Thursday, 14 June 2018

2018 Season: Weeks 4 & 5 - χ = (Corbiewood + Appleby³)

And it doesn't matter if those small efforts are being made by one man with his one horse, or a team of people with a yard full of horses - the fact that they are being made at all is enough for me to raise a salute to every single person making them.  I dedicate this entire post to every man, woman and child who has eaten their breakfast after the horses have been fed in the morning; walked in through the door in the darkness after a long journey home from the races; been soaked to the skin exercising horses in the rain or sweated buckets pushing wheelbarrows in the heat.  This is for all the people whose stables are tidier than their living rooms; whose cars resemble tack shops and feed stores; whose pockets get lighter and lighter with each passing week.  Whether it's winning the big one or just putting in a better show than the run before, know that all of your small efforts are worth it.  There will always be days when it doesn't feel like it; when it would be easier to throw in the towel.  But stick at it.

Success is defined as "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose".  Set goals and work hard.  Don't let anyone else define what your success should be.  Every little thing that you do is part of the bigger picture; all of the minutes and hours and days at home are what make the two(+) minutes on the track happen.  Above all else - keep doing what you do every day because one day, maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe some time in the distant future, it will become worth it.

Dream big.
Dream small.
But make sure you dream, for it's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.


Fortunately, what with the lengthy passage of time since the meeting and this post going live, you can read a fairly detailed synopsis of Corbiewood's racing here.  Note: this covers both the first and second meetings at Corbiewood because basically it was the Wednesday after the opening meeting (which made it the day before the second one) before I realised that it would be a bit daft to put an article out so close to the second fixture.  That's called using your initiative to hide your inability to produce anything to a deadline anymore.

From a personal POV, Cassius ran marginally better than his show at the first meeting to finish fourth; Stevie had a 'mare with the Jockey in the bike (they just DO NOT get on in a working capacity) and was beaten by a short head in his heat (the horse actually didn't do much wrong, but we won't go into the other factors which annoyed me about the race).  In the final he lacked racing room but I was pleased to finish 7th of 7 as catch driver Willie Drysdale gave the horse a settled and confidence-boosting drive.  There is more to racing than winning after all.

Appleby - Sunday
Day one of the first of the four festivals of racing and it was a scorcher.  People keep saying that Appleby is due good weather one of these days and they finally got it.  Although, according to the Facebook 'On This Day' feature (handy for remembering the dates of important events and also a pain in the backside for revisiting some of your cringeworthy statuses from when you were in uni), I've been sunburnt at Appleby the last 3 years in a row, along with my best friend Boots.  So the weather can't have been that bad (although he is ginger, and I'm a ginger at heart).

Commentator Darren Owen had asked me if I would fill in on the mic interviewing connections of winners after each race, due to the logistical nightmare of him having to get from the commentary tower to the winner's circle.  I rarely say no when people ask for my help so I had agreed to give it a go (although with an hour before the first race I was majorly regretting it and beginning to wonder if I could find a replacement at short notice).  Thankfully, the first winner on the card was driven by Richard Haythornthwaite, who I know well enough for the questions and answers to come quite easily to both of us.  After that, it became one of the easiest things I've ever done - I could talk to people about their horses all day as it is, and the connections in situations such as this will always be in a good mood because they've just won, so you really couldn't paint an easier job!  I'm told my 'BBC England accent' helped though, for the crowd at least.  Don't worry, I won't be rushing back to do the job because I'd hate for people to get sick of me (LOL) (saying LOL is so not me, but sometimes it's the only thing for it) but if I was asked again when people were stuck and needing help, at least I know I can do it.  No stage fright here (have you seen me in McQs?!).

Interviewing Grant Cullen after his win with Springhill Catch (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)
I've covered (briefly) both days of racing in my Harnesslink report which you can read here, but for the purposes of a more personal spin on things, here are my highlights from the Sunday:

- Dynaramic winning the first heat of the Sunday handicap - a thrilling way for the heats to start (with a photo finish), and the first Scottish winner of the meeting.  Driver Hugh Menzies amused me during our interview when coming across as super confident that his horse had gotten up in time to beat Western Lover & Peter Jackson, albeit only by a nose.  He was certainly more confident than Darren who had left it to the judges to split them!

- Springhill Catch winning the second heat of the Sunday handicap - another Scottish winner quickly followed for the Cullen stable.  This is Keir Cullen's first season as a public trainer having taken over the mantle from his father, Paul, who has been the leading trainer in Scotland on multiple occasions, and it was good to see him and his brother Grant (the driver) in the winner's circle on a big stage.

- Blackwell Tiana winning the third heat of the Sunday handicap - while our sport may be full of a disproportionate number of characters in relation to its overall population, not many can match the unbridled enthusiasm of Jonjo McMeekin, co-owner of this mare with his father-in-law Wilf Burton.  This mare was the subject of a conversation over the country's best carvery at the Anchor Inn back in early 2017, when Jonjo and his wife Claire were sat at the next table from Smarty & I.  He was quite excited to tell us about a three-year-old filly he was working away with, only going 20s at that moment, but he liked her.  Jonjo is the master of the long game, and this mare has emerged onto the track at 4 and looked every bit as good, if not better, than those of her age and sex which came down the stakes route.  With multiple horses qualifying for the final, driver Rocker Laidler chose another horse and Jonjo took the reins with Tiana, looking to be the likely winner as she came three wide off the last bend but ultimately finishing third in a close four-way finish.

- Springhill Ruby winning the fourth heat & final of the Sunday handicap - twelve months earlier the final was won by a mare, Greentree Serenity, which set me on a path of ultimate appreciation for the race mares in this country.  Very few things on the track make me happier than seeing mares win major handicap finals in mixed company.  Springhill Ruby joined Greentree Serenity, Rhyds Passion (Hurricane Pace Final at Musselburgh) and Meldoon (Welsh Classic Final at Tregaron) on the roll of honour.  This made it three from three in the 2018 season for the six-year-old daughter of Best Sunshine, trained by Alexis Laidler and driven by Rocker Laidler.

I have to say a massive well done to breeders the Sheridan family, Springhill Stud in Ireland, as they bred 3 of the 8 finalists, with Ruby and Catch finishing first and second, and Calaburn finishing fifth.  I know how much the family likes to follow the success of the horses they breed and sell, so they'll have enjoyed keeping tabs on Appleby!

Appleby - Monday
As my article covered both days of racing, I'll simply do the same for Monday and run you through my personal highlights:

- Live In Star winning the first heat of the Monday handicap - another Scottish winner, and another winner for the Cullen stable, having finished 2nd and 4th in the final the day before (sandwiched between all of the Laidler runners). I like this horse, and I liked him enough to not only tip him for his heat but also for the final during the racing preview on social media with Darren before racing.  Darren had mentioned the horses in the race that he felt would be the main protagonists, and when he asked me for my thoughts I just went steaming in with one he hadn't mentioned: Live In Star.  OK, so it might have been a little bright for him (he has a habit of winning in the pitch black at Corbiewood) and he may not have had the comedy sunglasses trainer Keir promised me he'd have on, but I felt the horse had everything that was required to win a major handicap final.  I even put my money where my mouth was and backed him ante-post for the final (and was later thanked by the bookies for not tipping the eventual winner of the final but instead pointing people towards Live In Star - although if anybody actually followed my selections, more fool you, because I'm ruled by my heart not my head which is why I rarely gamble).

