Tiny but Mighty

Trottingbred racing continues to be a mainstay in Indiana

story by James Platz

Harrah’s Hoosier Park is the focal point for harness racing in Indiana. Every Friday and Saturday night, however, there is a racing venue in the northern reaches of the Hoosier State that plays host to some competition that is even more intense. The destination is Nappanee Raceway, located more than 100 miles north of Hoosier Park on US-6, straddling both Elkhart and Kosciusko counties. Most weekends, starting in late May and carrying through mid-September, Trottingbred ponies are on display in one action-packed contest after another.

“They only go a half-mile, so it’s pretty much they just go full bore,” said Alex Udell, a former driver on the circuit. “It’s not as much strategy. They don’t look for holes or try to get to the wood and save their horse; they just go. It’s all out. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”

Nappanee Raceway is a quarter-mile oval, so each race is a two-lap affair. Pony races are held primarily at Nappanee, but programs also are conducted at LaGrange and Goshen, both longtime Indiana venues for Trottingbred racing. What was once a sprawling racing circuit throughout the Midwest and East Coast is now reduced to these three ovals and Florida, as well as internationally in Quebec, Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Italy.

“My dad races and he raced as a child with his dad, and it was a lot bigger then,” said Brandy Veach of the International Trotting & Pacing Association, the sport’s governing body. “They raced in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Now, currently, we race in Florida and Indiana. We do have members from New York and Pennsylvania still that bring horses and have trainers here that train them and race them for them. They are older, so they don’t do it themselves anymore. The racing circuit isn’t as big as it used to be, but the Trottingbred breed is still pretty big.”

Trottingbreds were first developed more than six decades ago when Standardbreds were crossed with Welsh, Hackney and Shetland ponies. Today, the genetic makeup of a Trottingbred can be up to seven-eighths Standardbred.

In Indiana, horses must meet a height standard in order to race. A 2-year-old Trottingbred must be no more than 51 inches shod at the withers. For 3-year-olds, the standard is 51.5 inches. Ponies that “measure out” and are too big for competition are sold to race elsewhere where there are no height requirements, or they are used as buggy ponies.

Nathan Miller has had a front-row seat in watching the pony races evolve in Indiana and elsewhere. He was first introduced to the sport in the mid-1990s when he was 7. Soon he began helping with the timing of the races, and by the age of 12, he was calling them. This season marks his 21st year calling the action on the northern Indiana circuit. He also owns and trains ponies of his own, continuing the tradition his parents started.

“There used to be races in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa—and out east, almost every state raced,” Miller said. “At that time, the eastern states had a lot more racing than we had here. I would say the reason that we’re so big here is due to the Amish. It’s probably one of the only ways it’s still here.”

The Amish have a strong influence on the races. To look over a program, one finds several familiar surnames including Miller, Bontrager, Slabaugh, Hochstetler, Chupp and Yoder. Many of these participants have grown up attending the races, or a sibling before them competed on the circuit. Rose Bontrager, one of the few females battling the boys each weekend, experienced both.

“Well, my brother used to race, and pretty much all my life I’ve been going to the races,” said the 19-year-old. “This is my fourth year. I learn more every time I race.”

Bontrager’s father purchased her first Trottingbred pony. She now has four ponies—two that were bought at auction and two which the family raised. Her favorite is Hilltop Victor, a pacer that she has had since the beginning and the pony she considers her “baby.” Hilltop Victor is one of the top Trottingbred ponies, racing in the faster classes each weekend.

“He’s probably one of the better ones. I’ve got good ones this year too, but he’s pretty consistent with being up there with the winners,” said Bontrager, who is easy to spot on the track in her maroon and white colors. “He doesn’t always win, but he’s pretty consistent.”

It is not unusual to see the same ponies racing on both Friday and Saturday night programs. Despite that, Udell noted there are not as many soundness issues with ponies when compared to their Standardbred counterparts. Due to being smaller, lighter and hearty, they hold up well over the course of a five- or six-month campaign.

Indiana’s Trottingbred pony circuit has served as the proving grounds for many horsemen that have gone on to successful careers in harness racing. The late Larry Rheinheimer, developer of Breeders Crown and world champion Freaky Feet Pete, is enshrined in the ITPA Hall of Fame, as are veteran trainer Jay Cross and his late father, Harry.

LeWayne Miller is one of the highest-profile drivers to recently come from the circuit and earn a living in harness racing. Miller worked for trainer Erv Miller before going out on his own a few years ago. Earlier this year, he celebrated his 1,000th career victory as a driver, and he is a top reinsman and trainer at Hoosier Park. Miller’s brother, Dale, now competes on the circuit, wearing the family’s familiar red, blue and white colors.

“Jay Cross, Larry Rheinheimer, Byron Hooley—a lot of guys that had really good luck racing Standardbreds have come out of pony racing,” said Udell, who now works for and drives horses for northern Indiana horseman Jack Myers. “Rene and Simon Allard both started in ponies in Canada, and Rene is now one of the top trainers in the country.”

Luke Miller is hoping to parlay his interest in ponies to a career in harness racing. The 19-year-old was the top driver on the circuit in 2018, registering 41 wins from 132 starts. At the age of 15, he went to work for a local trainer, and that same year he drove his first pony. His interest took off from there. Working by day in the recreational vehicle industry, Miller jogs ponies in the afternoons, looking forward to competing each weekend.

“When I started working, I had zero experience in training a pony. I started off from scratch. I had one pony my first year and started learning and asking people what to do. Now I train two and drive three others,” said Miller, who now owns eight Standardbred broodmares and a couple racehorses with his older brother, Tyler. “I love it. It’s a good way to start off before moving to the Standardbreds. It’s very fast-paced, and I just like the thrill.”

The racing is, indeed, a thrill, whether you are in the bike or watching from the stands. Admission at Nappanee Raceway is a paltry $4, and it entitles you to two-three hours of nearly constant racing action, spread over a card of 15-18 races. Nathan Miller noted that, unlike with harness racing, there are not breaks between each race. Instead, there are a few 15- to 20-minute breaks during the course of the evening where the track is groomed and fans can head to the concession stand.

“We keep things rolling. That keeps people into it. It’s cheap entertainment. It costs $4 to get in, and kids 10 and under are free. If you go to movies or anything like that, you’re paying a lot more,” he said. “Within half an hour we race normally seven, eight or nine races. At a pari-mutuel track, you might have two races in 30 minutes’ time.”

However, the action is not limited to the number of races over a period of time; there is plenty of entertainment to be found in each contest. Udell noted a race he recently witnessed at the local fairs that exemplified the spirit of Trottingbred racing.

“LaGrange County Fair is a quarter-mile track. The last race, the fastest class, they actually went the first quarter, which was one lap, in 31 seconds,” he said. “So they went a quarter in :31 on a quarter-mile track, if you could imagine what that looked like.”

Nathan Miller noted it’s hard not to get excited when watching the action out on the track, adding that because of the quarter-mile configuration, the field tends to stay packed together throughout the race, making for thrilling competition and close finishes.

“When I’m announcing, I get into it,” he said. “Any race where they start coming two or three-wide down the stretch and the guys are hollering at them, I’m hollering right along with them on the call. The louder I get, the more the crowd starts hollering and screaming and rooting for horses. That makes it entertaining as well.”

Trottingbred racing may have died out in many of its former hotbeds throughout the U.S., but it is alive and well in the Crossroads of America. Nappanee, LaGrange and Goshen all feature racing that is not only exciting, but also fun for the whole family. And who knows? Today’s winners may be coming to a harness venue near you.

James Platz is a freelance writer living in Indiana. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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