WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Helene Gregory looks around the paddock at Pocono Downs, and a strong feeling overtakes her body.
“Goosebumps,” said Gregory, who is founder of Monte America. “That’s the only way I can describe it, really.”
Saturday was like a dream for her as Monte trotting or “Racing Under Saddle” exhibitions returned to Pocono Downs as part of the Sun Stakes Saturday festivities in Wilkes-Barre Township.
What exactly is “Racing Under Saddle” events? It’s unlike anything you would see on your normal Saturday night in Luzerne County. Instead of the horse pulling a sulky around the 5/8-mile track, jockeys jump on top of trotters and navigate around the surface.
It’s similar to Thoroughbred racing, at least in appearance.
“Totally different,” said Melinda Giroso, who rode Andover America in the opening 1-mile trot. “You use different kind of muscles. It’s a similar strategy to riding in a sulky, but you don’t realize how fast the race goes until you are on top of it. You want to set them up like the sulky. Each horse will work differently on the saddle. You will see that some go faster. Others will go slower. It’s more trial and error than anything.”
They were considered exhibitions – non-betting races as listed in Saturday’s program. The prize purses are not as large as most on the docket. Both races accumulated a purse of around $10,000 each.
Yet, they bring attention at a track where sulkies fly around under the bright lights.
“A lot of people kind of give a double-look and wonder what is really going on here,” Giroso said. “But I think that it begins to attract attention, and that’s the goal. We want to open up new doors.”
A native of Sweden, “RUS” racing is nothing new to Gregory. She’s watch it grow in her country and other parts of the world.
When the opportunity arose to possibly hold an event in the United States, she jumped at the chance.
“I’ve seen how racing has developed in the last 10 years there, and I knew it was something that could catch on here,” said Gregory, who rode Sundance Bayama to the win in Saturday’s second exhibition race, edging out Ron Burke-trained Celebrity Playboy at the wire. “I got asked to put together an exhibition race at Yonkers in New York. We did that, and it was so well received.
“I never seen so many people come out and watch. I felt like it was something that I wanted to try. The Yonkers race was huge because it was the first one. We pulled together five horses really quick and rode a half-mile for exhibition. Just to see everyone – from the crowd to the grooms and trainers – coming out to watch, it’s amazing.”
In a short time, “RUS” racing as grown to the point where one of its signature events with its largest purse ran during Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands.
“The biggest thing I hear from people is that they would like to wager on it,” jockey Maria Andersson said. “We just haven’t reached that point yet. Hopefully, in the near future, we can reach that level. For me, as a woman, I can get into it and become more involved in the racing sport – instead of just limited to a groom. I’m addicted to it.”
That’s the next step, according to Gregory, who was the 2013 recipient of the 2012 USHWA President’s Award.
“We do need wagering races,” she said. “We need wagering to get higher purses. If we can get those, who knows what the future could hold. If we can get that, I think it would be an amazing opportunity.”
Giroso added, “Helene is working so hard to make sure it happens. It’s pretty big in Sweden, and it’s growing in Australia. We are working hard to get it into a betting race, and hopefully, grow those purses. We are all making it safe and fun, hoping people will catch onto it like we have.”