- Jack Swagger winning the third heat of the Monday handicap -  'Maxi' as he is known has had a well-documented history of problems, some of which may have resulted in his early retirement (or worse) had he not been bred, owned, trained and driven over the last few years by people who have ultimately always believed in him.  When I spoke to driver William Greenhorn after the race, I think he would have been happy to take that win alone, and the entire camp were over the moon.  Deservedly so.  A lot of people never know the difficulties faced behind the scenes and therefore never appreciate the emotion of the moment when things just work out.

- Sports Trick winning the fourth heat of the Monday handicap - here is another horse who has been plagued by problems.  Having broken a pedal bone at Portmarnock in 2016, it was a long road back to racing for the Famous Musselburgh Pace winner and his 2017 season, in which he only started a handful of times, was disappointing for connections who were aware of this horse's true ability.  After the race, driver James Haythornthwaite hinted that had he not performed to the standard they believed deep down he was still capable of, then the future of his racing career had looked very shaky.  Fortunately for us all, Sports Trick proved that he was back, and it was not a surprise to see trainer Teresa [Haythornthwaite] in tears as she led him into the winner's circle.  This woman has a habit of crying when I'm nearby with my camera!  I was pleased for connections as, again, some people don't know how rough the road has been to get somewhere and don't appreciate then the feeling when it all comes good - I do.  Seeing owners Claire and Shane Fletcher so visibly moved by the horse's win had me fighting back tears too.  What can I say?  I just love a story of overcoming adversity.

Sports Trick heading to victory in the fourth heat (Sarah Thomas photo)
Owner Claire Fletcher & trainer Teresa Haythornthwaite embrace after the win (Sarah Thomas photo)
More happy tears! (Sarah Thomas photo)

- Rhyds Sapphire winning the maiden & novice event - two from two for 'Saffie', owned by my parents and brother.  Pleased for them as it was their first runner at Appleby, a place my parents have been travelling to for the past few years for the racing.  And she had to do it the hard way; it was good to see her tough it because boy is she going to land in the deep end in the stakes races shortly!

- Jack Swagger winning the Appleby Whit Monday Spring Races Final - after the emotional victory in the heat, and with me cheering on Live In Star right up until the moment Jack Swagger swung off the bend and didn't look like being beaten (at which point I just started cheering on Willie G instead), I don't think many people truly believed this horse was going to win the final.  What a thoroughly well deserved moment in the spotlight for a group of people who chose never to give up on a horse that many others would have given up on.  I didn't expect trainer Alexis Laidler to start crying in the post-race interview, but I can't blame her for doing so.  Breeder Joyce Greenhorn was slightly more composed and took over to express gratitude to both Rocker and Alexis, but later said to me that the horse has affected everyone around him.  I'm surprised I didn't start crying to be honest, it's only a matter of time before that happens!

Jack Swagger & William Greenhorn turning for home (Sarah Thomas photo)

Breeder Joyce Greenhorn leading 'Maxi' to the winner's circle (Sarah Thomas photo)
Later, on social media, talk turned to how the Laidler stable would dominate the remainder of the season, having taken the first three main handicap finals (Merrington Movinup - Tregaron, Springhill Ruby & Jack Swagger - Appleby).  Not that I feel that Alexis [Laidler] needed to justify herself but in response to wild claims that 'big money owners' were ruining the sport for everyone else, she pointed out to the critics that Merrington Movinup was a homebred orphan which she had hand-reared herself (and with impeccable manners for a horse brought up this way, which isn't always the case); Springhill Ruby had been suffering from soundness issues and had taken a lot of time and effort to get right; and Jack Swagger...well, at one point in his life even veterinary professionals had given up on him, but not Joyce and Willaim [Greenhorn], his breeders, and not the champion trainer who coaxed him back to winning the Saturday handicap final at Aberystwyth last year.

Furthermore, what truly annoyed me about some of the comments was the total disregard of the success of other trainers at the meeting.  Whilst the major handicap finals are the 'big ones' on the day, due to the largely unknown background stories of some of the other winners, a win in any other race is often sufficient success for connections.  To have people, who have often never even brushed a horse, let alone gone through the sometimes seemingly impossible task of training a horse, assert that the success enjoyed by others wasn't 'enough' success, was insulting to everyone who has gotten a horse as a blank canvas and turned it into a racehorse, or started with something which other people will tell you cannot make it and proven them wrong.  To everyone who trained a winner at Appleby - I give you me heartfelt congratulations.  You achieved something that few others did.  To those who raced horses with merit - I urge you to keep at it, your day will come.  To those who went home disappointed - don't lose heart.  The sum of all your efforts will lead you to something.

All of this leads me quite nicely onto the third part of the Appleby trio: the New Fair Meeting.

Appleby - New Fair
We left Crosshill Stables with two horses; we came home to Crosshill Stables with two horses.  But they weren't the same two horses that left.  We bade a fond farewell (or borderline tearful, if you saw the Jockey's daughter) to big Cassius Clay, who left for pastures new with the Laidler stable.  Whilst we have enjoyed some success with him over the years, with Corbiewood and its 3/8 mile track being the centre of our universe, his 16'1hh frame just wasn't suited to it.  I look forward to seeing him racing for his new connections this summer, and the day that he wins his first race for them you'll hear me cheering the loudest, that's for sure.

I can hear you all wondering (unless you're friends with me on Facebook or a follower of mine on Twitter or Instagram, in which case you've seen multiple photos of him already) who came home with us.  Well, I am now the proud owner of Elmo Hanover, a 4YO gelded son of Dragon Again out of the Cams Card Shark mare, Erma La Em.  A $42,000 yearling purchase out of Harrisburg, so far his career has been uninspiring and he is yet to lose his maiden tag.  However, he has patches of form which hint at potential to win races, and I'm not one to shy away from a challenge.  So Elmo and Big Burd (I know, it should be Bird, but I live in Scotland now where everyone shows a flagrant disregard to vowels) are going to take on the world together.  OK, maybe not the world, maybe just Corbiewood, but we'll be doing it together anyway.  Teamwork makes the dreamwork and all that.

The dream team - Big B[u]rd & Elmo
Elmo Hanover <3
Now to the racing.  Young Stephen (aka Stevie) was our sole runner.  Partnered by Hugh Menzies for the first time and with the worst draw in his heat, I would have been happy if he'd snuck a place in the final.  I'll let you watch the video to see how he got on with that:

Yeah, so, nice turn of foot eh?!  I think he surprised a few people, none moreso than his driver who admitted in the post-race interview that he'd always thought the horse to be quite aggressive on the track (a common misconception I've been trying to dispell for some time) but in fact, he was 'a perfect gentleman'.  Gold star to Hugh for saying all the right things on the mic!

