As I took off in my first harness race, the words of advice driver Zachary Butcher had offered me were on repeat in the back of my mind.

"Just hold onto the reins ... tight."

And as my horse started picking up speed to race around the Alexandra Park racetrack, I quickly realised just how important it was to remember those simple words.

The few minutes that followed were mostly a blur as the adrenaline and excitement of leading the pack took over.

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Of course, there was a hint of fearing for my life, but as I jumped out of the dual sulky I understood Butcher's second word of warning – "you'll be hooked".

A driver who is definitely not Cheree Kinnear experiencing the thrill of harness racing. Photo / Photosport
A driver who is definitely not Cheree Kinnear experiencing the thrill of harness racing. Photo / Photosport

Nothing quite compares to the experience of sitting behind a race horse going more than 50km/h and it was exactly that which changed Butcher's mind about the sport after showing little interest in life around the stables.

"My dad had me working hard during the school holidays, he's always been a part of it," Butcher says. "To be honest, early on, I wasn't keen on it all because I didn't like working that hard.

"But we had driver trials one day, I felt the speed of a horse and been hooked ever since.

"There's no better feeling."

Now boasting the title "professional harness driver", the 28-year-old notes the hard work hasn't stopped but it's a small sacrifice for the thrill of a career he'll never regret pursuing.

"It's early mornings, late afternoons, you've got to get up and jog them and pick up the dung from the night before," he says.

"It's definitely a good conversation starter when you're having beer in town when people ask you ... to most people it is interesting, they have no idea what it is so it takes a bit of explaining.

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"It's a job that not a lot of people get to do but it's getting more popular and it's good fun to be a part of."

Harness racing driver Zachary Butcher. Photo / Greg Bowker
Harness racing driver Zachary Butcher. Photo / Greg Bowker

Junior driver Luke Whittaker joins Butcher as one of a small but growing group of youngsters on the New Zealand harness racing scene.

Having also grown up around the stables, Whittaker was exposed to the sport from a young age, jumping in the back of a sulky at just 11 years old.

As his passion for harness racing took over, Whittaker left high school early to pursue his sporting dream and is now an apprentice working under the reins of some of New Zealand's top drivers.

"I just wanted to be outside and fell in love with the horses," he says. "I love it, I'll do anything for this game because I love it, it's what I live and breathe."

As one of just eight junior drivers in the North Island, 19-year-old Whittaker says he's keen to see the sport continue reaching out to the younger generation.

"It's sort of a hard game to get into, you've sort of got to be grown into it," he explains.

"For young kids it's hard to get into it, but once they do, it's hard to get them out.

"It's probably not a real young kids game at the moment but we're trying to get it new kids into the game."

The harness racing season kicked off last week at Alexandra Park with Friday Night Racing on every week until November.