To the layman, it might seem unbelievable that James Haythornthwaite should give up rugby league – he played for Keighley Cougars – and take up the relatively low-profile sport of harness racing.

But anyone who follows the sport and has seen the amazing spectacle – the horses with their strange pacing gait, the colourful “sulkies” on which the jockeys ride, and the thrilling sight and sound of the race – can understand the attraction.

Coupled with that, James had to battle with his own heritage. His dad, Alan, is a leading harness racing jockey – he has been British Champion eight times and runner-up umpteen more – his brother, Richard, 24, is Young Driver of the Year winner and his mum, Teresa, is a trainer.

They live and breathe the sport at their home in Barnoldswick, where the family train up Standardbred horses for owners throughout the UK and abroad.

The land around the house has a hard-surface training track, there’s a special exercise circle and there are horses grazing in the fields.

James, 22, who had been tipped for rugby stardom, said he simply lost his enthusiasm for the game.

He said: “I love working in the stables. Training race-horses is my passion and my girlfriend Shannon also trains horses out in Ireland.

“In the middle of the season, from April to the end of October, the hours are very long. That made rugby hard and, as things became more serious, I struggled to juggle the two.”

Alan, who is 56, caught the bug as a teenager when he helped a trainer in Bolton by Bowland and later set up a milk round essentially to raise enough cash to buy his own horse and equipment and take up the sport.

“When I started out it was a much more physical sport and occasionally you’d even get a clout when the race had finished,” said Alan, who has broken a few bones in the pursuit of his passion.

“Nowadays it’s much more controlled with stewards overseeing things and greater attention to health and safety. The sport has come on so much with the horses getting faster and riders being much fitter.”

Standardbred horses have a heavier build than their thoroughbred cousins. They have a gait which helps their forelegs move in unison with their hind legs.

They are often imported, several coming from Canada, and prices for a good trotter can be as high as 11,000 guineas.

Recently, a horse sold in the USA for 60,000 dollars, said Alan.

The sport is still relatively low-profile, the major meeting in Craven being at Hellifield in the summer.

There is pressure to establish a tote as in horse racing whereby some of the money from betting could be funnelled back to promote the sport.

It is hoped that one day harness racing, which is controlled by the British Harness Racing Club, will get more television coverage in England to boost the fan base.