Goshen museum harnesses town's horse racing history

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GOSHEN, N.Y. -- Take a former stable overlooking a historical racetrack in a region surrounded by horse farms, add a few creative minds, a sizable investment and no small amount of love for the sport of harness racing and what do you have? An internationally recognized Harness Horse Museum and Hall of Fame.

Situated some 60 miles from New York City, Goshen is a New England-type place, with a village green and Victorian homes.

Its half-mile racetrack dates to 1838, making it the oldest active harness racing track in the U.S., and the town's Good Time Park, a track no longer in existence, hosted the Hambletonian -- the Kentucky Derby of harness racing -- from 1930 to 1942 and again from 1944 to 1956.

Born in 1849, the race's namesake competed only once. However, in his 24 years as a stud, he sired more than 1,300 foals, and it is said that 99% of today's harness horses trace back to him.

The Harness Horse Museum offers a plethora of such facts, but it is set up to interest those who don't know a trotter from a pacer (they'll learn).

Once inside the museum, visitors view a 15-minute film about harness racing, a sport with roots dating to horse-and-buggy days, when folks wanted to see who was fastest.

According to a museum spokeswoman, the town fathers built Goshen's first track to avoid pedestrian deaths as locals raced down Main Street.

Following the introductory film, visitors pass through the original stable doors to follow a time line of the sport.

Stalls line either side, with each housing exhibits devoted to a particular period's most noted horses, drivers or trainers.

Other exhibits show racing apparatus, such as pedigree journals, paintings, trophies, driving colors (outfits worn by drivers) and sulkies (two-wheeled carriages used in harness racing), ranging from wooden-wheeled models to the slick light-weight ones in use today.

One stall centers around the legendary horse Dan Patch, which was such a formidable opponent that owners refused to put their horses up against him, so the champ toured the country in a railroad car for exhibition races.

One stall is devoted to Delvin Miller, the only person in any sport whose career spanned eight decades.

Miller made his mark as a driver, trainer, harness horse breeder and track executive. The week before his death, when he was well into his 80s, Miller drove in a race. And he won.

Antiques aficionados will be interested in the museum's collection of weather vanes, topped by horses, of course, and in what is believed to be the world's largest collection of Currier & Ives equine lithographs.

As visitors amble along, they will notice the stall doors bear teeth marks from former four-legged residents.

Upstairs, touch videos, lifesize dioramas and interactive displays enable clients to take part in a horse auction; learn about racing rules, then determine if a penalty should be called in a video race; sit in a sulky behind a lifelike horse, and use a microphone to call a race after listening to the styles of three well-known announcers.

For children, activities include a talking horse and a colorful Create a Horse activity using movable blocks.

At Harness Racing Hollywood, a second theater shows a collage of film clips, all featuring harness races, dating from the silent era to present time. Films include "The Great Dan Patch" starring Dennis O'Keefe and Gail Russell; "Ma & Pa Kettle at the Fair," with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, and "April Love," with Pat Boone and Shirley Jones.

Following a walk through the Hall of Fame, with statuettes depicting people who have made significant contributions to the sport, visitors enter a third theater for a 3D simulation of an actual race.

Once viewers have been seated and donned 3D glasses, a safety bar snaps down and the filmed race begins. Seats bounce; clients tilt right or left as their horse maneuvers full-speed down the track, and dirt and a loose horseshoe seem to just miss the viewers/drivers.

Admission to the museum is $7.50; $6.50 for seniors; $3.50 for children ages 6 to 15, and free for those 5 and under. The museum is accessible for those with disabilities.

An on-site gift shop offers an assortment of horsy items, including Christmas ornaments, clothing, weather vanes, paintings and a clock picturing a neighing horse at each hour.

The Harness Racing Museum, at 240 Main St., Goshen, N.Y. 10924, is open daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Racing takes place at Goshen's historic track, directly behind the museum, during several weekends in June and during the town's annual Great American Weekend over the July 4 holiday.

For more information, call the museum at (914) 294-6330.

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