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Sulkies, Silks and More

A visit to the Trotting Horse Museum in Goshen, N.Y., is a nice change of pace

There's no mystery about why Goshen, N.Y., is called Trot Town, U.S.A. After all, it's home to the Trotting Horse Museum, the Hall of Fame of the Trotter, and Historic Track. This cradle of the 19th century's "great American pastime" is nestled in a picturesque town 55 miles north of New York City.

Founded 43 years ago by the Trotting Horse Club of America and now operated by the New York State Board of Regents, the museum pays tribute to the standardbred, a uniquely American breed of horse that was officially recognized in 1879. Harness racing has its roots in America's farming communities. "In the early days," says Phil Pines, the museum's director, "farmers coming into town would meet at a crossroads and have a go at it." Eventually the sport moved to dirt ovals, like the Goshen half-mile, built in 1854 on the site of the present Historic Track.

What was originally the Good Time Stable, built in 1913, now houses the Trotting Horse Museum. The old stalls serve as exhibition space, hay chutes have been adapted to accommodate trophies, and sulkies are displayed in the hay loft. Colors, drivers' silks, are hung in the galleries, while coolers, the blankets placed on horses after races, decorate the stall railings. The stable is so well preserved that, in effect, the building itself is an exhibit. The original macadam bricks run the length of the ground floor, with well-worn wooden planks in most of the stalls. There are even teeth marks (perhaps Walter Dear's or Volomite's, two stars of the late 1920s) along the edges of many of the dark-stained pine stalls. The former hayloft is a makeshift harness racing garage. Sulkies, ranging from Hambletonian's high four-wheeler (vintage 1852) to the modified two-wheelers that are used almost exclusively by today's racers, dominate the space.

Throughout the museum homage is paid to Hambletonian, the stallion credited with siring more than 1,300 offspring and establishing the standardbred. He began his 25-year breeding career in 1851, at the age of two, and lived and stood just five miles from Goshen, in Chester, N.Y. He raced only once—in 1852, covering the mile in a respectable 2:48½—simply so that his owner, William Rysdyk, could prove the horse had speed. According to Pines, "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the trotters and pacers racing today can trace their lineage to Hambletonian. He's the daddy of them all."

The museum also boasts an extensive collection of equine art, including the world's largest collection of Currier & Ives trotting lithographs, some 150 folios that are valued at more than $250,000. There is also a small but intriguing display of weather vanes with the trotter as the theme. The centerpiece is a 54-inch-long, high-stepping trotter vane, dating from the 19th century, that stands atop the museum. "It was here when this was the Good Time Stable," says Pines. "It's been stolen twice. The first time [in 1972] it took some real gumshoe detective work to recover. It was hidden in a secret compartment behind a wall in an antique dealer's home. The second time [in 1975] we tracked it to an antique shop on Madison Avenue, but not before it had been sold to a Long Island couple. It was retrieved and returned. Needless to say, it's no longer a wind indicator and is now bolted down!"

From the museum it's a short walk to the adjoining Historic Track, the oldest active harness track in America, where you can watch trainers put their horses through their paces, or trots, as the case might be. Visitors are welcome to go through the barns, talk to trainers and even pet the horses.

The Trotting Horse Museum, which is open year-round (entry fee, $1.50), is a reminder of days gone by, of a time when folks whiled away Saturday afternoons not at the mall, but watching, maybe even participating in, harness races. In Goshen that's easy to imagine. Looking down the length of the stalls at the museum, Pines muses, "If we ever stop being a museum, we can bring the horses back in. Everything still works."



High-wheeled sulkies from the 19th century are displayed in old stalls.