People in Agriculture
A Monthly Feature from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
Harness Racing is a Family Affair
Terry and Ginny Schoeffel of Evans City took their children to the Stoneboro Fair in Western Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s and just happened to watch the harness races. Taken by the excitement of racing, within months the Schoeffels bought four horses and started in the business. Today, they are one of the leading families in the harness racing industry.
In harness racing, horses pull two-wheeled carts called sulkies, which are guided by a driver. The horses race in one of two different gaits – trotting or pacing.
Each race starts behind a motorized starting gate, with the horses in each division lining up behind the gate, which is lifted when a speed of about 30-40 miles per hour is reached. Most tracks are a half mile around and the horses circle twice to race a mile in approximately two minutes.
Harnessing their interests: Terry and Ginny’s two sons each pursued careers in the horse business: Chris is a blacksmith who works at The Meadows Race Track in Washington County; and Steve works as a trainer and driver, keeping 18 standardbred horses at the stables at the Butler Fairgrounds and another 10 on pasture near their home. Steve’s wife Kathy is also very involved in the business, owning several horses with Ginny.
Steve finds most of their horses at sales across the state as filly and colt yearlings and trains them to start racing between ages two and three. He researches the horses’ pedigrees and watches tapes of them before making any purchases.
“Just because a horse looks good on paper, there’s no guarantee that it will perform,” said Steve.
The family has owned a few high-profile horses, including Special Character, the horse with the most wins (12) on the fair circuit this year.
Caring for the horses is a full-time job – even when it’s not racing season. Each day, Steve jogs or exercises his horses that aren’t racing that day to help them stay in top form.
Steve is a premier driver in the state and while he drives the majority of the Schoeffel’s horses, he is often asked by other owners to be a “catch driver,” or drive their horses, when he’s not in the same race with his own animals. He currently is the state leader for the most number of wins on the fair circuit.
On the right track: Pennsylvania is home to three harness racing tracks that offer pari-mutuel betting – Harrah’s Chester in Philadelphia, The Meadows in Washington, and Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre. A new one-mile track, Valley View Downs, is being designed outside of New Castle, with an estimated 2010 opening.
The county fairs also host harness racing – 15 of Pennsylvania’s 117 fairs have tracks. The Schoeffels compete at all 15 fairs during the summer, in addition to five two-day racing events during the year, and at Chester, The Meadows and Pocono Downs.
Terry is the president of the Pennsylvania Fair Harness Horseman Association (www.pafairharness.com), which is dedicated to promoting and preserving harness racing at Pennsylvania fairs. The fairs serve as a way to educate consumers about the racing industry and the state’s agricultural industry.
Under Terry’s leadership, the association helps to maintain the integrity of the industry by working with the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission, part of the Department of Agriculture.
The commission, lead by chairman Roy W. Wilt and commissioners Arthur Manuel and Richard Welsh, has jurisdiction over all aspects of the harness racing industry, including pari-mutuel betting, and all county fair harness racing activities. The commission is drug-testing all winning horses and other horses at random to assure they are winning on their natural abilities and the skill of their drivers and trainers.
Terry works with the association and commission to support two state-wide programs aimed at improving the quality of horses bred in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes Program and the Standardbred Breeders Fund.
The Pennsylvania Sire Stakes Program is a specially-funded program where purses, or payouts, are paid to standardbreds sired by stallions standing in Pennsylvania. In 2008, a predicted $10 million in purses will be paid out in the Sire Stakes.
Standardbred Breeders Fund will reward those who own stallions and broodmares that turn out to be top Pennsylvania racers. This fund will be worth $5.8 million in 2008.
Lapping the competition: The introduction of slots gambling in Pennsylvania, which is now the primary way purses are funded, has helped boost interest in racing. Terry believes that’s only helped the horsemen and the industry.
“The purses at fairs have gone up because of the slots revenue,” he said, acknowledging the increase in purses helps attract more people to participate in harness racing.
As a family, the Schoeffels have built a strong reputation and established themselves as leaders in Pennsylvania’s harness racing industry. They have worked to improve the quality of horses that race and have helped expanded racing at the county fairs.