Here Comes The Judge

In 1998 I was too inept to drive a harness racing horse, too poor to own one, too green to train one, but I was pretty good with details and a good observer. In May I was licensed by the United States Trotting Association as an Associate Race Judge. Of our fifteen-member licensing class I was one of four women.

On my first Saturday at the track, I observed in the judges’ box, binoculars focused: had a horse swerved at the driver’s urging, a sulky wheel bumping another wheel or running under a horse’s belly? What we didn’t want was a pile of horses, drivers, and mangled bikes, as the sulkies are called. If a judge sees it, the offending driver is set back in the order of finish and forfeits any purse money he/she might have earned. The Presiding Judge, who runs the show, told me, “Call it if you see it, but remember that these drivers depend on racing for their groceries. No frivolous accusations.”

Then I rode in the starter car, which has long wings that stretch in front of the horses to line them up. When the car reaches racing speed, the wings fold and “They’re off.” I was face to face with the horses until the driver of the car pulled out of their path and the field of eight horses and drivers swept past us. After that I was escorted to the patrol booth on the second turn. Walking across the track felt odd. Few human feet ever touched that surface, only horses and the big water truck that wet down the track between races to reduce the dust.

The patrol box was a tiny house on six-foot stilts. A ladder slanted up to it.The door was balky. Inside there was room for one tall padded chair and a shelf. Windows on three sides provided a view of the backstretch, the second or far turn right below us, and the long dirt ramp from the paddock. The judge who had led me out there watched the second race with me and called in the all-clear on a crackly radio. Then he asked, “Are you ready to solo?”

I was supposed to be ready. He climbed down and left me there with my head in the clouds. I sat in the patrol box two nights a week for three months. During that time, a horse fell down, a rider fell off the bike–the driverless mare completing two laps and taking herself to the paddock–a windstorm blew out the lights on the second turn, a horse ran under the starting gate, rain drove in through cracks in the windows and blurred the view. All sorts of things happened, none of them terrible. Then the track announcer told us we would go to a day-time schedule after the country fair season and that schedule change ended my stint as a harness racing judge.

Karen Douglass has had many adventures as a psych nurse, horsewoman, poet and prose writer. She now lives in Colorado where few people have ever seen harness racing. This story is excerpted from her book Green Rider, Thinking Horse.