Veteran harness racer offers rides in Oxford this weekend

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OXFORD — From the far end of the stable, Fred Ward Jr. poses a question like he’s said it before and expects to repeat himself this weekend.

“So, what do you know about horses?”

Ward hooked the bridle on a chestnut-colored, 10-year-old mare named Jumpstart via thin metal links to the rafters and he began to unwrap leggings wound to her front legs.

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Jumpstart, who appears to have come to terms with this by now, is standing placidly on the concrete as horses whinny in nearby stalls while Sharon, Fred’s wife, carts manure out one way and returns with pine shavings.

Ward, 58, who has raised and raced horses for four decades, is preparing his nine prize-winning horses for an entirely different sort of rider: children.

This Saturday at the Oxford Fairgrounds, families and children are invited to Horsemen’s Fun Day, a family-friendly event featuring harness races, draft horses, show games and a ride-along spoon-balancing competition.

Gates open at noon and admission is $3. Children younger than 12 get in for free. Part of the proceeds will go to charity.

Hands lined and arms muscled with routine, Ward worked through the morning’s chores. As he did, the history of harness racing flowed through him like a memory: from a near-mythical origin story about strides taken to breed the first race horses, to the Civil War-era hand-forged nails still holding up some stands today.

After a moment, Jumpstart idly began chewing a metal chain.

Despite its history, Ward said harness racing is waning, displaced by a world of hand-held screens and numerous betting options. It’s a predicament with a fair share of irony: Attendance is down in part because betters have moved to the casinos, but purses, directly inflated by a portion of casino revenues, steadily hover.

“I think they’d just like us to quietly disappear, but we hope that the people of Maine see this tradition has been going on for 150 years,” Ward said.

If efforts to promote it could catch fire, Ward thinks it would spread.

Momentarily waving away questions, he clinked a two-seat cart into Jumpstart’s harness, and donned a black racing helmet and sunglasses, indicating the reporter should follow suit.

And like that, Jumpstart is off to the races.

Just last week, Jumpstart won a $1,000 purse in Topsham, part of the circuit of fairgrounds and racetracks sprinkled across the state. But today the track is empty, and Ward started Jumpstart at a gentle trot as he explained how to hold black, rubber reins connecting to a bit in the horse’s mouth. Steering is not like being behind a wheel; a slight pull to the left or right tells the horse to change direction.

In harness racing, horses control their stride so it’s shorter than a full gallop, the breakneck speed witnessed at derbies, he said. Still, speeds average around 30 mph which, when on a track with other racers, requires pinpoint reactions and the narrowest of margins.

Jumpstart plodded along steadily, the morning cool as she worked up a sweat. Occasionally, she let out a snort, and the riders passed through a warm, wet mist that may be breath or — Ward’s guess — pure snot. The only sounds were her breathing, a rhythmic clopping echoing as her hooves hit dirt and Ward’s murmured explanations, just as steady as the course ahead.

Pulling back on the reins reduces speed, while holding the reins loosely, as the reporter discovered, lets the horse choose the speed.

Horses — at least Jumpstart — like to run fast, especially when they can charge a group of turkeys who wandered onto the track. After scattering the flock, she tossed her head and Ward let out a laugh.

Nothing compares to rushing past another cart on the way to the finish line, he said.

“You put that wheel right up against their wheel. There’s nothing like it,” he said.

After all these years, Ward is still passionate about the sport. He hopes the next generation will be too.

“We hope everyone comes, has a good time and gets an education on horses,” he said. “It’s so relaxing to be behind an animal that just wants to do its job.”

ccrosby@sunmediagroup.net

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