"I've developed an apparatus that measures three things in total—bearings and tires, the interactions among horse, sulky and driver, and air drag—and it doesn't isolate one from another," says King. "The single-shaft sulky was analytically designed without sophisticated test apparatus. This one was designed to measure and compare, and it was tested against a great number of other ones."
Although the King Signature Sulky is heavier by several pounds and considerably more expensive than the oldfashioned carts ($990 vs. $700 or so), it enables a horse to move faster, says King, because it reduces total drag. He achieved this by moving the shafts in closer to the horse's flanks, by positioning the driver's feet in a new manner, and by streamlining the sulky to the point that it is virtually a skeleton when viewed from the front. These changes again raised questions about safety, but so far there is no evidence that the King sulky is any more dangerous than traditional models. On the contrary, some drivers at Roosevelt and Yonkers believe the new sulky may be safer because, given the proper kind of care, it is essentially unbreakable.
"The biggest problem I've had," says King, "is that a lot of these horsemen think they have to take anything metal to a blacksmith to be fixed. You can't apply horse-and-buggy methods to something as aerodynamically sophisticated as this."
With the MS, King didn't make the same tactical mistakes that he did with the single-shaft. "We tried to use the single-shaft at some of the smaller tracks," says King. "The trouble was, all we could get was young drivers and bad horses. The big names wouldn't touch it because they said it looked like a bent tailpipe. So we got off to a bad start simply because all we had was bad horses."
This time King quietly slipped one of his Signature Sulkies into Yonkers Raceway, near the end of its early winter meeting in December. When the horses moved to Roosevelt, so did the new sulky. And when a driver named Merrit Dokey began using the new sulky and suddenly shot to the top of the track's leading driver list, the race was on. Now the MS is a presence in every race at the New York tracks, sometimes even appearing behind every horse in a given race.
Although the new sulky seems to have proved its value—much like the fiberglass pole in vaulting—some purists still don't feel comfortable with it. For one thing, it adds a new factor to the already nearly impossible job of handicapping. For another, it promises to wipe out the times and records that have been the standards of excellence for years. And, anyway, why does the sport need a new sulky? Once everyone is using it, and all the records have been lowered a few seconds, won't harness racing be right back to square one? Naturally, Joe King has the answers.
"It boils down to what's the most important—the betting or the performance," he says. "The name of the game is speed. What we've done is the same thing they did when they invented better-banked turns, improved the surfaces of the tracks, improved the kinds of shoes. A lot of horses, for one reason or another, found that the old sulky interfered with them. Now, with our sulky, they can go out and do what they're capable of doing. Anything that is done to allow a horse to attain his true potential helps the breeding industry—and the sport."
Logical as all this sounds, King still was afraid that the USTA might once again redefine the sulky in such a way as to outlaw his baby. Therefore, when the USTA held its annual meeting earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, King was there, sitting in on meetings, listening, talking to horsemen, protecting his interests. Whether or not his presence helped, the USTA declined to take any action prohibiting the MS. "It was a real victory," says King, with a shrug, "but if they had done something, I would have just gone back and come up with something just as good that met their specifications."
Who knows where it will all end? One day at lunch in Ormond Beach, where King is cranking out 35 new sulkies every week—barely enough to meet the demand—a friend kidded him: "What are you gonna do now, Joe? Put wings on the horses and airfoils on the sulkies?" King laughed at the jest, but he also had an interested look in his eye. Airfoils? Hmmm. Like any good scientist, Joe King is certainly willing to consider anything that might end up being "pro-progress."