You might not equate the city of Hawkinsville in Pulaski County with horse racing. But each year in early winter, the mid-Georgia city is the destination for numerous harness racehorse owners and trainers from up north as far as Canada — bringing with them dozens of their most prized pacers and trotters.
They spend the winter in Hawkinsville training the horses before heading back north in spring to race at harness tracks with pari-mutuel betting. Hawkinsville’s mild winters, good grazing land and other amenities draw the harness racing devotees, but the biggest lure is the city’s superb Lawrence L. Bennett Harness Horse Training Facility.
The sprawling facility is there primarily because of Hawkinsville’s early devotion — dating back to the 1890s —to harness racing. That early connection led to a grant in 1975 to build the Lawrence Bennett complex, which opened in 1977 on the city’s outskirts. It’s now the only such facility in Georgia and one of the top Standardbred harness horse training centers in the eastern United States.
(The Standardbred is best known as a harness racing breed — well-muscled, long body, slightly heavier than a Thoroughbred, solid legs and powerful shoulders and hindquarters; able to trot or pace for racing.)
During training, the sleek horses, pulling their “drivers” in small, two-wheel racing carts, trot or pace around a mile-long, red clay track or a half mile all-weather track. The horses are housed in 15 barns with 32 stalls measuring 10 x 12 feet each. Each barn also has wash racks, tack rooms, feed/hay rooms and groom quarters. When not training or resting in their stalls, horses also can graze in turn-out paddocks.
Blacksmiths, farriers and other support services also are available.
Early during their winter training, the horses start off at a jogging pace during daily laps around the track. As the weeks go by, they gradually build up speed; by the end of March or in early April, they’re up to full racing speed and ready for competition.
If you visit the training facility, the best time to see the horses practicing with their drivers is in the morning, after the animals have had their breakfasts. Some horses and drivers, though, may take turns around the track in the early afternoon. After their workouts, the horses are washed, rubbed down and brushed by their grooms, and fed again. After that, the horses, often wearing blankets, may rest in stalls or venture into the turn-out paddocks.
“They get a lot of tender loving care,” said Gerald Lilley, the facility’s manager who moved to Hawkinsville from Rockwood, Ontario, and is himself a racehorse owner.
This year’s training season will culminate on April 2 with the annual Hawkinsville Harness Festival, in which horses and their drivers will compete in day-long racing. Lilley noted that it also will be a fun-filled family event featuring local music, arts, crafts, and good food.
But you can’t place a bet: Betting on horse races is illegal in Georgia.