Don’t know if this is on your bucket list, but this Sunday you can watch 2-year-olds pull carts around a racetrack at roughly 15 mph.
It’s the annual, all-afternoon Spring Matinee Races at Pinehurst Harness Track, about two hours east of Charlotte in historic, well-heeled Pinehurst. While best known for the Pinehurst Resort and fabulous golf courses, which date to the 1890s, a specialized type of horse racing has been a part of the sporting mix for a century.
Many grandees who visited Pinehurst to escape northern winters loved equestrian action. In 1915 the Pinehurst Jockey Club opened a harness-racing training track; a winter training facility soon sprang up.
Harness racing is where a driver steers a lightweight, two-wheeled cart pulled by one of two kinds of race horses: Pacers run by alternating their left- and right-side legs; trotters run front-left/back-right alternating with front-right/back left. Either way, the result is fast-pounding hooves pulling a helmeted rider perched on what looks like a conjoined unicycle.
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The 111-acre grounds nowadays hold horse barns with about 300 stalls, several paddocks and three tracks. Sunday’s event – centennial ceremonies followed by eight races – will be 1-5 p.m., with gates opening at 11 a.m. for parking.
That this is called a “matinee” doesn’t necessarily refer to the races’ afternoon staging. Training season here runs mid-October to early May; the steeds are owned by harness fans from across the country. The spring races offer an early look at the 2015 season’s pacers and trotters.
It’s also a coming out: The horses here for winter training are all 2-year-olds – the minimum age for racing on the pro harness circuit. Many will continue to run for a decade; some race until the ripe horse age of 14. (Professionally, they need to do a 2-minute mile to make any money.)
The 2-year-olds on Sunday will race five at a time on the half-mile sand/clay track, generally trotters-vs.-trotters and pacers-vs.-pacers. The modern-day Ben Hurs gunning down the straightaways and turns tend to be trainers, assistant trainers and perhaps a groom or two.
They should not be called jockeys, by the way. Jockeys ride atop horses; these guys sit in two-wheelers behind their horses, holding the drive lines connected to the harnesses and sparingly tapping instructions to the horses with their whips.
Bordsen is the Observer’s travel editor.
Want to go?
Bleacher seating is $5 (12 and younger, free); there will be food trucks on the grounds. There’s also an exhibit area marking the centennial of track operation. The track is at 200 Beulah Hill Road S., Pinehurst. From Charlotte, take N.C. 27 (Albemarle Road) east to Interstate 74 ( near Biscoe, in Montgomery County); go south on I-74 to Candor/Pinehurst Exit 44, then N.C. 211 to Pinehurst. Turn right at N.C. 5; it is renamed Beulah Hill Road South. Watch for entrance signs. Details: www.pinehurstharness.org.