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Breed Feature: The Standardbred

Raising The Standard

In bygone days, the Standardbred was often regarded as the Thoroughbred’s inferior cousin. But times have changed and this once underestimated breed has made its many talents abundantly clear, writes SUZY JARRATT.

A plain headed creature good for nothing but harness racing? Not so! Over the years the Standardbred has proved to be diversely talented, making its mark in many Olympic disciplines and shining in the show ring.

The breed was established in the United States in the late 1700s, when some of the first trotting races were held. In the pursuit of developing a faster horse a combination of breeds was crossed, including the Narragansett Pacer (now extinct), English Thoroughbred, Canadian Pacer (rare), Hackney, Norfolk Trotter (extinct) and the Morgan. A register was begun in 1867 to record trotting horses’ pedigrees, and twelve years later the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders agreed upon standards to define the eligibility of horses which could be accepted. One of the rules was that a stallion had to trot a mile in two-and-a-half minutes or faster. The high standard required for registration led to the name Standardbred.

All Standardbreds can trace their ancestry through direct male line to Messenger, an English Thoroughbred from the Darley Arabian line, brought to America in 1788. Today’s Standardbred owes its existence to Hambletonian 10, a prolific grandson of Messenger.

Within the breed there are both trotters and pacers and certain bloodlines are more likely to produce one than the other. Pacing is a specialised gait which has only recently been linked to a specific genetic mutation which influences the spinal cord and the way the limbs can move.

Stunning Standardbred stallion Spare Me Days, owned and shown by Judy Frisby (Image by Melissa Goodson).

Harness racing began in this country in the early 1800s and was soon regarded as ‘the sport of the people’ instead of kings. The first meeting took place in Parramatta and was won by Miss Kitty, a mare sired by Hector, an imported Arabian stallion of some note. The sport’s history has been well documented and its two thousand meetings held annually are keenly followed by broadcasters, reporters and punters across Australia. However, many of the Standardbred’s achievements and influences in other equestrian sports are scarcely recognised.

In 1956, Gerhard Quast migrated to Australia from Germany and established himself as a strawberry farmer. But he saw the market for Warmbloods and imported his first Holsteiner stallion, Monopol, in 1975. Gerhard had seen Standardbred mares used successfully to breed jumping horses in Germany. So he decided to follow suit here in Australia, putting Monopol to both Thoroughbred and Standardbred mares.

And it worked, and not just with show jumpers. Perhaps one of the most notable Monopol progeny was Falkrich, who sired Judy Dierks’ Grand Prix dressage horses Finigan and Frontier. In total, Gerhard bred around sixteen Grand Prix dressage horses from Monopol, twelve of whom had trotter blood, and out of one half-trotter mare he produced twelve excellent A-grade show jumpers.

One of the German horses that inspired Gerhard was a mare named Halla. A famous jumper, she was out of a French trotter of unknown breeding by a Standardbred named Oberst. Ridden by Hans Gunter Winkler, she is the only show jumper ever to win three Olympic gold medals. She was retired in 1960 to begin a career as a broodmare. After she died in 1979 aged 34, the German Equestrian Federation ruled that no other horse could ever be registered with the same name.

While Halla was still having foals in Germany another talented mare with similar blood was doing great things in Australia. Veteran show jumper Maree Hewitt recalls when she first saw Springtime: “She was a part Standardbred from Western Australia ridden by Geoff Harley in the Australian Championships. She set a jump record of six feet seven inches [that’s a whisker over two meters]. Everybody noticed her, especially Olympian Kevin Bacon.”

But it was Maree who ended up with the mare. “Dad rang WA and bought her over the phone. She was 13 and I was 19 when we won the jumping at Melbourne show. I was the first woman to do so. In 1973 we were on the Australian team visiting New Zealand and Springtime and I won a lot over there including Lady Rider, Hunter of the Year, and the Grand Prix at the NZ Horse of the Year Show. She was a good-looking bay with a nice head and a calm temperament – a fantastic horse with so much power in her jump.”

