins are set and when their legs are working beneath them collectedly.”
Just as harness racing has its great champions, like Niatross, Moni Maker and Somebeachsomewhere, so does the roadster sport. Two of its most prolific ARHPA Hall of Fame members are Senator Crawford and Bomb Sight.
Senator Crawford was foaled in 1925 and was a grandson of Peter The Great. Shown by Flannery, Senator Crawford drew large crowds during the Great Depression, was retired in 1940 and many still consider him to be the greatest road horse of all time.
Bomb Sight, born in 1949, was a grandson of Volomite and competed on the racetrack under the watchful eye of Lou Huber Jr. where he earned $24,902. It was in the show ring, however, where he excelled. Trained by Lloyd Teater, the stallion participated in 250 shows and collected 250 blue ribbons.
Like harness racing, roadster showing has a rich, multi-faceted history, but Jenkins also pointed out times are changing. For example, he no longer travels solely to the track to monitor future road horse prospects.
“The Mount Hope Auction, which is owned and managed by Steve, Thurman and Chester Mullet, who are Amish, puts on the Mid Ohio Memorial Cataloged Trotting Sale around Memorial Day weekend,” Jenkins said. “They have about 130 to 140 trotters in the sale.
“You really have to respect what they have brought to the sport. They even stepped up to the plate to sponsor an event at the Kentucky Horse Park for $10,000 and sponsored the USTA Road-ster Classic last year.”
There is, however, one thing that will remain a constant in roadster shows.
“Standardbreds are simply the best breed for road horses,” Jenkins said. “They have the manners, the correct conformation—because you don’t want one that is too big—and they are very willing to please.”
Shively, who has won more world championships in the bike than anyone, agrees with Jenkins yet again.
“I have never used anything other than a Standardbred to show,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but I just love them. They are wonderful horses to be around and they have such big hearts.” HB
The USTA sponsors a road horse class at the World’s Championship Horse Show. Conducted each August in Louisville, Ky., the World’s Championship Horse Show is a Saddlebred show that holds a division of more than 15 classes for roadsters. The USTA’s class, which was created in 1997 through the efforts of Larry Jenkins, Sam Brannon and former USTA employees Kent “Chip” Hastings and Karen Beach, is for registered Standardbreds in their first year of showing. The USTA partnered with the ARHPA as a sponsor for the USTA Roadster Classic, which provides $15,000 and a trophy to the winner.
For more information about the rules of showing road horses, visit the USEF website at www.usef.org or contact the ARHPA at 606.567.3766.
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