My favourite interview - for obvious reasons - with Hugh Menzies (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)
Stevie heads the field off the last bend in his heat (Bill Cardno photo)

Going into the final, I knew he was up against it.  I wasn't scared of any one particular horse (despite the armchair critics and keyboard warriors telling me, and everyone like me, that we cannot beat the leading stable and essentially should give up trying).  I was scared of ALL of the horses.  They all made it to the final based on their merits and every single one of them was capable of beating my horse.  Being a part of the final after already winning, with a horse that has given us some amount of problems over the years, was a great feeling in itself.

I'm gonna let you watch the final for yourselves (you can cheer Stevie on as much as you like, unfortunately it won't change the result now!):


We came, we tried, we went down fighting.  I was able to load my horse back onto my lorry knowing he had given us 100% and in the end, it just wasn't quite enough.  No excuses, no bad feeling.  I hugged Jonjo and Wilf and Jack [Burton] before interviewing Jonjo and Rocker after the race.  I saw how they conducted themselves in defeat only a week earlier when beaten by Springhill Ruby and Springhill Catch, and I wanted to make sure that is how I always handled defeat.  You learn a lot about people in the way they both win and lose, and unfortunately this year already I have seen poor examples of both, but this family set an example and hopefully I was, and continue to be, able to do the same.

Stevie giving it everything into the stretch in the final (Bill Cardno photo)
A fair haul
Outwith my own success (and yes, finishing second in a big final is what I call success, thanks) I also thoroughly enjoyed the success of Rhyds Solution, a game old horse who was having his first start of the year off a whopping 60 yard trail.  In a photo finish with his stablemate Frankie Camden, the wait with his owner Julie Sedgewick was epic.  After the official result was given, during the interview Julie suggested she might need a vodka to calm her down.  So we both went for a vodka together!  Enthusiasm and enjoyment for the sake of it are so infectious.

Before I sign off (and start the post for the racing that's happened since), I hope you picked up on the title of the post and the reference in the cover photo to 'sums'.  It turns out my GCSE Maths teacher, Mr Ward, was right, and I would use algebra in my life.  Although, probably incorrectly.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Saturday, 26 May 2018

2018 Season: Week 3 - Corbiewood in the dark & Presteigne in the sun

Or in this case, without the dark we'd never see Live In Star!

Corbiewood - 18th May

In an almost carbon copy performance of last season's victory in the Standardbred Show Trophy Final (August 3rd 2017), Live In Star proved that he's been eating his carrots once again when winning the opening meeting's final in pitch darkness.

An accident in the third race which saw driver John Allan take a bruising fall on the first bend delayed racing by almost an hour, on an evening when an 8 race card already had officials watching the clock closely to evade the fading light.  Although, not closely enough that the qualifiers before racing could get off on time...

Last season's BHRC 2YO Futurity winner DKs Happy Forever (Richard Thomson) took out the first heat from GDs Hazzard (Andrew Cairns).  In the second heat, Bono (William Greenhorn) held off the advances of Royal Mint Howard (James Haythornthwaite) as the pair secure the next two spots in the final.

In the first running of heat three, Millie May West (John Allan) was hampered by the faltering Whosurbaby (Scott Murray) on the first bend at breakneck speed, with the former tipping the driver out of the cart.  Racing was halted as the loose Millie May West circumnavigated the track whilst first aiders attended to the fallen driver who appeared to have lost consciousness.  Thankfully, John Allan (who was taken to hospital by ambulance) was reported to be back on his feet by the weekend and raring to go for the following week's racing!

In the re-run, Whosurbaby had a cleaner run, leading out and holding his front position until Live In Star (Grant Cullen) cruised past in the stretch to take victory.  The fourth and final heat saw stablemates Indie Hanover and Porcelain Seelster, and brothers Richard & James Haythornthwaite fill the last remaining places in the final.

The nine horses entered for the maiden and novice division all declared, and as the track maximum at Corbiewood is 8 horses the decision was made to split them into 2 races: one of 5 and one of 4.  Unfortunately, Ladyford Topaz sustained an injury whilst disembarking the lorry, and withdrew.  However, due to an objection from (at least) one set of connections, the two races were not combined.  Personally, in this instance I feel that the promoter has final say on issues such as this, and the decision should have been made to combine the two races into one, especially (in hindsight) in light of the unanticipated delay to racing.

Nevertheless, the decision was what the decision was, and the Castalongshadow Syndicate-owned Mahogany Martini (Gregor Menzies) won the first division, with Talavaryterminator (Richard Haythornthwaite) taking the second.

The seventh race on the card was the second leg of the national BHRC & Standardbred Horse Sales Co Star Maker Series, with 5 horses facing the starter.  The unbeaten Soul Searcher (Willie Drysdale) was a popular winner as the horse is trained at Corbiewood by one of the sport's great characters, Charles 'Chico' Inglis Jnr, who blushed uncontrollably at all the cheers as he led his charge into the winner's circle.

Under the cover of darkness, 8 horses lined up for the handicap final.  James & Richard Haythornthwaite were allegedly through their mark (looks as though the judge had either been eating his carrots as well or was wearing night vision goggles to spot that) and were immediately disqualified.  Live In Star spread-eagled the field early doors and was never being caught, with the officials clocking him in 2.05.83 and winning by a distance from GDs Hazzard.  An interesting point to note is that no other clock on the track recorded him in that time, even if those operating them had to get home to artificial light to check them.

The trainer, Keir Cullen, has advised that the horse will head to Appleby this weekend, donning a pair of large sunglasses in order to keep out the light!!

Live In Star & Grant Cullen winning the heat (in daylight) (Bill Cardno photo)
Star Maker Heat winner Soul Searcher warming up with Richard Thomson (Bill Cardno photo)
Before we look to Presteigne, I just want to shine a light (sorry for all the light references and puns, it's just too easy) on some comments made on social media following the running of the final in darkness.  Yes, it was dangerous.  No, this isn't the first time this has happened.  No, lessons do not appear to have been learnt.  However, when the videos of the racing were published on the SHRC Facebook page (a service that Scottish harness racing continues to lead the way on), I noted that one comment which strongly objected to the running of the race in darkness due to the health & safety implications was made by the connections of one of the runners.  Last year, in similar circumstances, plenty of people were up in arms prior to the race about the light conditions, however only ONE trainer withdrew their horse on safety grounds.  None did so this time.  Whilst concerns are valid, I do not think it appropriate to be making such comments when ultimately you made the decision to race your horse.  I firmly believe in actions speaking louder than words.

Finally, on opening night, Corbiewood welcomed its first international visitors of the season: two lovely ladies from Finland who are heavily involved in harness racing there.  This was their first time watching pacers racing and they were full of questions - I hope I was able to answer some of them!!  Finland has now joined the list of places I need to visit for the racing - both summer and winter!

Presteigne - 20th May

Smarty and I headed south to Wales on Saturday to deliver a mare and foal to the stallion, before heading further south into mid Wales to visit my parents (and attend a birthday party/barn dance/possible illegal rave on a mountain).  The following day we ventured to Presteigne on a beautiful sunny Sunday for the first Wales & West meeting of the season.

