Billy Perkins remembers a time when harness racers balked at wearing safety glasses and hard helmets. The two wheels on their sulkies had to be oiled so they didn't squeak. Injuries were common, and deaths weren't unheard of.
The sport is safer and quieter today than it was when Perkins, 68, first started announcing harness races 50 years ago. Originally from Pennsylvania, where his family owned a horse and dairy farm, Perkins said he was born into the horse business.
"It's probably all I ever knew," said Perkins, who also has experience as a race secretary. "There have really been some good times."
But not all the changes he has seen have been positive. These days, there are more ways to race - and to gamble - than ever before.
"Kids used to know about horses," he said. "(But) NASCAR has done a great job, and now we have a lot of competition with the casinos."
Still, the sport endures.
A handful of drivers - there are no jockeys in harness racing, Perkins explained - milled near the five-eighths-mile race track at Bluegrass Downs on Friday. Their goal was to meet the qualifying time to start racing next week: 2 minutes and 8 seconds per mile for pacers, and 2 minutes and 6 seconds for trotters.
LK Cooper, a 30-year-old driver from Terry, Mississippi, numbered among those who qualified Friday. Like Perkins, he inherited his passion: His father, Lawrence, got him into harness racing 12 years ago. The family owns a farm and a track, Cooper Downs, in their hometown. Before coming to Bluegrass Downs, he was at Thunder Ridge in Prestonburg.
After the five-week season ends here, he'll continue to The Red Mile in Lexington.
Before a race, "I sit down, clear my mind. I don't eat, I don't drink, I just think about racing," Cooper said.
It's a lot like driving a car, he said, except there are more wrecks. Cooper's sustained a few injuries, including a shattered shoulder, but nothing stops him from racing.
"When it rains, it's terrible. You can't see. But I love doing it, so I've got to get out there and do it," he said. "My kids are going to do it. I hope they do, anyway."
How long does he plan on racing?
"Till I die," he said.
Live harness racing starts next Friday at Bluegrass Downs, 150 Downs Drive, and runs for five weeks. The races begin at 1 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 270-444-7117.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
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