The Hambletonian is Standardbred racing’s showcase day, its equivalent of the Kentucky Derby for Thoroughbreds. NBC will telecast the 2010 renewal live from The Meadowlands Race Track in New Jersey on Saturday, August 7 at 3 PM.

While the 3-year-old trotters that will compete in the Hambletonian do not bear a close resemblance to Thoroughbreds in regards to conformation or way of moving, they, in fact, share some of the same lineage. Messenger (1780-1801) was a grey English-born Thoroughbred stallion, who was brought to the United States in 1788. He descended from all three of the foundation sires for Thoroughbreds (Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian), although Messenger is most closely related to the Godolphin Arabian, who appears twice in his pedigree as his great, great grandsire (click here to see Messenger’s pedigree). The immortal Man o’ War carried the blood of Messenger.

Messenger’s legacy as a sire of Thoroughbreds is overshadowed by his role in the bloodlines of three present-day breeds—Standardbreds, American Saddlebreds, and Tennessee Walking Horses. Messenger’s great grandson, Rysdyk’s Hambletonian (1849-1876), also known as Hambletonian 10, is the foundation sire for Standardbreds (click here to see Hambletonian’s pedigree). Almost all trotters and pacers trace their lineage to four sons of Hambletonian 10: George Wilkes, Dictator, Happy Medium, and Electioneer.

George Wilkes the journalist was the publisher of a leading 19th century turf publication Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. His namesake, the aforementioned stallion George Wilkes, sired Patchen Wilkes, who sired Joe Patchen, who sired the Indiana-bred pacer of all pacers Dan Patch. Pacing horses have such a prominent place in Hoosier-state history that the Indiana Pacers of the National Basketball Association adopted the moniker.

The first Hambletonian race was held at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. It was run at: Sryacuse in 1926 and 1928; Lexington, Kentucky in 1927 and 1929; Goshen, New York from 1930-1956, except for 1943 (when war restrictions required the race be moved to New York City’s Empire City Track); Du Quoin, Illinois from 1957-1980; and The Meadowlands from 1981 to the present.

The legendary Greyhound won the Hambletonian in 1935 in a time of 2:02 ¼. In 1958, Emily’s Pride was the first winner to beat the two-minute mark with a time of 1:59 4/5. The 2009 winner, Muscle Hill, holds the race record of 1:50 1/5. Winning drivers in the Hamletonian read like a pantheon of Hall of Famers, which they are: Palin, Miller, Ervin, Dancer, Haughton, Campbell, and other luminaries of the sport of harness racing.

Harness racing is a vestige of a simpler day in the United States, when young gentlemen tried to impress young ladies with a good “road horse” instead of a car and people went to county and state fairs to see who had the fastest horse.  The modern-day Hambletonian, of course, has little resemblance to the early years. The racetrack is in busy New Jersey, the sulky technology is advanced, the track is engineered for speed, and the race is telecast to the world. But the horses themselves still go around an oval, just like their predecessors. They carry the bloodlines of Messenger and Hambletonian 10, and it is in their DNA all the way back to the Godolphin Arabian to fight to cross the finish line first.

This Saturday, if only for  a short while, the turmoil in New Jersey horse racing will be overlooked while the spectacle of the Hambletonian plays out once again.

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