Racing kicked off with the first of the BHRC Kids Club Pony Races, commentated by the star of the future, Stephen Lees Jr.  I must admit, I was more than a little apprehensive about these races as there were a few niggling concerns regarding eligibility and criteria, however when I saw the five children lining up on their ponies, my heart about melted.  Joseph Ripley Jr and Flash led from start to finish to record a resounding victory, from Charley Elvin and Elvis A-Ha in second, Jake Podmore and Star in third, Terry Allen Jr and Sampson in fourth and Indianna Allen and Essex Girl bringing home the quintet.

(Sarah Thomas photo)
I won't run you through each race on the card as we'll be here all night, but I would like to mention a couple of memorable performances which I feel deserve their moment in the spotlight:

- Seal Of Approval & Angie Dyer, Qualifier - this horse was a runner up in the 2YO Colts & Geldings race at Aberystwyth last year behind Matticulous and looked an impressive sort at Presteigne last weekend.  He is sure to win races this year on the Wales & West circuit.

- The Mockingjay & Marc Jones, Qualifier - this 2YO filly is built like an absolute tank and impressed in her qualifier.  She will be one to watch in the stakes races, as Marc & Jenny Jones have had plenty of success in these types of events in the past, so this is not unchartered territory for the Sennybridge-based team.

- Easy Company & Rocker Laidler - Darren Owen's horse to follow for the season, despite his winning margins not being anything to write home about, impressed with the manner of his victories in both heat and final.

Easy Company & Rocker Laidler (Sarah Thomas)
- Valseur Du Cygne & Rocker Laidler - I'm struggling somewhat to understand the format of TrotBritain's season (although hopefully George Button & Joseph Ripley will enlighten me - and you - in some video interviews due shortly) however, this horse is sure to figure regardless of the structure.  Sans Limites (Terry Allen) and Ulysse Du Bosq (Julian Price) were notable in defeat.  I have to say this now, again, that I thoroughly enjoy watching these aged trotters race and I cannot for the life of me fathom why TrotBritain seem so intent on pushing 3 and 4 year old untried/unwanted horses onto licence holders when these proven, durable, aged horses are far easier to train and far more enjoyable to watch racing.  What is wrong with following the example set by Malta (the country which imports the highest number of aged Trotteur Francais racehorses)? #BeLikeMalta

Valseur Du Cygne & Rocker Laidler (Sarah Thomas photo)
My 'Supporters of the Weekend' award this week goes to the Ripley family, who travelled all the way from the south east of England to cheer on young Joseph Jnr in the pony race, and then not-so-young Joseph Snr with his pacer and trotter.  The cheer they gave as Espoir Lila stormed down the home straight to win the 4YO trot was ear-splitting - this is what I like to hear!!

The Ripley family & friends with Joseph Ripley & Espoir Lila (Sarah Thomas photo)
Now for the (brief) negative elements.

1.  The track.

I have been to Presteigne on a number of occasions, both when I was living and working in Wales and also since moving to Scotland.  It isn't the smoothest of grass tracks, however, I do feel that with a bit of tweaking it could be far safer and a better spectacle for the racegoers.  With the crowd being situated between the finish line and the first bend, much of the track is too far away for decent viewing.  Coincidentally, that part of the track (the last 2 bends) seems to be where a lot of horses have difficulty navigating the corners.  It appears that the track is greater than a half mile, yet the races are still run over two laps for every grade.  A lot of horses finished their races very tired, despite the going being good, and as the track is solely raced upon in the early part of the season, this isn't ideal and could be the reason why a penalty free meeting a week later was lost due to lack of entries.

My suggestion would be to create a smaller track similar to Wolsingham/Hellifield/Corbiewood i.e. just under half a mile or 3/8 of a mile, and race a greater number of circuits.  This would enable the roughest part of the track (on the final bend) to be removed; the crowd to have a better view of the racing; and the horses to not face such a stiff challenge.  In Wales, harness racing participants are blessed with some fantastic grass tracks (certainly compared to Scotland and England), most of which are a bang half mile.  In making Presteigne less than a half mile circuit, this would add an element of variety and in my opinion, the safety concerns would be somewhat alleviated.  Furthermore, at some point the committee responsible for staging the racing has made the decision to reduce the maximum number of runners in a race from 10 to 8, and I can only assume this was on safety grounds.  In light of this, I feel that reducing the size of the track would also assist on this front.

2.  A horse running 3 times in one day.

A horse raced in a qualifier, before running in two further betting races later in the day.

I have previously raised concerns over something identical which occurred in August of last year at another track on the same racing circuit.  The BHRC rulebook states that a horse cannot race more than twice in one day, for welfare reasons.  I was advised on the previous occasion that a qualifer does not constitute a race, for the purposes of that particular rule.  I have an issue with this, as regardless of whether betting is allowed on the race or not, the horse is still 'racing' over a mile.  On this particular occasion, it was a very hot day and although I'm sure most horses are more than capable of racing under these conditions, it does beg the question what the purpose of the rule is if it is going to be interpreted in such a manner that it becomes a pointless rule (as I cannot think of any other circumstances in which a horse would enter to race 3 times on the same day).

3.  Pylon violations

You'll hear quite a lot about these this summer I'm sure (wait for the next blog post).  In North America, for example, they take a tough stance on pylon violations.  Here...not so much.  Upon reviewing the DVD from the meeting, a horse raced inside a minimum of 10 pegs.  Whilst I appreciate that the stewards cannot see all things at all times, this occurred on the home straight leading directly up to the finish line in front of them.  From trackside, where I was situated, it wasn't noticeable.  From the inside of the track...well, it only took me one viewing at real time speed to count the pegs.

Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day out despite the sunburn and looooong drive home, which saw us get back to our house at 1am on Monday morning.  I wouldn't want to do that too often!!

Next up will be Corbiewood's second meeting of the season and the first of the four major festivals of racing, Appleby.

Remember folks, #ComeHarnessRacing

Over and out,
#1 Groom

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

2018 Season: Week 2 - A solid 6 for Team Laidler

On Saturday 12th May harness racing returned to its spiritual home at Tregaron for a ten-race card including the Spring Handicap heats and final, Senior Welsh Dragon and the first of nine legs of the Star Maker Series.

After picking up their first win at Tir Prince last week with Springhill Calaburn, the Laidler team hit the ground running on week 2 with a 12 length victory in the first event with my family's 3YO filly, Rhyds Sapphire.  This was her first start under new management and we were glad to see her kick things off with a win.  Fingers crossed she can play a major part in some of the 3YO stakes races this summer once she's had a spin around Appleby in novice company.

Rhyds Sapphire (Hasty Hall-CPR-Life Sign) & Rocker Laidler (Graham Rees photo)

The success of the 3YOs continued as last year's Junior Welsh Dragon winner, Merrington Movinup (bred by Rocker & Alexis and now owned by Raymond & Frank Huschka) showed real class to beat more experienced horses in the first of the two heats for the final, with Tommy Camden (Richard Haythornthwaite), Rhyds Nightlife (James Haythornthwaite) and Ghenghis Pride (Alan Haythornthwaite) - that's a lot of Haythornthwaites - taking the three remaining places for the final.