While at the Melbourne Show Maree and Springtime also won the Alice Laidlaw Memorial trophy. This annual award, presented to the best woman rider over hurdles, is regarded as the show jumping equivalent of the Garryowen Equestrienne Turnout. Traditionally this prestigious class is the domain of the Thoroughbred but in 2013 Kathleen Mullan made history with MF Hollywood (a.k.a. James). She was the first person mounted on a Standardbred to compete in the event since its inception in 1934.

Kathleen Mullan and MF Hollywood competing in the 2013 Garryowen Equestrienne Turnout (Image by Julie Wilson Equestrian Photography).

James, a 14.3hh chestnut by P. Forty Seven (U.S.) had been bred by Kathleen’s family and raced before his show ring success. Although not finishing in the final placings, the unique combination gave a near faultless workout and were cheered by a legion of Standardbred fans, plus others who were aware of the significance of the moment. Kathleen and James returned to Melbourne in 2014, taking out Best Novice Show Hunter. Several years earlier she had been successful in the hack ring with Titan Thunder, a Standardbred stallion who dominated in open company as well as his breed classes.

Presently on maternity leave in Melbourne, Kathleen, who is Harness Racing Australia’s Equine Health and Welfare Manager, says people are slowly realising the old style Standardbred is fading. “I believe influence from American stallions has given us a horse that’s of a lighter more athletic build. Plus the breed is smart and so very willing to please.”

An athletic horse, the Standardbred is similar to the Thoroughbred but with stronger, shorter legs, a narrower chest, long sloping shoulders, a long underline and a strong back. On average they stand between 14.2 and 16hh, and usually weigh between 410 and 545 kilograms. Maree Lund, registrar of the Standardbred Pleasure & Performance Horse Association of Victoria (SPPHAV) says there are still some out there with short necks, and big heads and shoulders. “But the main thing is they are generally very trainable and willing to become your partner. They come in many colours apart from bay, grey, brown and black, as well as piebalds, skewbalds, buckskins and cremellos.”

Maree also emphasises the breed’s suitability for endurance. “Today’s competitions offer opportunities to ease newcomers into the sport with introductory rides as short as 16 kilometers.” She adds that in the inaugural Tom Quilty in 1966, the second placegetter was Rarmar, a Standardbred ridden by Susan Mitchell.

It was Maree’s daughter Rebecca who founded the SPPHAV because she’d experienced double prejudice in the open show ring with her horse Champagne King. Being coloured and a Standardbred did not help at all back in 1993 so she created the Association as a means of providing fair and equal competition for Standardbreds and part bred Standardbreds in Victoria, as well as offering owners encouragement and support.

A similar association in NSW is dedicated to promoting Life After Racing. Megan Warwick, a SPPHA NSW’s committee member, recently had a brilliant time at the Sydney Royal. From an enormous class of solid coloured horses she and her 12-year-old coloured Standardbred, Khan Touch This (a.k.a. Apache), came second in the Working Hunter Galloway.

Megan Warwick with her coloured Standardbred Khan Touch This at the 2021 Sydney Royal (Image by Rodney’s Photography).

For Megan it was a dream come true: “To qualify and compete in the class and then be standing in the winners’ line was more than I could ever have hoped for. And I’ve another Standardbred back home who’s going to make an amazing dressage horse!”

Movie animal trainer Cody Rawson-Harris has been working with horses for forty years. His latest picture is a remake of Black Beauty starring Mackenzie Foy. He has a soft spot for the breed and recalls selecting and training two Standardbreds back in the late nineties for Star Runner, a New Zealand film about harness racing. “Wolfie and Duri were highly intelligent. Unlike other horses which tend to leap away and jump in the air when they’re scared, these would ‘grab the ground’ and just spread their legs and look at what had frightened them instead of fleeing the scene,” he says, “I travelled with them when we flew to the North Island to film at Kumeu, and when we returned to Australia. Both behaved beautifully on location and on the plane – they were quite special.”

Visit www.standardbred.org.au or www.spphav.org.au for more information on the versatile Standardbred.

Featured Image: Baily Stanaway with 2021 SPPHA NSW State Championships Grand Champion Led Exhibit Diamond Park Khaleesi (Image by Melissa Goodson).