A Day at the Races
Horsing around and around and around
By Jenna Biter
Photographs by Tim Sayer
It’s a brisk winter morning. A cloudless blue sky hangs over Pinehurst. Happy sunshine beams down, tricking villagers into leaving their coats inside while they shuffle out to fetch the paper. Just down Beulah Hill Road, in the shadow of Pinehurst’s famed golf courses, horse trainers at the harness track know better. They climb into jackets, pull on gloves and hike up neck gaiters, then slide into their two-wheeled jog carts behind the rears of standardbred horses.
From dawn until a little before noon, sometimes a little after, the trainers rotate through the barns filled with horses, driving them around and around the tracks at the historic harness racing training facility.
Roland “Polie” Mallar and his second trainer, Billy Cole, are two of them. Both men drive laps in red carts, reclined with their legs straight out and gloved hands ready at the lines.
Ruddy, wind-whipped cheeks sneak out from beneath a neck warmer. Mallar is ahead, wearing a relaxed but stony look of concentration, track pants and a faded ball cap. He’s never been one for protective headgear. Following closely behind, Cole sports the same composed stare, but out from under a cream helmet and with a shield of black facial scruff.
Mallar grew up in Maine in the shadow of his grandfather — the original Roland nicknamed Polie — who trained harness racers. When Polie the younger was still in high school, he already owned horses and ran them in summer fairs.
Cole, on the other hand, grew up in Wagram, where he still lives, and knew nothing about horses until 1985. That changed when a friend who worked at the harness track offered to teach him, hoping to fill a job opening at the training ground.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Cole says.
Right: Roland “Polie” Mallar
“Here” is the Pinehurst Harness Track, the oldest continuously operating horse track in North Carolina. It was built as an amenity for resort guests in 1915, converted to a winter training center for breaking standardbreds in the late 1920s, and bought by the village of Pinehurst in 1992 so the proving ground wouldn’t be steamrolled and developed into something more commercial but far less utilitarian and picturesque.
That same year, the equestrian training center was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
For the past seven or eight years, Cole has worked at the harness track with Mallar, owner of the eponymous Polie Mallar Stable, who has been wintering horses at the facility for something around three decades.
“We were here one year, and then we went to Florida one year,” Mallar says, remembering a brief stint at Spring Garden Ranch, a 148-acre training track half an hour from a different, faster kind of racetrack — the Daytona International Speedway.
“I liked it here in Pinehurst better,” he adds, despite, or maybe even because of, the smaller sprawl and harsher winter weather.
The Moore County training center sits on 111 acres and has three tracks. The first is a half-mile clay oval surrounded by a second oval, a 5/8-mile sand border good for strengthening a horse’s leg muscles. Tucked down a short dirt road, the third track is a 1-mile clay loop used for going fast and qualifying for big harness races up north.
There are no palm trees trackside in Pinehurst, a good thing in Mallar’s view. Pinehurst’s winter chill is a training aid.
“When you leave here to go north and race in the spring, you’re not going into 75- or 80-degree weather,” Mallar says. North American harness races run in four-season regions like the Midwest and Northeast and are also popular in Canada.
Tracy Cormier, owner of the Pinehurst Track Restaurant, a legendary local institution serving breakfast and lunch in the unassuming white-block building looking out at the track, was married to Quebecois horseman Real “CoCo” Cormier.
“He started when he was a kid in Canada,” Cormier says of her late husband of 36 years. “He just loved horses. It was a big French Canadian group of guys, very famous drivers, and they just kept it going.
“Then he came to Pinehurst and just loved it.”
At first, CoCo spent summers at big-purse races in New York and winters training in Pinehurst at the harness track. Then in the ’90s, he, Tracy and their daughter, Danielle, permanently moved to the Sandhills. That’s when the Cormiers bought the restaurant.
For 27 years, Tracy has run the more-than-a-century-old eatery that attracts mostly golfers visiting from across the country and around the globe in search of a good meal and a little local color. After snarfing down a stack of famous blueberry pancakes and draining a mug of black coffee, diners pay in cash, then leave to play golf. Outside, they’re greeted by the clomp clomp clomping of hooves.
That rhythmic sound is how Scott Freeman, the harness track’s superintendent, or “Track Man,” has been diagnosing surface conditions and prescribing daily maintenance during his five years on the job.