Merrington Movinup (The Preacher Pan-What A Commotion-Hopping High) & Rocker Laidler (Graham Rees photo)
In the second of the two heats, David Bevan's gutsy performer Lakeside Paddy got up from my 2018 horse to follow, Ring Of Fire after the first of my new feature "Bobby's Bloopers".  Driver Bobby Richards, who I have known for a number of years and think the absolute world of, mistook the start line for the finish line and eased up in front before the wily Bevan snatched victory.  Favourite Happy Hands faltered and finished out of the first four, and last week's impressive heat winner Rockin Mambo was a no-show after connections mistakenly thought racing was the following day!

David [Bevan] made it a quickfire double to match Rocker when steering Immortal John to a confident and well-timed victory in the second of the maiden events ahead of American Mistress and Ayr Paparazzi.

Next up it was Bobby's 17-year-old son Joel's turn to take the reins with his namesake, Wye Joels Best.  This perhaps should have been my nap of the meeting, as in his first three lifetime starts he was placed behind White Flame (fastest Skewbald pacer in the world), Rhyds Passion (BHRC Mare of the Year 2017) and Springhill Glory (Appleby, York & Aberystwyth 3YO winner).  That's pretty good company to be keeping.  Forget nap, I was nap-ping and I failed to give this out as my 'cert' for the meeting during the preview with Darren [Owen] and Kayleigh [Evans] (yes, these previews are totally a thing now and I love them).  Anyway, Joel trains all 8 horses at home and drives 4, while dad Bobby drives the other four.  Quality horses or not, Joel is going places.  To my global readers - remember his name: JOEL RICHARDS.  He could turn up anywhere in the world one day and drive winners.  You heard it here first.

Wye Joels Best (Pro Bono Best-J Vs Jiffy-Village Jiffy) & Joel Richards (Graham Rees photo)
Now at this point in the day, a certain Mr William Laidler had begun to pine for the winner's circle so he made it his mission to get back there as quickly as possible, and the fifth race was his chance to do it as he steered Wilf Burton's Blackwell Tiana to a comfortable victory from Lane House Stan & Michael O'Mahony (the Tregaron Festival superhero last August when partnering 9 winners across the 2 days).

Much like buses (you wait ages for one and then three come along at once), Rocker notched up a further two wins in as many races when Springhill Ruby overcame the favourite Rhyds Star Quality (Mick Lord) in the second of the two Grade 1 & 2 events, before taking the first of the Star Maker legs with Laneside Layla.  This mare only raced once in 2017 when finishing second to Rhyds Rock Star at York at the opening meeting of the season.  That in itself was fairly strong form, provided that she had overcome whatever issues had prevented her from racing for the remainder of last year.  It appears that she has.  I must give a mention here to runner up Laughing Buck (Julie Phillips) who looks as though he may have a rewarding season with the connections who have had previous success with his half-brother Masquerade Avenue, a multiple winner on the Wales & West circuit.  Also, a horse which caught a few people's eye was third placed Borntorun, a runner up in the Breeders Crown 2YO Fillies to Rhyds Mystique and who subsequently missed her 3YO season.  She could be one to watch in this series now that the number of runs for non-winners has been altered to unlimited.

Attention then turned to one of the two feature races on the day - the Doonbeg 4YO Senior Welsh Dragon - the last stakes race in the Dragon series.  The pessimists amongst the harness racing fans could not let go of Rhyds Rock Star's below-par peformance in the 3YO Little Welsh Dragon Final at the track last August when he broke and finished 5th, and it was such a hot topic on social media (although I missed it, as hard as that is to believe what with me being a total social media addict) during the build up to the meeting that driver James Haythornthwaite admitted in his post-race interview that he had even begun to have doubts himself about whether this super 4YO son of Hasty Hall would be able to stay down and perform to his best.  I was lucky enough once again (thanks to the officials, committee, driver John Crump and starter Conway Price) to ride in the back of the start car and come face to face with the horse as he scored up in post position 2, and before we rolled around to the start I spotted James putting Rock Star around the first two bends at half speed; I can guess only to give them both a bit of confidence.  Rock Star was keen, and gave me a right eyeball as the car pulled away - I later told Smarty that he was quite an intimidating horse to face off with as he looked to be totally in race mode: ears flat back and raring to go.  From the moment the race started, he was away, and the Rock Star that we saw last week at Tir Prince was definitely in action, winning in just under 2.07 on a dead half mile grass track.

Facing off with Rhyds Rock Star (Sarah Thomas photo)
Cruising just after the half (Sarah Thomas photo)

This was the third year in a row that owners Claire and Shane Fletcher, and trainer Teresa Haythornthwaite, have won this race (2016 - Sports Trick; 2017 - Party At The Spa; 2018 - Rhyds Rock Star).  Teresa was understandably emotional as last year's victor, 'Party', sadly passed away later in the 2017 season and this win obviously brought back the memories of what was an emotional victory last year (that's two years in a row I've had photos of you in tears Teresa!).  That's what racing does to people, and the people so deeply affected by loss and success are the kind of people I want in my life!

The last race on the card was the Camden Stud Spring Handicap Final, and the 3YO Merrington Movinup started as the favourite.  Earlier in the day, Bobby Richards had told me he wanted a 2-page spread when he won the final, as boxer Anthony Joshua had had a 4-page spread (presumably after one of his world title successes) - I LOVE this man's confidence, which is always tinged with cheeky humour.  I was watching Bobby and 'Fire' closely, and heading down the back straight he was clearly in trouble stuck on the rail with several horses in front of him and to his outside.  The box is not a good place to be, and in the style of Anthony Joshua, Bobby thought he would fight his way out of it by pushing his way up the inside of David Bevan and Lakeside Paddy.  I didn't call David 'wily' earlier for nothing - that door which may have appeared ajar came closing with a bang and I thought Bobby was for the deck as his horse faltered and shuffled back in the field coming around the last two bends.  Merrington Movinup had shot clear and came home an unchallenged and impressive winner, but imagine my surprise as I looked up from the viewfinder of my camera to see none other than Bobby and Ring Of Fire storming down the straight to finish second - the last time I'd seen them they were nearly last less than an eighth of a mile from the line.  This was "Bobby's Bloopers" #2!!

Taking nothing away from the winner though, 'Joey' [Merrington Movinup] as he's known is a real star for the future and I think he has an exciting 3YO campaign ahead of him.  This was Rocker's sixth win of the day and I have to take my hat off to Alexis [Laidler] for a sublime training performance from her team.

Merrington Movinup cruising to victory in the final (Sarah Thomas photo)
A couple of things that I took from the meeting and which I feel should be touched upon are as follows:

- the format of the heats & final; currently I believe that the format is too 'grade-specific' for an early season event.  Had the committee allowed Grades 1 & 2 to participate, the top 8 handicap horses entered could have been siphoned off for an OPH standalone race.  This, in theory, would have allowed horses such as Evenwood Sonofagun, Coalford Tetrick, Mikey Camden and Wellfield Ghost to race (Llwyns Delight, a G9 horse, raced in the high grade heat as a G7 with a C Class driver on board utilising a 20 yard lift).  This suggested format would also allow for more heats with fewer horses from each heat progressing to the final.  It is my belief that the punters and spectators (and indeed, probably the pesky bookmakers) would prefer this.  A secondary issue is that in the first 2 weeks of racing, there have not been races for the best horses in the UK at 2 of the leading venues.  Harness racing cannot allow for these horses to be standing in stables rather than racing - otherwise we face the very real risk of losing these horses to North America which quite frankly, as an avid harness racing fan, is not what I want.  I'm selfish, I want to see the best horses racing right in front of me and not on some race replay website.

