Sulkies at Suffolk

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, May 8, 2013

by James D. Howell

This Sunday afternoon, with little notice, and little planning on my part (I’m not gifted with foresight), my father allows me to go with him on an outing a little beyond our normal.

We head for Suffolk and the horse races. I’ve never been to a horse race and have little vision as to what will occur. I’m just glad to be going somewhere—anywhere different. Family visits to relatives stretch my impatience a little. I’m ready for new vistas, new action.

The races are at Suffolk, about 20 miles beyond Franklin to our east. I’ve been to Suffolk a few times. We pass through on our way to visit a brother who lives in Chuckatuck.

We take care to not break the speed limit passing Holland. The local policeman has a reputation for stopping vehicles that might be traveling over the speed limit. I keep a close watch out the window, although my father is not known for fast driving. We manage to make the sharp turn in Holland and pass the far town limits without difficulty.

In downtown Suffolk, we turn and cross the railroad tracks to the fairgrounds. We park and find our way into the seats, bleachers and boxes built around a large oval dirt track. We stand with others alongside the rail, close by the track. When racers or workmen pass by, we can literally reach out and touch them. When a sulky passes, dust filters through the boundary wire and covers our feet and clothing. I can smell the track and animal sweat and other unidentifiable, but pleasant, odors. I’m excited.

This is a trotting (or harness) race, where one horse and its attached sulky and driver race others around a closed track. I don’t know the distance around the track. I think someone said it’s a mile total for the race. Horses and drivers take the track individually and practice a little for the crowd.

Drivers are dressed in brightly colored, satin looking racing regalia. Brilliant green, red, yellow, blue, silver, and gold shirts, with stripes and other patterns, flash along the track. Each has a puffy looking, short-billed hat of matching color with goggles held by an elastic strap.

Each has a number floating from his back; each horse has a number on its harness. Each driver carries a long whip, with a short flexible tip. The whip is carried in one hand along with the reins. Harness pads and cloths sometimes match the drivers’ colors.

The sulky is a small, lightweight, single-seater, with very little room between the driver and the horse. Two wire-spoke bicycle-type wheels are mounted inside the frame. The wheels are individually mounted, leaving room for the driver’s seat and the horse’s flying back feet. The frame shafts reach up on either side of the horse and are attached to a harness roughly where a saddle would be mounted. The driver seems to be leaned back for normal driving position during a race. It all looks very uncomfortable to me.

After a few runs before the crowd, all horses line up abreast and take their position behind a moving gate mounted on the back of a truck. The truck moves forward and accelerates away from the racers at the starting line. The starting gate folds against its sides and the truck exits the track. The race is on.

Some horses break into a momentary gallop and are quickly reined in by the driver. Not to do so would bring a disqualification. Horse’s hooves maintain a steady clop, clop, clop, clop, as they pass by, just across the fence. I can hear the slight squeaking of leather harness against the horse and sulky. I can smell the sweat.

An announcer does a play-by-play as horses round the track. Positions are announced for points along the track like: the first turn, back straightaway, far turn, near corner and homestretch. The crowd grows louder and more animated with each turn. Home stretch is a minor frenzy. Each winner is brought to the winner’s circle and properly cited and celebrated.

Several races are run throughout the afternoon. Each follows a similar pattern.

My father and I leave the track late in the day. I’m tired and the truck is mostly silent for the ride home.

This is the only horse race that I have personally witnessed. Yet, the images are vivid in my recall.

The colorful excitement of that day at the fairgrounds in Suffolk, the nonstop announcer, the roar of the crowd, the smell of the track, the close encounter with passing horses and drivers, all live in my heritage. All bring me home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at