Horse lovers visiting Pinehurst Harness Track never know if they might be witnessing the workout of a future big-money winner.
The century-old track, a winter training center for Standardbred horses since 1915, is the oldest continuously operating horse training facility in North Carolina. To hear Paul Wellwood, part-owner and trainer of Marion Marauder, a Triple Crown trotter that trains here, it’s still one of the best — not only in NC, but in the nation.
Today, the Village of Pinehurst owns Pinehurst Harness Track, with capacity for 260 horses in its 312 stalls across several renovated barns, including feed and tack stalls.
Track Superintendent Ray Skellington has overseen the operation the past 11 years, and at 111 acres, there’s plenty to maintain with a one-mile track, a half-mile clay track, and a five-eighths-mile sand-jog track.
Training season runs Oct. 15 until May 1, and the sight of the wild strength and sheer beauty of some of the world’s largest “domesticated” mammals running around the pristinely maintained raceway is quite the attraction. The rhythmic clopping of hooves punctuated with the explosive exhalation of professionally trained equines is exhilarating.
An added bonus for visitors is that it’s free (not counting how many blueberry pancakes are consumed at the ever popular Pinehurst Track Restaurant).
The Pinehurst Matinee Harness Races have drawn record crowds the last two springs. The town’s newspaper calls it “graduation day” for the two-year-olds, “all the Standardbred youngsters in training here all winter.”
One such graduate, Marion Marauder, in 2016 became the ninth horse in history to win the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Trotters in 2016. Paula Wellwood and husband Mike Keeling of Canada trained their horse two winters in Pinehurst before winning the $1 million Hambletonian Stakes at The Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, NJ, the first leg of the Trotting Triple Crown, followed by winning a half-million dollar purses in the Yonkers Trot and $431,000 in Kentucky Futurity.
Wellwood noted, “It’s a beautiful facility. We’re given lots of options with three beautiful training areas. The climate is conducive to the horses. A big part of it is when we transition the horses (back north), they never get sick. It’s a huge advantage.” Skellington also touts the sand-based soil that has good, natural drainage.
In addition to training, the track hosts two dozen special events annually including polocrosse matches and dressage events showcasing the partnership of horse and rider.
Leonard Tufts, son of Pinehurst founder James Tufts, helped form the Pinehurst Jockey Club in 1916. The track was being turned into a winter training facility by the 1920s — a proud history still drawing onlookers today.
If You’re Going: For overnight stays, there’s historic Holly Inn, built in 1895. This AAA Four-Diamond property is part of the Pinehurst resort family.
With plenty of elbow room and complimentary happy hours snacks and wine, there’s Homewood Suites by Hilton Olmsted Village. (Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted provided the layout for the Village of Pinehurst as well as Biltmore Estate and NYC’s Central Park.)
Accessible to everything in the Village is The Magnolia Inn & Dawghouse Pub with a lively patio scene featuring live music.
For dining, locals and visitors rub elbows at Dugan’s Pub in the Village, while upscale favs are The Holly Inn’s 1895 Grille (don’t miss the chocolate souffle), Elliott’s on Linden with notable wine bar and Ironwood Café with a popular outdoor patio.
Casual Pinehurst Track Restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch with 65 seats.
(Note: A slightly shorter version of this story appears in the July/August 2017 issue of AAA Go Magazine.)