04/03/2013 10:19AM

Keith Gisser: Harness history, live and in person

Derick Giwner
Won The West, who retired as the fourth-richest pacer of all time, is the newest member of the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions.

They say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. And far too many of us, whether serious handicappers, casual bettors, or just race fans, have been ignoring our sport’s history for far too long. Even I have been guilty of ignoring our history lately, and I wrote a book on the history of Northfield Park, for crying out loud.

That lack of historical perspective was really driven home last week when I went to the Kentucky Horse Park, just north of Lexington, to help staff the Harness Horse Youth Foundation’s booth at the Kentucky Equine Youth Festival, a one-day event that puts over 2,500 students - some equestrians, some just casually familiar with horses - in the Horse Park’s impressive Alltech Arena for educational events and breed demonstrations. This impressive facility seats 5,700 people for horse shows and other special events.

But for me it was what was going on outside the arena that emphasized the historical aspect of our sport. Among other exhibits, the Kentucky Horse Park, which covers over 1,000 acres, features a Hall of Champions. It is currently home to Thoroughbreds Cigar, Go For Gin and Funny Cide, among others, and Quarter Horse racing star Be A Bono. But Standardbreds are the best represented, with Won The West, Mr Muscleman, Staying Together, and Western Dreamer all pensioned at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Won The West is the newest member of the group. The pacer won just shy of $4 million in his career and raced until age 8. He retired as the fourth-richest pacer of all time.

Western Dreamer is a bit of a forgotten horse, as his dad, Western Hanover tends to get more kudos. But all the foal of 1994 did was win the 1997 Triple Crown in a campaign that saw him win 14 of 29 starts that year. Staying Together was a gutsy World Champion pacing gelding, and Mr Muscleman, a trotter, raced through his 7-year-old season and won multiple Breeders Crowns. I was privileged to see all four of these horses race, the pacers several times, and cashed tickets at one point or another on all but Mr Muscleman. It was a refreshing bit of history to see these great champions and you can, too. There are daily demonstrations featuring these horses, along with their Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse counterparts, year round, with three programs daily from mid-March through mid-November, and daily events through the winter. Here is the website for the Kentucky Horse Park and its schedule information.

All four of these horses have a good chance to eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Trotter in Goshen, N.Y. I am particularly excited to be heading there to assist with an HHYF Leadership camp in July, since it has been nearly 10 years since I visited the Hall of Fame and Museum. There has been substantial updating to the museum over the past several years and there is no better way, anywhere, to get a sense of the history of our sport than by visiting this hallowed ground. The museum is much more than a hall of fame, with interactive exhibits and tributes to many aspects of our sport.

The adjacent Goshen Historic Track is the oldest active track in the United States, having hosted racing since 1838. It races matinees on the Sundays of June 2, 9, and 16, with a Grand Circuit meet (a real, traditional one, not the watered down 2013 version) from July 4 to 7, leading up to the Hall of Fame inductions.

While the Kentucky Horse Park and the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame salute the royalty of our sport, I would be forgetting history if I did not also acknowledge the grass roots events that make harness racing what it is.

On Sunday, I will be in Pinehurst, N.C., for the annual matinee races there. Post time is 1 p.m.. These are non-competitive, non-wagering events for 2-year-olds (stablemates all race against each other), but it doesn’t matter to the 5,000 or so townsfolk who show up to make this event a huge spring-fest. Elaborate tailgate parties that would put any NFL or college football game to shame feature spreads that any caterer would envy. Owners from across the U.S. and Canada check out their babies, while sneaking in a round of golf or two. Yes. It’s that Pinehurst - the one that will host both the U.S. Open for men and women in 2014. The training center, which is owned by the Village of Pinehurst, is actually surrounded by the golf courses. You can walk out of a barn and sneak out on to the course to hit a shot or two. I am not suggesting you do that (greens fees are pretty reasonable), I am just pointing it out.

Another amazing event, which I have yet to experience, occurs this weekend. Imagine a cross between the Pinehurst Matinee, a swap meet and your county fair, and you get the Hawkinsville Harness Festival.

Like Pinehurst, Hawkinsville is in a state (Georgia) with no parimutuel wagering, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from showing up for a one-day tribute to the sport. (It’s Saturday, April 6 this year, so you better hurry up and make hotel reservations.) Hawkinsville is about two hours south of Atlanta. In addition to the matinee races, this event features numerous vendors, live entertainment and fireworks after sundown.

Far too often we get so bogged down in our past performances and our exacta boxes that we forget what our sport is about, how it began and what it has become. The locations and events I have listed are just some of the many opportunities we have to remember our history. Take some time this racing season to reconnect with that aspect of our sport. Sometimes, it’s about more than “now, go cash.” See you next month.