Harness Racing is, as a spectator sport, far different from its relative. The closeness of the horses to the crowd, the tight, even racing, thrills and sometimes spills. And despite what the ardent gallops fan will tell you-harness racing can at times be very exciting.

Harness racing, either the most popular PACING or the classic TROTTING is raced in each State of Australia, and its popularity tends to swell each year. Evidence of that fact is seen by looking at the N.S.W. TAB figures for the last year.

While turnover on each of the codes (Gallops, Harness Racing and Greyhounds) all grew, and with the thoroughbred industry still holding far greater than its two rivals, the significant act was that, of all three, it was harness racing that should see the biggest improvement.

The sport is particularly popular in the country area, the roots of the industry. Unlike the gallops, to the majority of harness racing trainers the sport is purely a hobby. While the major trainers in the gallops live in the city, most of this sport's mentors live in the country centres. Harness racing is made up of two different types-pacing and trotting.

As I said, the most popular is pacing. Trotting events are becoming rare and you usually see at most one race for the trotters on a race programme. The difference between the two is their gait, or action, as they run. Pacers race with both right legs moving forward and both left legs backwards, and vice versa. Trotters are more the high-stepping variety. At times they look awkward and are not as safe to the punter as are pacers. A good trotter, though, can be spectacular to watch. Pacers are the most graceful looking of the two, and statistics have shown that they are by far the safer for punters to support.

Harness racing and its richer thoroughbred cousin do have a few close similarities. For instance they both are involved in forms of punting, each sport is conducted all over the country, and naturally, both the gallops and the trots involve horses!  But where there are similarities, there are also several factors of each sport which differ.

Barriers in most events in the galloping industry fail to play as an important part as they tend to in the sport of harness racing.  The crucial barrier draw, even though it comes into play well before the finish, can often be the difference between winning and losing a race. But more on that later!

Another feature of the sport which differs from its more elite relative, is the relevance of track conditions.

In racing the tracks are predominantly grass. Thus the effects of the weather can, at times, have a tremendous bearing on a galloper's prospects, depending on his liking or dislike of wet tracks. Taking that into account, the winter season sees a different type of racing. But that isn't the case in harness racing.

Sure the winter months play a part in the sport, but as far as track conditions are concerned, harness racing has lengths on the thoroughbred industry. The majority of harness racing tracks in Australia are made up of a sand and gravel compound. The mixture handles water very well and it takes an extreme downpour to call a meeting off.

Because the tracks are able to handle the water, wet track form, and mudlarks, are not a part of harness racing, as is the case at the races. Once again, I'll get into that further, later on.

Harness racing events vary in distance from the short n-tile sprint, right up to the true staying tests, of around 3,000m. Depending on race distances, events usually take between one minute and 50odd seconds for the mile dash, right up to almost four minutes for the longer races.

The two types of events, the n-tiles and the staying trips, are very different styles of races and each can be exciting in their own different way. Speed and driver tactics play a big part in the mile sprints, but another factor that trainers say is needed in the sprints is stamina. The horses usually charge out of the mobile start and run their first quarter in around 27 seconds.

The next quarter is usually a settler, then often, depending on the quality of the field, the pace will be put back on for the final half mile. That's when stamina plays an important role in those events. Tactics come into it when the driver must decide whether to press on for the lead at the start, sit back and wait for the last crack at the leaders, or even, when to make his move in running.

In the gruelling longer races, the three factors used in the shorter races also come into play, but under different circumstances. Because of the distance, it takes a horse with stamina to last if the pace is on throughout. Speed is needed, both in the early stages to gain a good position, and later at the finish. Tactics are crucial, and a wrong move by the driver could see your horse stuck on a limb a long way from home.

Positions held by horses during a race, 'in running', also play an important part in harness racing. More so than the gallops, the driver of the leader can completely dictate an event, and because of his tactics, his horse, although it might not be the best, may be able to get home. Of the positions in a field, the important ones are the ones near the lead.

THE LEADER: Self-explanatory. The horse that's in front. As I said he can dictate the pace of the race. If allowed to get away with it, he'll slow the pace to a crawl and the event will turn into a sprint home from the 800m or even 600m. When this happens it makes it almost impossible for the horses at the tail of the field to make up the required ground to overhaul the leaders. All horses can sprint 400m in similar times if they haven't done any work during the race. Some horses are good in front, others need a sit.

THE DEATH: Regarded as a bad place to be! The 'death' as it is known is the position outside of the leader. The horse in that position races without cover and covers more ground than the leader. He faces the breeze and you need a tough horse that can win after racing in the 'death' throughout. On the other hand, the 'death' can be alright if there is little pace on, as that way at least the horse is up there when they sprint.

Some horses enjoy hard work, and they do race well outside the leader. Others, and usually the majority, tend to weaken when the leaders, and challengers, make their runs in the final lap.

THE ONE-ONE: The spot is named because of where it is. ONE out--one horse off the fence. And ONE backhaving a horse racing in the 'death' in front of him giving him cover. The position, also known as the sweet seat, is a good one because drivers are able to gain an easy trail throughout, and when it's time to make a run, they don't have to be concerned about being pocketed.

Sure, like the horse in the 'death' the pacer or trotter in the one-one has to cover extra ground, but this is a small drawback.

BEHIND THE LEADER: Another spot that is favoured by drivers. The position behind the leader is popular because the horse does not have to use much petrol during the run. He just gets a cart up behind the leader.

When the horse that has been behind the leader throughout the race gets clear, he usually has a good sprint left and can run down the leader if there has been pace on. While it has its advantages, the behind the leader position has one major drawback. Some drivers of the leader will kick clear and allow the horse on their back to get out.