- Saturday vs Sunday racing; whilst this caught the connections of Rockin Mambo out (I'm sure they'll laugh about it one day), I think the change of day affected both bookmaker and crowd turnout.  Saturdays are notoriously busy in the events calendar - point to points, Thoroughbred racing, shows etc. I appreciate that Sunday clashes with Ludlow Racecourse, however I think the move to Saturday was more detrimental than successful.  However, these things have to be tried in order to find out what works best.  I would like to work with the committee to publicise the fixture around the local area as we passed a large number of tourists on our drive to the track and it took all my willpower not to hang out of the car window and shout at them to follow us.

For those who voiced negative opinions on social media directly before the racing regarding the prize money on offer, I have this to say - the card was decent.  It was decent, despite this perceived 'poor prize money'.  Why would the committee suffer a greater financial burden when there was little improvement to be found in the quality and number of horses racing?  Furthermore, the prize money on offer was in line with recent years at this venue and fixture, where cards have been of a similar quality.  In addition, this year (for the first time in a number of years), the racing was penalty free.  I would love for us all to be racing for small fortunes, however in this economic climate within animal racing sports, I feel as though the committee should be commended rather than vilified for staging such a strong fixture so early in the season when you take into consideration the appalling weather during the winter which put so many of us behind with our training.

Coming up this weekend we have the opening meeting at Corbiewood (the home of Scottish harness racing and the centre of my universe) and the first of the Wales & West promoted fixtures, at Presteigne, both of which are staging £500 finals.  Corbiewood will play host to the second Star Maker Series leg, and Presteigne welcomes aged trotters for their first outing of the season.  There is literally something for everyone so don't sit in the house twiddling your thumbs, #COMEHARNESSRACING

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Monday, 7 May 2018

2018 Season: Week 1 - Record falls at Tir Prince

That's right folks, the 2018 harness racing season here in the UK is finally underway and what a start it was, I must say.

Harness racing fans from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales converged upon the home of the Crock of Gold, Tir Prince, and were treated to a thrilling 8-race card including the 4YO Sire Stakes divisions and the first handicap heats and finals to be staged on the same day at the track in 20+ years.

Young Stephen Lees Jnr was back at the mic calling the three qualifiers before racing, following on from his maiden call at York on Sale Day last season.  Meanwhile, race commentator Darren [Owen] and I found a quiet spot to settle down for a race night preview, which (I think if you're friends with Darren at least) you can view here.

Darren & I enjoying the racing preview on Facebook Live a little too much...
My selections for the 8 races during the preview were as follows:

1. Itsmycheck
2. Rockin Mambo
3. Teddy Camden
4. Springhill Calaburn
5. Emirat Du Levant
6. Rhyds Mystique
7. Rhyds Rock Star
8. Rockin Mambo

I got off to a stormer, despite Darren's assertions that Itsmycheck, a horse he is involved with as a co-owner, had wintered 'too well' and may need the run to get to race fitness.  The Scottish-owned Share A Smile led out; Itsmycheck and Alan Haythornthwaite committed early and sat parked for the latter five furlongs and took up the running just after the three quarter marker.  The Irish owned and trained grey, Springhill Rob, came with a strong, late run to finish second but the leader was not for beating.  Plan B finished third with Frankie Camden making up the quartet going forward to the final at the end of the night.

Jack Swagger for the champion trainer/driver team Alexis and Rocker Laidler led out in the second and made the running for much of the race.  As they rolled down the back straight for the last time I started to cheer on 'Maxi' (as he is known) and then it dawned on me that there was supposed to be a horse in the race to be a real danger to the leader.  For a split second I couldn't remember what that was; and then Marc Jones turned on the gas and Rockin Mambo came out of the clouds down the outside of the field with a blistering turn of foot to take up the running coming off the last bend and win in 1.59.2.  The long time leader finished second, with the Irish duo Springhill Biscuit and Meadowbranch Roman filling up the minor placings.

Two from two for this tipster and going into the first of the maiden and novice divisions with confidence as I'd selected the short-priced favourite Teddy Camden.  Impressive in a qualifier the week before at Portmarnock, connections weren't present on the night to enjoy his success as he held off the always-improving Oakwood Ideal to give the Irish challengers their sole victory on the night.  Bobby Camden who finished third was an eye-catcher as he appears to have come on leaps and bounds from his 2YO season last year and could be one to watch with interest this year.

The second of the maiden and novice divisions got off to a bad start when a hook up on the first bend saw drivers Vicky Gill and Jonathan Dunne (who partnered Teddy Camden in the third) landing on the deck.  American Mistress and Coffee Mate completed one further lap of the track of their own accord before pulling up and turning back to handlers to be caught before the three quarter marker.  Neither was allowed in the re-run, which meant two fewer opponents for my selection - Springhill Calaburn.  The largely unknown Hawthorns Henry with Leo Arnett set the pace up front and took the race to the more experienced horses and drivers, and as Rocker Laidler and Springhill Calaburn took up the running just before the 7/8 it looked as though they would be runaway winners.  Hawthorns Henry dug in and put up a good fight although the result was never really in question and the champion trainer and driver recorded their first win of the season on opening night.

My ability to pick winners took a nosedive at this stage as the 4YO French Trotters took to the track.  Darren and I had mentioned nearly every horse in the race between us during the preview, and he had assured me that my selection (a horse he co-owns) could not win due to the 'controversial handicap system' which was being employed by TROTBritain (the horse was on a 40 yard trail).  The horse broke shortly after the start (although came back down quickly) so I was out of the game early on during the 1 1/4 mile race.  Drama in the latter stages where they began to gallop in the same way pins fall when hit by a bowling ball, meant the level-gaited Enez Leman and trainer/driver Mike Evans shot clear coming off the bend to record a 10 length victory.  Multiple dead heats in the placings mean this writer can't remember who finished where, but it was something similar to a blanket finish just a long way back from the winner.  Surprisingly, there was only one disqualification due to breaking gait, which I wouldn't have mentioned if it wasn't for the difficulty I faced in trying to explain to holidaymaking members of the general public why the horse they had bet hadn't finished the race.  Turns out, they don't really know the difference between trotting and galloping.  But then again, neither do some of the horses.

Back to pacing races and I thought I might get myself back on track here.  I had made strong representations about the Mather family's Another Affair during the preview as she had impressed the week earlier in the qualifier and workouts at the track.  This was a big step up in class for the novice on only her third start, although she held off the early attack from Rhyds Mystique to take up the running for the first half of the mile.  When JD asked Mystique to quicken after the half, Another Affair was passed with ease and it looked as though I was right to stick by the champion 2YO and 3YO filly.  However, in the closing stages of the race veteran driver Mick Lord proved that there is no substitute for experience as he produced his charge, Rhyds Hokey Cokey, to get up close to home for a surprise (and, according to some sources, controversial) victory.

