The only thing faster than the horses at Red Mile is the starting gate. And for 43 of the Lexington harness track’s 142 years, Greg Coon has managed that delicate dance for the annual Grand Circuit races.
Harness racing is quite different from Thoroughbred racing, in which standing horses shoot out of a gate when a bell rings and doors open, and they gallop as fast as they can with a jockey clinging to their back.
Harness horses must maintain a running gait while pulling a driver in a little cart called a sulky. Races begin when trotting or pacing horses are lined up evenly behind a 60-foot-wide gate speeding just ahead of them.
At Red Mile, that gate is mounted on a funny-looking white 1995 Cadillac Fleetwood with a Corvette engine under the hood. The roof above the back seats has been raised a couple of feet to accommodate two elevated, backward-facing chairs, where Coon and a guest can see the speeding horses come together in front of them.
Coon’s right hand is on a remote throttle that controls the car’s speed. When all of the horses are running inches from the gate, Coon declares that the race has begun. He hits the throttle and the Cadillac roars ahead as the gate arms fold in. A driver in the front seat steers the car to the outside edge of the track, where it will follow alongside the racers, watching for driver infractions or horses off their gait.
“The trick as the starter is to do the same thing every time, so there are no surprises,” Coon said as we circled the track beside drivers and horses maneuvering toward the finish line at 35 mph. “It’s the best place to watch the race, and it beats a real job.”
This is his real job — but only a part of it.
Since 1979, Coon, 65, has designed and cared for this historic harness track’s racing surface with his brother, Dan, 60. Their company, Coon & Associates, has designed and managed harness, Thoroughbred and even greyhound racing tracks all over the country, including Chicago’s Hawthorne, the Meadowlands in New Jersey, Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, and Delaware Park near Wilmington, Del.
The Coon brothers are third-generation track men. Their grandfather, Charlie Coon, learned horsemanship and grading techniques by driving teams of horses that pulled plows and road graders. Their father, Chuck Coon, who was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2008 and died in 2015, revolutionized track design with banking and cushioning to make races both faster and safer.
“I was the oldest grandson, so I was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer,” Greg Coon said. “But after about two years of college, this was just too much fun. So Danny and I followed in our dad’s footsteps.”
Greg Coon started managing starts at the old Louisville Downs in 1973 and moved to Red Mile the next year. Five years later, he took over track design and maintenance, eventually covering the mile-long red-clay surface that gave the track its name with a half-inch of sand to make it a little softer and more weatherproof.
Still, harness tracks are much harder than those for Thoroughbreds. “These are the descendants of the horses who plowed the field and took the family to church on Sunday, so they’re a little stouter,” he said.
During racing meets, Red Mile’s track is graded daily to redistribute sand, and it’s watered periodically to “fluff it up” a bit.
“My father realized that being the starter … is an excellent way to be on the track all the time” and make sure it’s in good shape, Coon said. “When the track is perfect, a race should sound like it’s raining over your living room carpet.”
The Coons spend the winter in Florida, but Dan lives in Lexington and Greg in Atlanta most of the year. They work all over the country, but Greg returns to Red Mile each October for the eight-day Grand Circuit meet. It will end Sunday with the 125th Kentucky Futurity, part of harness racing’s Triple Crown.
Before mobile starting gates, a starter with a megaphone and a brass bell would stand in the infield, trying to get the horses aligned correctly. It was a long and tedious process. Then Stephen G. Phillips designed the first starting gate on an automobile.
“The first guy in the hall of fame was the guy who invented the starting gate,” Coon said of Phillips. “That’s how important it was.”