Others won't though, and will sit and wait until they near the line before sprinting away. If the leader has had a hard run and been attacked in front, he or she will often weaken and fall back on top of the horse behind. It is so frustrating to back a horse who is placed behind the leader and doesn't get clear. Your runner goes to the line hard held and your cash goes down the drain.

Statistics have shown over recent times that these four positions provide a good share of the winners in harness racing. At Harold Park last season, 719 events, ranging from one mile (1,609m) to 2,700m, were staged. Horses racing in those four positions with a lap remaining took out 604 races. That is a very high 84 per cent. Horses racing in those four positions with two laps remaining won 480 of the 719 races. This represents a handy 67 per cent of all events.

There were 384 leaders with one lap to go which won, and 306 won after leading with two laps to go. Horses racing in the 'death' with one lap remaining won a good 111 races, but horses there with two laps remaining felt the pinch far more. Only 59 of those got home.

Of the horses racing behind the leader with a lap to go, 64 of them got clear and won. 78 horses behind the leader with two laps to go were able to get out of the pocket and win. Of the four spots, the least successful last season was the one-one. Only 45 winners came from that spot with a lap to go, and 37 with two laps remaining.

From those figures, you can see that the role of pacemaker plays a very important part in the results of harness racing. More than 50 per cent of leaders with a lap to go got the cash. Now that's good odds in any sport.

The case of money goes to money is a well used cliche in life. It can be adapted to harness racing too. In this sport there are several major feature races, Derbies, the InterDominion, the Miracle Mile, Oaks, and so on.

The big ones are the Group One races. There are 20 Group One races on the harness racing calendar each season. And the money goes to money, or success breeds success, cliches are certainly ringing true for those races this season.

The Victorian father and son training and driving team of Bob and Vin Knight have enjoyed an amazing season. Together their stable runners have taken out 12 of the 17 Group One races staged thus far this season. Big time trainers and stables rise to the occasion in major races and the strength of their teams shines through.

It is far better to stick with them and take the shorter odds than to back the hobby trainer at longer odds.  Sure there are exceptions. Rowleyalla, Paleface Adios, and Wondai's Mate are three pacers that were trained by hobby trainers who beat the odds. They were exceptional pacers. But overall it is the star trainers who get the star results.

As I touched on earlier, wet weather doesn't play as an important part in harness racing as it does in the gallops.
Because the good all-weather tracks are able to handle the water, wet track form, and mudlarks, are not an integral part of harness racing.

Where it can play a small part though, and another factor in favour of our winning positions in running story, is for the leaders.

Leaders plough through the water. and loose dirt first. But they don't have to cope with the mud being slung up behind. You do find that this causes inconvenience not only for the drivers, but also for the horses.

The best two places to be in the wet in harness racing is in front and in the death seat.

As I said, the barrier draw plays a crucial part in harness racing. Even though it comes into play well before the finish, it can often be the difference between winning and losing a race.  What we'll do is take a run though the various barrier positions at a two line mobile start. At Harold Park there are six horses on the front line and four on the back.

BARRIER ONE: Most people call it the 'coveted' rails draw. If your horse has some early speed out of the mobile, it is a great draw. He or she can usually use the inside running to hold an advantage to the first turn and hold the lead. The drawback is a slow beginner who can be crossed at the start and ends up shuffled back along the fence, and eventually in a pocket. AS A DRAW: Very Good.

BARRIER TWO: Another handy draw. A pacer with speed is easily able to lead. If the runner inside him holds the front, he is able to get a handy trail. RATING: Very Good.

BARRIER THREE: Considered a good draw by drivers. If you have a good beginner, you have the opportunity to lead. If not, you won't get shuffled back along the fence. Odds are you gain a nice trail and are able to be handy to the lead. RATING: Very Good.

BARRIER FOUR: Regarded by many as the best draw. Although barrier four is considered to be a bit wide, it is still near enough for those searching for the fence in front, and also, like gate three, you won't get shuffled back along the fence. Trainers and drivers say that gate four gives you the chance to not be crowded in the important run to the first turn. RATING: Excellent.

BARRIER FIVE: This alley does tend to be getting out a bit too wide. You need a very smart horse out of the mobile to be able to lead from the gate. Although it does produce its share of winners, drivers would prefer another draw closer to the fence. RATING: Fair.

BARRIER SIX: The outside of the front line-no man's land. A bad alley. The worst judging by statistics. You can count the number of leaders from this gate by the fingers on your hands. Drivers have little option but to go back at the start and already that puts them on the defensive. If they try to go forward, a lot of energy is used up. RATING: Very poor.

BARRIER SEVEN: Known as an awkward alley. Drawn behind barrier one means that he too is on the fence and getting off the rail often presents a problem. Many runners from this gate can end up pocketed throughout. Exasperating to say the least. Last season in Sydney this alley had the second worst winning percentage (behind gate 6), but had more placegetters than any other draw. RATING: Poor.

BARRIER EIGHT. A nice draw. Drawn behind barrier two which means if the runner in front has any early speed, the horse in gate eight ends up with a nice trail throughout. RATING: Good.

BARRIER NINE: Like gate eight, and in fact all the alleys on the back row, a lot depends on the runner drawn in front. Because he has both gate seven and eight pushing up inside of him at the start, plus the runner on the front shuffling for positions, this draw can often turn out to be an awkward one. RATING: Fair.

BARRIER TEN: The outside of the back line, but do not despair. Because of the preferential draw system (i.e. horses positioned in order of the lowest prize money winner getting gate one, right up to the highest earner in gate ten), barrier ten runners are often the best performed in the race. Usually drivers go straight back to last from this alley, then when the field settles they charge forward. RATING: Moderate.

By Michael Cowley