Breeders John & Grethe Wright from Rhyds Stud were certainly able to take pride in their produce as Rhyds Rock Star graced the track straight after the mares.  The British 3YO Colt of the Year was my nap of the meeting and it was a case of 'blink and you'll miss it' as he powered to victory.  I'm not kidding, in the time it took me to walk from the joint to track side with my clipboard, they were already going in to the back straight with Rock Star a solid 6 or 7 lengths clear.  My mind wasn't able to comprehend that this was the second lap so I made the assumption that he'd already gone clear in the first quarter.  As they rounded the bend he extended his lead further over the Scottish owned and trained No Brakes and Darren appeared to be calling a finish...I looked to the clock by the line to figure out what was happening and all I saw was 1.47, 1.48, those seconds I had flashbacks of Doonbeg at Amman Valley the night he broke the World Record for a mile-on-a-less-than-a-half-mile-track (try saying that when you're drunk, go on).  As James Haythornthwaite guided him over the line the clock stopped at 1.56, which became 1.56.1 as the official time and a NEW TRACK RECORD.  The previous record of 1.56.2 was held by Forafewdollarsmore (now standing at stud in Wales, having already stood a season in Scotland) and then equalled on Crock of Gold night last year by joint-winners Miraculous and Evenwood Sonofagun.  We knew Rock Star was good, but did we know he was that good?  Well, all the signs were there.  He propelled through last season going from one win to the next in increasingly difficult company and seemed to thrive on victory.  I know he's going to enjoy more of it this year; once the 4YO races are out of the way the next step for him has to be FFA class with the big boys...I. CAN'T. WAIT.

New Track Record Holder: Rhyds Rock Star (Hasty Hall-Tonda Star-Albert Albert) & James Haythornthwaite winning the BHRC 4YO Sire Stakes (Colts & Geldings division) (Graham Rees photo)
Coincidentally, I was back to picking winners again.  Go me!

It didn't last long, as I had put all my eggs in one basket with Marc Jones and Rockin Mambo despite their 50 yard trail.  Turns out the front markers were able to make full use of their advantage, and it was a training 1-2 for Teresa Haythornthwaite as son James partnered Plan B to victory over stablemate Itsmycheck and (husband) Alan.  Owners Les and Jean Fell were clearly delighted to be picking up the cheque and rug for the Anto Russell Memorial Final, kindly sponsored by Dean Russell and family from Ireland who were there on the night to present winning connections.

Plan B (Hasty Hall-Sassy-Abercrombie) & James Haythornthwaite winning the final (Graham Rees photo)

Sponsors the Russell family presenting winning connections of the final, Team Haythornthwaite and owners Les & Jean Fell (Graham Rees photo)

Post-racing, BHRC blogger and assistant trainer to Michael O'Mahony, Kayleigh Evans, joined Darren and myself in the commentary box for the review of the night's racing, which (again, if you're friends with Darren most likely) you can see here.  I selected five from eight which I think is a fairly solid start to the season when all I could really go on was last season's form and the advice of my fanatical in-house bookmaker (who doesn't always get it right, fortunately for all you punters).

Two points to note for those who put on these races and this meeting: the concept of handicap heats and finals on the same day at Tir Prince is GREAT.  Similarly, the Blossom Kelly heats and finals at York last year worked just as well, and I am glad to see those working behind the scenes at Tir Prince embracing this concept.  Secondly, whoever made the decision to stage the 4YO Sire Stakes races early in May deserves a round of applause for two reasons: the races work in conjunction with the Senior Welsh Dragon at Tregaron which falls a week later, thus giving connections of 4YOs two major events to prepare for early doors; and the 4YO Sire Stakes has, in previous seasons, gotten lost amongst other major events when sandwiched in the middle to latter part of the season creating walkovers (which nobody likes to see, especially me as I stand at the joint trying to explain to the holiday makers what on earth is happening).

Tir Prince is in a unique position insomuch as it attracts a large number of non-harness racing spectators.  To this end, it is of paramount importance that the public are engaged from the word go - if we can capture their imaginations in the first few races, they are more likely to stay longer, come back again, and spread the good word.  Unlike tracks such as Corbiewood, where the feature races are suited better to the end of the card, Tir Prince must ensure that the start of the meeting has two or three solid, competitive races (from whatever grade) to keep the public interested.  In the Thoroughbred world, often the last race is a bumper or maiden/novice-type event with the feature races being in the middle of the card and competitive races kicking things off, for no other reason than to suit the general public.  This may be something that race meetings across the UK without a final might wish to consider.

Onwards we march to the Spring meeting at Tregaron next weekend. Perhaps not some of the bookmakers' favourite tracks, but I can't wait - I love harness racing and for many, this is the home of it.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

10 Reasons to #ComeHarnessRacing in 2018!

The season is now less than two weeks away from its official start date and I'm not joking when I say this: I am like a kid in a sweet shop every time I allow myself to daydream about all of the exciting things are that are on the agenda up and down the country this year.

Before we take a look at some of these exciting things, I have to go through the obligatory apology for the lack of posts since my update some 8 weeks ago (perhaps more, I have lost all track of time how is it actually nearly May already?!).  One of my New Year's resolutions was probably to manage my time better, so consider it well and truly broken...and the season hasn't even started yet!  I promise I will at least try to do better as the summer progresses, but by now you'll all be used to my tardiness.

OK so here we go...


Yeah yeah yeah, I hear you, this is just at Corbiewood.  The harness racing world doesn't revolve around Corbiewood.  NEWSFLASH: mine does.  Everywhere else is a bonus.  The 2017 running of this series, sponsored by Oakwood Stud, Ireland, was fan-bloody-tastic by all accounts, and won by the Gilvear family's DONTSTOPTHEPARTY.  This year it's back with a brand new sponsor, Greentree Standardbreds, Co Durham (England) and a few small changes to the format.  Check out the poster and mark the relevant dates in your calendar - last year we laid the foundations, and this year we are building on them soundly.  At least 4 mares that I am aware of at the time of writing have been kept in training for an additional season rather than going to the stallion, and these races are now high on the list of desirable races to win for connections of mares.  This means that we are achieving everything we set out to do at the start.  If you also take into consideration that interspersed amongst these 7 races are 2 STAGBI Future Broodmares Races at Corbiewood, now with added prize money guaranteeing the winner £750 (up from the previous £500), this is truly the time to be racing a mare in Scotland. I've said it before and I'll say it again: HERE COME THE GIRLS!


Yeah yeah yeah, I still hear you.  Read above.  It's where things happen.  This one seriously excites me.  It's just another one of those ideas born out of the conversations Smarty and I have in the car.  We spend a lot of time in the car, remember?  This is a series based on a similar format to the mares series (6 legs and a final) with the focus being on bringing drivers back onto the track who either don't drive as much as they used to, or generally don't drive very much at all.  Hell, word on the street is there are actually people who have previously NEVER held a licence getting involved in this.  That's an immediate win for me.  C Class Drivers, Lady Drivers and 50+ Drivers, all competing in their various category (or categories, if they fit the criteria - here's looking at you Carol McPhail, so far the only driver I can identify in the whole of the UK who is all three!!) with the top 8 equine money earners in the series going forward to a grand final where a selection of drivers will meet.  And in line with the races being a 'pick n mix' of drivers, the series is sponsored by a 'pick n mix' of businesses and individuals.  In addition to the prize money and the standard trophy, there will also be a prize for the winning driver of the final which I'm currently working on behind the scenes.  Rest assured, I'm not holding back on extra!  This series has already begun to capture the imaginations of harness racing enthusiasts and I sincerely hope this is as successful as the mares series.  Corbiewood - the home of ideas, innovation and imagination!


