ANDERSON – Dan Patch is busting a gut up there, in that green place where noble steeds go when they die. He’s calling his horse buddies over. He’s pointing.
“Lookit this foof,” he snorts. “Man, he can’t even buckle his helmet.”
And, well … he’s right. I can’t.
The helmet (plus Helmet Cam!) wobbles atop my head like a bowling ball on a Lincoln log, as I fumble around. Seconds go by. Manual dexterity flees, screaming in horror.
Finally veteran harness driver Mike Peterson, who knows a thing or two about this, buckles it for me.
“There ya go,” he says.
A few feet away, trainer Jordan Frye stands waiting, holding the bridle of a sleek black mare. Her name is Askpedia, she’s 6 years old, and she’s about to take Peterson and Can’t Buckle His Helmet Guy for a spin around Hoosier Park’s neatly manicured 7/8 -mile oval.
She is, up close, a magnificent animal, and no surprise there. The backstretch area at Hoosier Park encompasses 16 immaculate barns, where 800 standardbreds (i.e., trotters and pacers) are quartered. Every one is magnificent.
Used to be thoroughbreds were quartered here, too, but earlier this year the owners of Hoosier Park bought Indiana Downs over in Shelbyville, and now the thoroughbred racing is there. It’s strictly harness racing now at Hoosier Park, April through Nov. 9.
Hoosier Park’s signature race – the Dan Patch, named for the legendary turn-of-the-20th-century Indiana standardbred who made $1 million when Ty Cobb was making $16,000 – was back in May. On July 20, Hoosier Park will have its first championship night, with six $200,000 races and a couple of $100,000 events. Otherwise, it’s five nights of racing, Tuesday through Saturday, for purses of $5,800 and up.
That brings in some folks.
“I’d say 70 percent of horses for harness they ship in and then they go home,” says Tim Konkle, Hoosier Park’s genial backstretch maintenance supervisor. “Come from Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Canada, all over the Midwest, really. But I’d say 80 percent of them are somewhat within the confines of Indiana.
“We have such a strong Indiana program for Indiana horses. The money is so good that guys … are willing to drive three, four five hours to race for twice the money.”
That mirrors the sport generally in Indiana. A recent Purdue University study determined that harness racing is a billion-dollar industry in the state (“That’s like putting you up there with soybeans,” Konkle laughs), and the state has led North America in the number of mares bred for three years running.
A good portion of those come from either LaGrange County or Grabill here in Allen County, Konkle says.
“We’re breeding a lot of horses,” Konkle says.
And that leads to a lot of racing. Following the national trend, Hoosier Park added a casino five years ago, which has kicked the purses somewhat. There’s a Johnny Rockets, a Naked Tchopsticks, a steakhouse and a buffet on the grounds now. There’s an outdoor concert area seating 5,000 – among the featured acts this summer are Willie Nelson and the Beach Boys – and an indoor stage is coming.
On this night, 14 heats are on the schedule. But at the Shelbyville Fairgrounds this week, the county-fair program drew 19 heats one night and 23 another.
Peterson ran his share of those, winning eight times in three nights. Thirty-four years old, he’s a Ligonier native and 1997 West Noble grad who was raised around horses – his dad was a trainer – and raced ponies up around Nappanee and LaGrange as a teenager. And after earning a business degree at Ball State, he came back to it.
Now Frye hitches Askpedia to a special two-seated sulky – they call them “bikes” in the biz – and Peterson climbs in. And I climb in – which is when I notice, with the sort of foreboding you only get when you’re about to do something that might possibly be really, really dumb, that, unlike your car, “bikes” do not have seatbelts.
“Uhhh …” I say.
“Just hang onto the frame,” Peterson says.
And off we go.
And I have to say, it was … exhilarating.
Trotters and pacers can hit somewhere between 35 and 40 mph in race mode, and Askpedia seemed to be laboring under the delusion that we were in said mode. Off she went, clip-clopping faster and faster, wind buffeting us, while Peterson pulled back hard on the reins.
“Wow, she’s really aggressive,” he said mildly. “She’s willing.”
And then: “Wanna try it?”
And before I could turn him down, he was handing me the thick leather straps. I grasped the bottom of the loops and pulled back. Then I pulled back harder, and then harder still.
Askpedia just ran faster.
For half a lap, we weaved all over the track, as I briefly contemplated A.) what would happen if I shouted “Whoa!” and B.) how hard Askpedia would laugh if I did. Then I handed the reins back to the professional.
My upper arms and shoulders ached. I couldn’t imagine doing this for seven, eight races a night, the way drivers routinely do.
“Man, you just don’t realize how powerful these animals are,” I said.
“Yeah, the more time I spend around horses, the more you’re amazed at the things they can do. They’re incredible,” Peterson replied.
As opposed to, say, Can’t Buckle His Helmet Guy.