Until Joe King came along with his MIT education and his moonshot mentality, the design of a harness-racing sulky hadn't changed much since the days of Currier and Ives, a state of affairs that pleased most everybody. But for the second time now, King has shaken up the Establishment by introducing a radically different cart. His first try was shot down a year ago on a technicality, but King's latest version is threatening to transform this most traditional of sports. The Joe King Signature Sulky—more commonly known as the "Modified Sulky"—is the hottest thing in harness racing since the Big Triple and apparently the surest way short of the hypodermic needle to improve a horse's performance. The new bike is made from the steel alloys used in building airplanes, and it has been making horses all over the U.S. take off and fly.
King, 62, a cheeky genius who wears wild glasses and works out of Ormond Beach, Fla., says he gets more personal satisfaction from the new sulky than from any of his previous scientific successes. King had a hand in developing an airplane that could go 1,650 mph, an air-to-surface missile system that cost half a billion dollars and the Apollo 11 moonshot. The thrill, says King, comes from the fact that the new sulky is basically a one-man project—his own—whereas the others involved thousands of scientists and engineers. Moreover, King is the sort of man who plainly gets a devilish delight from tweaking the whiskers of harness racing's Establishment, with which he has been conducting a long-running battle of wits. "I am not anti-Establishment," says King, winking, "I am pro-progress."
That the new sulky represents progress is almost a foregone conclusion. Even Stanley Dancer, a traditionalist's traditionalist, has tried it and admitted to his peers that it indeed appears to help a lot of horses. Almost all the trainer-drivers at New York's Roosevelt Raceway had at least one in their barns by the end of that track's recent meeting and have now moved—lock, stock and new sulkies—back over to Yonkers Raceway. And many of them, including such stars as Herve Filion and Carmine Abbatiello, report that the new sulky has dramatically improved some of their horses. Indeed, in the first 435 wood vs. steel (or oldfangled vs. newfangled) races at Roosevelt, steel won 248—despite having 1,300 fewer starters. At Philadelphia's Liberty Bell the new sulkies swept the card one recent night.
The difference between old and new was marked enough that, after some initial wrangling, management and newspapers finally began adding the designation "MS"—for modified sulky—to entries using the new rig, the better to help the gamblers make up their minds. A rule also has been passed prohibiting drivers from tinkering with the new sulkies. At Yonkers, if a driver uses the MS with a particular horse, he can go back to the old cart but must stick thereafter to it—the better to avoid chicanery.
The MS refers both to the King sulky and the Nassau, another metal-shaft sulky that is cutting into King's market in New York. King is so hot about competition from the Nassau—the two men who manufacture the bike used to be his New York sales agents—that he is threatening to sue for copyright infringement (he has a patent pending on his new sulky). However, in addition to legal recourse, King claims he has a scientific edge on the competition. "The sulky as it is now has room for improvements," he says. "I'm already working on them. So it's like planned obsolescence. Once the copiers catch up to me, I'll already be ahead of them with something new."
Even the Houghton and the Jerald companies, manufacturers of the old-fashioned wooden-shaft sulkies that have been in use for decades, are said to be modifying some of their models in order to compete effectively with the MS. As driver-trainer Abbatiello says, "This new sulky isn't a fad—it's here to stay." If so, it not only would revolutionize harness racing—"We're going to break all the world records," says King—but it also would be the ultimate triumph for King.
His battle goes back to the early 1950s, when he was a project engineer for Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls, N.Y. working on the X-1A, a plane that could fly at Mach 2 at 70,000 feet. By then, King already was into harness racing in a modest way, owning a few horses and driving them at state fairs, and thinking about ways to improve the sulky. In 1956, he developed a prototype single-shaft sulky (SSS). The one shaft extended over the horse's back, giving the sulky a weird, outer-space look, but reducing drag and increasing a horse's speed. However, as soon as the first SSS appeared on an upstate New York track, the judges ordered it off on no better grounds than that it didn't look like a sulky. Who ever heard of such a thing? Everybody knew that shafts belonged on the sides of a horse.
At that point, King was becoming heavily involved with his aeronautical work and didn't have time to take on harness-racing officials. So the SSS went to the attic. But when he quit working on NASA projects in 1969, he pulled the SSS out and succeeded in convincing those concerned that there was nothing in the rules prohibiting it. (He was, however, required to make it available to all drivers.) From 1971 to 1974, the SSS seemed to be the sulky of the future; for one reason or another, horses using it went faster than those pulling the old-fashioned wooden wraparound model. Nevertheless, the SSS wasn't exactly greeted eagerly by everyone. Trainer-driver Garland Garnsey professed shock. "Why, the horse can just turn around in that thing and look at you," he said.
There were also mutterings about safety. "Horsefeathers," said Joe King. "In three years the single-shaft sulky was involved in 20,000 or 30,000 races, and there was never an official claim lodged against it for safety reasons. It was perfectly safe."
In any event, the United States Trotting Association, the supreme court of harness racing, last spring drew up a new definition of a sulky that specified two shafts. Outraged but helpless, King went back to his little factory in Ormond Beach, fooled around with some leftover wheels and parts and—voil�—produced son of single shaft, more commonly known as the Modified Sulky. In every way it complied with USTA regulations. It also went just as fast as—if not faster than—the SSS.