The History of the Racing Sulky
By Kimberly A. Rinker
One of the first definitions of a sulky came in the mid-1800's when the vehicle in question had heavy wooden wheels with broad-tires strong enough to be used over any kind of roads and a straight iron axle to which two elliptical springs were attached. Described as "a light two-wheeled carriage for a single person," the frame of this "sulky" was bolted to the tops of the springs and the seat had four supports attached to the frame. The drivers kept his place by bracing his feet against a stout cross bar. When this "sulky" began to appear on racetracks, stirrups were added. Obviously, strength and weight were not important items at this time.
In the early 1920's Webster's Dictionary defined a sulky as "so called from the owner's desire to ride alone." Legend also has it that a woman named the vehicle with the comment that "only a man would use it."
The sulky was in common use in North America before the Revolution, and was used primarily by doctors and those who wanted to travel light. In 1790 President Washington sent Col. Marinus Willett from New York to Georgia as a secret agent to invite Alexander McGillivray, the Chief of the Creek Indians, to visit him in hopes of making a treaty. Willett went in a sulky. The Chief returned and the whole crew came back together in a wagon.
When trotters and pacers began to appear in races between 1820 and 1830, they were primarily raced under saddle. In the next decade, however, sulkies and wagons were used and by 1860 races to saddle in this country were rare and by 1870, they had been phased out.
The first change made to the sulky in races was the removal of the springs, which reduced the vibration and lowered the seat of the driver. The straight axle remained for many years and a close hitch was thereby impossible. This sulky had a tendency to make horses rough-gaited when they became leg-weary in long races. In those days it was also an ordinary occurrence for a driver to let his horse gallop in hopes that the change of gait would rest him by bringing another set of muscles into play.
A few manufacturers tried to improve the sulky by increasing the height of the wheels, and some were six or seven feet high. According to one observer at the time, there was a considerable amount of wobbling when the driver was being whisked around the flat turns of the old time tracks at a 2:20 gait.
A Boston carriage builder named Pray made a sulky with a steel arch axle. He removed the supports from the seat, which permitted a closer hitch but increased the weight. From 1850 to 1870 sulkies were made primarily by carriage builders as a side line. Charles Caffrey, a carriage builder in Cambridge, New Jersey, was one of the first to introduce changes which helped to lower speed records.
Caffrey made his first sulky with a wooden arch axle, which helped to reduce the weight and improve racing qualities. He also had the idea that a vehicle free from vibration and horse motion would keep a horse smoother-gaited and increase speed rates. This sulky retained its popularity until the "bike" sulky appeared.
For many years the only rival to Caffrey's sulky came from Oliver Toomey who manufactured a "Truss-Axle Sulky" at Canal Dover, Ohio.
In 1892 a pair of bicycle tires were added to a sulky and brought out at a race in Worchester, Massachusetts. A pacer named Alfred D won in 2:29.4 on June 8 of that year.
After that it became easier to improve on the first true bike sulky. The Frazier Factory at Aurora, Illinois rushed into the business with a tubular sulky. Other manufacturers introduced new features, including one that had an arch so high that the driver's seat was almost on line with the horse's back, which often resulted in some pretty nasty accidents.
As before, the experimentation with wheel heights continued. A man by the name of Payne, from Troy, New York sent out a long shaft sulky with 24-inch wheels, resulting in lowering the driver and cutting down on wind resistance.
By the 1920's, most sulkies were made at Marion, Ohio. The standard was 33 to 40 pound bikes with 28" wheels with all wire spokes.
Of course since that time the bike has undergone a few other changes, and manufactures are constantly looking for ways to improve wind resistance, better tracking of wheels and better distribution of weight. The 20th century has witnessed the single shaft sulky, the cheetah, the under-slung, the aluminum, and a host of other spin-offs.
In spring 2003 Chicago-based trainer Tom Harmer devised a sulky coined the "AdvantEdge 6.3" because it brings the horse 6.3 inches closer to the inside of the track, thus lowering the amount of ground a horse would have to travel over. In that same vein, "The Outlaw" appeared later in the year, being used by Dave Palone on most of his mounts at the Meadows in the fall of 2003. This sulky was developed by Ohio horseman Craig Stein. Both bikes are narrower than conventional sulkies, and both have the seat of the race bike moved over closer to the left side on the arch.
These innovations, coupled with better-bred horses and improvements in racetrack surfaces have all led to what those first sulky manufactures were striving for: faster speed records for pacers and trotters.