The Standardbred

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The Standardbred is a breed of horse best known for its ability to race in harness at a pace or trot. Developed in North America, it is now recognised world-wide for its racing ability. 

The name ‘standardbred’ derives from a practice adopted in 1879, when every horse gaining entry to the official breed register had to be able to trot the mile in a standard time of 2 minutes 30 seconds. The Standardbred Stud Book was formed in the United States in 1879 by The National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders. The breed was founded in the late 18th century from a grey English Stallion called Messenger (by Mambrino out of a turf mare).  Messenger, a successful Thoroughbred flat racehorse, was imported to the USA in 1788. Like many other English thoroughbreds of the time, he had trotting connections with the English Norfolk Trotter and crosses to all three of the recognised Thoroughbred founding stallions.

Messenger never raced in harness but stood at stud for 20 years in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. He was bred to a variety of mares, most significantly to the Canadian and Narraganest Pacers (descendents of the now extinct European ambling horses that paced naturally). Messenger fathered, or sired a huge number of horses however it is his direct descendent, Hambletonian, that is now recognised as the breed’s foundation sire.

Hambletonian 10 (also known as Rysdyk’s Hambletonian) was born in 1849.  His sire was Abdallah, often called Old Abdallah, a son of Messenger and his dam was The Charles Kent Mare by the Norfolk Trotter, Jary’s Bellfounder whose maternal lines were essentially Throughbred. He never raced but it is said that his offspring certainly showed ‘the trotting instinct’. Over 24 seasons he sired 1,331 foals before his death in 1876.  Hambletonian was no oil painting, a large head and deep cheek bones and a somewhat unusual build in that he stood 15.1¼ hh at the wither and 15.3¼ hh at the croup which allowed for enormous power from the quarters.

Today, virtually all Standardbreds are descended from Hambletonian via his prolific sons which included Dictator (1836); George Wilkes (1856); Happy Medium (1863) and Electioneer (1868). When you look at the 10 generation pedigree of Tregaron’s most famous pacing son, former British record holder Scoot Around, Hambletonian appears over 140 times!

The average height of today’s Standardbred is 15.2 – 15.3hh. It has a well-muscled, long body, is slightly heavier than the Thoroughbred, has solid legs, powerful shoulders and hind quarters. Recognised for having a more placid disposition than Thoroughbreds, they are known to be very people-orientated and easy to train. Most are bay in colour, however black, chestnut and grey horses can be seen.

Although the name Standardbred is derived from being able to trot a mile in 2 minutes 30 seconds, today’s Standardbreds move considerably faster and travel at an average speed of more than 30 mph. The 1 mile world record for a Standardbred pacer is held by Cambest who completed the distance in 1 minute and 461/5 seconds (1.46.2) which was set in a time trial in 1993. The record for the fastest pacing mile in a race is 1.46.4 held jointly by Holborn Hanover set in 2006 and Somebeachsomewhere set in 2008. The current British Record was achieved in August 2010 when the mighty Doonbeg won a heat of S4C’s Crock of Gold race in a time of 1 min 53.7 seconds (1.53.7).  At the same time he set what is now recognised as a world record – the fastest mile on a less than a half mile track.

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