Hooves hit dirt, clip-clopping an easy rhythm, and early summer sunshine wasn’t so hot with the breeze in my face.

I was sitting in the sulky with Mike Wilder, a career harness racing driver, as racehorse Show the Will trotted us effortlessly around and around the Meadows Racetrack.

“I’ve raced horses, driven, for 32 years,” said Wilder, who has more than 8,800 career wins. “I’m pretty used to it, but it never gets old. I’m glad this is my occupation.”

Like many drivers (which differ from jockeys in that jockeys ride on thoroughbreds and drivers ride behind standard horses, in sulkies), Wilder comes from a racing family. Originally from Ohio, love brought him to Southwestern Pennsylvania, where he and his wife own a 16-acre farm in Washington.

Wilder has 20 horses of his own and, during racing season, drives about 10 to 12 races a day.

He’s busy, but his job is laid back compared to the work racehorses put in before each start.

“They say, you know, that guy’s a good driver. We have to do our job, but at the end of the day, they’re the actual athletes,” Wilder said, gesturing to Show the Will, whose dark coloring was striking against his blue harness. “They’re the ones racing. They’re the ones putting in the time. They’re exerting themselves. I’ve been around them my whole life; this is how I’ve made my living. I … give them more credit than myself. I love them.”

Wilder enjoys caring for his horses – professional caretakers focus on four or five horses, showering them with attention, ensuring the athletes are properly fed, exercised, bathed and brushed and, when necessary, treated by an on-call veterinarian – but it’s the thrill of the race that’s kept him in the sulky for more than three decades.

“You’ve got to be thinking all the time. The race is one mile in a minute and 55 seconds, on average, but some go faster. You don’t have much time to think. It’s just reaction, knowing your competition, number one, and reaction time,” he said. “Everybody wants to win. If it’s 10 horses in a race, the other nine guys want to win just as bad as you. It’s a big competition, there’s a lot of strategy. It’s like a chess match: Where can I put myself in this 10-horse race to be the best when we hit the finish line? It’s pretty neat.”

As we rode, a surprisingly smooth ride, I might add, around the racetrack, sun shining, Hollywood Casino at the Meadows to our left and the sky ahead so beautiful and blue I felt like I was in a movie, Wilder explained that this was not a race-day simulation.

“What we’re doing now … is jogging,” he said.

Just then, two horses paced past, drivers leaning way back in their sulkies, leaving a trail of dirt in their wake.

“They’re working their horses for time right now,” Wilder said. “We’re exercising.”

Exercise is important for horses and drivers; in the winter, Wilder does CrossFit so that when his racing season starts, usually in April, he’s fit and ready to go when the announcer roars, “And they’re off!”

“We go about 30 to 35 miles an hour. That doesn’t sound like that much, but when you’ve got the horse behind you, his nose is right here,” Wilder patted his shoulder, “and you’ve got a horse here and here,” he motioned to both sides of the sulky, “it feels like you’re going about 60. There’s dirt flying. It’s pretty intense. It’s quite a rush.”

Wilder hopes that events like Tuesday afternoon’s media ride-along attract a larger fanbase to the races, including a younger generation of horse race enthusiasts.

“I think the important thing is just to kind of see how we prepare these athletes, just get to see how good they look, the care they get, what it takes to get them there, and bring a fanbase. That’s everything. That’s what keeps our industry rolling,” he said.

Tasha McCormick, director of marketing for the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, agreed.

“COVID kind of curtailed a lot of stuff, so we’re just trying now to get back in the swing of things,” said McCormick.

The Meadows kicks off its Friday Night Racing series May 26 with the annual Food Truck Festival and live harness racing, which starts at 5:10 p.m.

Friday night races continue through mid-September, and are free and open to the public. Races begin at 5:10 p.m., and folks 18 and older are invited to place bets.

Additional races are Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons at The Meadows racetrack.

“It’s all about the fanbase,” Wilder reiterated, inviting people to the Friday night series and other races. “You need the younger, the hyped-up crowd.”

For more on the summer racing series, or The Meadows live racing schedule, visit https://meadowsharnessracing.com/friday-racing/.

Original source credited to observer-reporter.com

Cover Photo Credit to the Observer-Reporter

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