“The racetrack talks to me,” Freeman says. “If horses are going by and it sounds like they’re knocking on the door, the surface is too hard. That hurts bone. If they go by and it sounds like a washing machine, that means the surface is too loose. That hurts soft tissue. It causes a horse to strain more.
“So it’s a fine balance,” he adds. “What it’s got to sound like is a kitten wearing sneakers.”
Year after year, between October and May, trainers like Mallar, second trainers like Cole, and grooms and groundskeepers hurry in and out of barns, helping to prepare young horses for their racing debut.
Left: Billy Cole, Right: Tracy Cormier
There’s a quiet busyness to it all. People dressed in sun-faded knock-arounds are always moving something — water buckets, hoses, bags of feed — to somewhere while others brush down sweaty-backed horses after their morning miles. A russet-colored farm dog wanders out of one barn and into another, probably off on his morning rounds. An oddly welcoming smell of manure pervades the entire scene.
Not all the horses who train at Pinehurst are yearlings (horses between the ages of 1 and 2 years old) but most are. Here in the slow and easy South, the babies can acclimate to distractions — tractors, observers and other plucky young horses — one at a time.
“Right now, it’s mostly teaching them manners,” Mallar says. “It’s teaching them to go straight. You got to teach them to go straight before you can teach them to go fast.”
This year, Mallar has 13 horses to train, all of which are standardbreds, the only breed that competes in North American harness racing. The breed’s lineage traces back to a thoroughbred stallion named Messenger who was imported to Philadelphia from England in 1788. Descendants of Messenger’s great-great-grandson Hambletonian 10 dominate the breed. To this day, standardbreds still resemble thoroughbreds, although they are longer, lower and sturdier.
“Some of these top thoroughbreds, they race four or five times a year, and they think that’s a lot,” Mallar says. Some standardbreds can race every week. Thoroughbreds race full tilt, at a gallop with a jockey on their backs, while standardbreds race at a trot or pace, pulling drivers behind them in speedy carts called sulkies.
Trotters move like other horse breeds, with a diagonal gait. Their opposite front and hind legs strike the ground simultaneously. Pacers can trot, but when pushed for speed in second gear, they shift into a lateral gait. Their same-side legs move in tandem: front right with back right and front left with back left. Standardbred horses are among only a handful of animals, including giraffes and camels, that naturally pace.
Regardless of their preferred gait, standardbred yearlings require a solid winter of training to be race-ready come springtime.
“When the horses first get here, most of them, they’ve never had a harness on. They’ve never had a bridle on,” Cole says. “First thing I usually do, I just start brushing them down, let them get used to me.”
Right: Scott Freeman
The trainers slowly introduce young horses to harness and bridle, leg loops called hopples, to help them keep gait, and the jog cart. At that point, they drive each horse around the track daily. Between Mallar and Cole, they exercise all 13 horses throughout a morning, 3 to 3 1/2 miles each.
On this winter morning, a velvety, chocolate-colored horse from Mallar’s barn tosses its head and darts in the other direction when it comes face-to-face with a tractor grating the 1/2-mile clay track. Quietly Cole, still recumbent in the jog cart, flicks his steady, experienced hands and somehow transfers his composure down the lines. He pulls the horse into the central grass field, then turns it back to face its fear.
“Most of the time, if they are scared of the tractor, I get them out and around it to get used to it,” Cole says. “Sooner or later that tractor is going to be out there and coming, and you’ll have nowhere to go and be in trouble.” The next time around, Cole’s horse makes a successful lap, even when faced with the big, scary John Deere.
“Once I get a foundation under them, I’d say anywhere between 100 and 250 jog miles, then I’ll start rushing them up a little bit for something like an 1/8th of a mile, teaching them how to step,” Mallar says. “Then we’ll have them pass each other, get them used to other horses moving around.
“I won’t really start putting a watch on them until I get to times between 2:40 and 2:45,” he says. “Then I’ll start dropping them.”
After roughly half a year of training, the now-2-year-olds run in the Spring Matinee, the harness track’s annual exhibition races that introduce the horses to competition in front of a crowd before they ship north to gambling hotspots, such as the Poconos, Yonkers and harness racing’s mecca, the Meadowlands, in New Jersey.
If owners and trainers are lucky, their horses will relish the competition, just like Mallar’s 4-year-old Ken Hanover, who set a track record in the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio, last year, one of harness racing’s Triple Crown events. That’s because good things come around at the harness track . . . and around, and around. PS
Jenna Biter is a writer and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at email@example.com.