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Intro to Harness Racing: Get the 411 on Philadelphia’s Fastest-Paced Sport

Courtesy of Rachel Olszewski/PHHA

As the temperatures begin to rise across the keystone state, so does the action in Pennsylvania‘s harness racing world! Harness racing, a form of horse racing, features a driver on a cart behind a horse, guiding their equine counterpart towards the finish line and hopefully the winner’s circle. 

Pennsylvania also happens to be an epicenter for the sport, showcasing two top-notch tracks in Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack and The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono. If you’re looking for something fun to do, want to get into the sport — or are already a fan and want to learn more — there’s plenty of resources out there for you to reference. 

If you want to learn more about harness racing from the comfort of your home, you can tune into PA Harness Week, a weekly TV show airing on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia and Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on NBCSN. Often referred to as the “fastest half-hour in harness racing,” the show, hosted by Jessica Otten and Heather Vitale, tells you the big stories in the sport and dives deeper into the people and horses who make it all happen.

“People like familiar faces in sports,” Vitale says. “We’re trying to focus once a week on someone new, not only featuring the horses but the people who are behind the scenes too.”

Here’s what you need to know about harness racing, how PA Harness Week gets made and how the show can help you expand your harness racing knowledge.

How PA Harness Week Gets Made

Bruce Casella knows that at the heart of every good sports story is the people behind it. As the producer of PA Harness Week, he works with Vitale and Otten to follow the sport’s contenders, underdogs and tell the stories of those behind the scenes.

Both Vitale and Otten grew up around horses and spend their down time studying and learning as much as they can to be as informative as possible. The two also feed off each other’s energy — Otten says that Vitale’s bubbly personality helps keep the show humming, while Vitale praises Otten’s attention to detail and knowledge of the sport.

“Our chemistry is undeniable,” Vitale says. “The show has gotten better because we have more fun with it. People might wonder how much there really is to talk about with harness racing, but it’s just like any other sport. There’s always somebody to interview and things to talk about.”  

Vitale, Otten and Casella are a three-person team — they consult with each other on what to feature and how to frame the stories they tell. Otten and Vitale say that Casella’s passion for the the sport has allowed them to develop a shorthand — they don’t have to spend too much time explaining what they want or what they’re thinking. 

“It’s so enjoyable to produce these shows with Heather and Jessica as hosts,” Casella says. “They bring it all together and know how to strike a balance between making it fun for the novice and for the horsemen who watch the show. We want people to know that in harness racing, these are working people who take it seriously.”

Why Harness Racing?

Some of the best harness racing competition can be seen in Pennsylvania. The state is literally and figuratively a breeding ground for the sport, as horses are bred at well-known farms like Hanover Shoe Farms, while international competition travels to venues like Harrah’s Philadelphia and The Downs at Mohegan Sun. 

The casino setting of both means that you can grab a bite to eat and play the slots in between racing if you choose. As for the harness racing, the season lasts from early spring into late December, creating plenty of opportunities to take in a day at the races. 

Vitale says the way to have the most fun at the track is to play the ponies. Both she and Otten feel that, for spectators and fans, being aware of the different terms and strategies within the sport can create a more fulfilling experience — and help you win some money. 

And as they see it, PA Harness Week can be a guide and help you understand the why behind what you’re seeing — all the while providing some entertainment along the way. 

“Pennsylvania has world-class harness racing,” Otten says. “I feel like it’s our job to help people become more aware of the sport. We’ve done that with PA Harness Week. If we continue to do what we’ve been doing, we can grow our audience to include people who love the sport and also get people who love sports in general and make them become aware of how great harness racing is in Pennsylvania. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

For more information on PA Harness Week and the harness racing season, head here.