Gosh darn it, don't I just love me a series?!  So this one isn't my baby.  That doesn't make any difference though, I'll get on board with anything that looks good, and this sure looks good to me.  You can read more about it here, and at the last count a few weeks ago there were apparently 35 entries.  One of those entries is our new team member, Al Jolson, who arrived just after my last update.  HE'S GREY.  You've no idea how long I've wanted a grey.  You've no idea how much I underestimated the work involved in keeping a grey clean.  Here's a recent photo of Al and me to prove he's real (and clean):


OK so this one isn't technically definitely happening but please know that I am trying with it.  The idea came from the Thoroughbred racing competition my dad used to enter in the Racing Post.  I trialled it a couple of years ago in a small group and I'll be honest, I failed to keep on top of it and it fizzled out.  However, with the correct planning (which I think I've done this time) and the requisite help from the BHRC, I believe this has a chance of succeeding.  Watch this space - I know the season is bearing down upon us but this could still be happening.  If not, then just get excited about it for 2019 because I WILL make it happen somehow!!  I may have to sometimes admit defeat on the not-so-good ideas, but I never give up on the good ones!


I realise that this one should have been coupled with the big number four, for larks, but I'm committed now.  The Big Four: Appleby, Aberystwyth, Musselburgh and Tregaron.  I've been out and about on my travels this spring speaking to some major players in the training ranks and these festivals of harness racing are still where people want to win.  They are the four cornerstones of the season and everybody from the one man band to the biggest training establishment has at least one of these in their season goals list.  Who will win the major handicap finals?  Right now there are a lot of people with a lot of horses in their stables with at least some confidence that they have a chance.  You've gotta be in it to win it!!


Corbiewood again...#sorrynotsorry
I may have mentioned Marcia Thompson (off of Equine Products UK Ltd) a couple of times on the blog last year.  Mainly because she kept giving me free hats and letting me borrow her coat at York when I dressed inappropriately for the weather.  She also lent me her coat at Musselburgh too day I'll be able to look after myself but for now I have an unofficial carer.  Anyway, with the closure of York, where Marcia had begun to build a customer base in the harness racing world, she found herself somewhat a free agent and already covering numerous Thoroughbred yards in Scotland, asked if there would be any way she could get involved with the racing at Corbiewood this year.  This spawned the following tremendous collaboration:


At the end of last season people started saying these horses should be getting exported to North America to race because they are two of the UK's finest FFA horses and I was over in the corner having a hissy fit BECAUSE I DON'T WANT THEM TO NOT BE RACING AT THE TRACKS I GO TO EVERY WEEK.  Turns out neither did their connections and it has been confirmed that these two superstars are in training, here in the UK, and will be back to fight it out for 2018.  This is great news.  End of story.


If you haven't seen "the" video, where have you been for the past month?!  This thing accidentally went viral on me which was 100% not what I anticipated (or indeed planned for).  Viewing figures are unknown due to the way in which I uploaded the video to social media, something which I will kick myself for from now until my final days.  However, at last count, the video has been shared 718 times in something like 15 different countries (that I've been able to track).  People are talking about harness racing in the UK - mission accomplished.

You can check out the #ComeHarnessRacing video here.

The entire purpose of this video was to show everybody what we have here in the UK.  This is happening every week, often in two or three different parts of the country, from May through to October.  It's happening and people need to know about it.  Maybe they'll actually come harness racing.  Wouldn't that be awesome?

Look, what we have isn't the best in the world.  It's not comparable to Thoroughbred racing here in the UK.  I've come to terms with this, and the fact that we may never emulate what other countries across the world have achieved with harness racing.  From that moment when I made peace with this, I began to truly appreciate what we have.  What we have is unbelievably dedicated people and some truly phenomenally bred and trained equine athletes.  We have a community, and a shared passion.  We are like this big, slightly dysfunctional, but ultimately wonderful family.  And we want to share it, with anyone and everyone who will stand still long enough to be drawn in by us, and it.  Keep sharing: the video, the history and the joy of harness racing!  And above all else, COME HARNESS RACING, at least once.  Try it, you might like it!


Along with the 10 to follow competition, this one isn't technically guaranteed to go ahead but a lot of the initial groundwork has been started and now it is out of my hands and with the BHRC.  The aim was to create a series with regional heats (Scotland, Wales, Midlands/Welsh Border and North East England) and a grand final to be staged at Tir Prince on Crock of Gold night, thus giving some of the younger drivers the opportunity to be part of one of, if not THE, biggest race meetings of the year.  The concept would see drivers allocated to horses randomly, with the races being run as penalty free in order to entice owners and trainers to enter their horses and leave the driver selection to random chance.  Some people have expressed rather a negative view about this, however the way I see it is that the benefits outweight the drawbacks.  Most importantly, it would allow young and amateur drivers the oportunity to drive a wider array of horses and gain experience whilst doing so.  Furthermore, it would bring together owners/trainers and drivers who may not know each other, thus forging potential new friendships and alliances for the future.  And ultimately, it would keep these drivers keen, interested and ambitious.

Find me a drawback big enough to outweigh those three points and maybe we'll talk.


Now I know that sounds like more of a reason NOT to come harness racing, but bear with me on this one please.  I'm not one to blow my own trumpet, but there are rare moments when I become my own biggest fan and for flashes in the last 48 hours, that has been the case.  I'm going to capitalise on this lapse in self-deprecation because it won't last long.

The other day, whilst on a stable visit in the north east, I was asked why I was doing what I was doing.

"Are you getting paid to do this?" was the first question.

"So why are you doing it?" was the second question.
"Why not?!".

It seemed like an appropriate answer to what I felt to be a bit of a daft question.

The real answer though, is this: because I can.  Because I can take photos, and I can shoot videos, and I can put all of it together into something which shows our sport off for what it is.  Because I can dream up crazy notions which, with a bit of help from someone whose brain is far more logical than mine (I'm the creative one), can become real concepts.  Because I can sit and fire out emails to companies and individuals when I'm sat on the sofa of an evening with a cup of tea watching telly.  Because I can be bold enough to say 'I need your money/goods for this new venture, please will you help?' without worrying about getting rejected or ignored.  Because I can.  I have never been more confident in my ability to pull things off, even when things are going wrong and I've made mistakes and I haven't planned for all eventualities.  I'm not an expert on anything.  I'm not even good at half the stuff I'm trying to do.  But I can try to do things that have never been done before, and try my best.

If I applied myself to any other sport or industry or sector in the world I would probably be able to get an actual job doing all of the above.  But I don't want to apply myself to any other sport or industry or sector in the world.  I choose harness racing.  And I choose harness racing here in the UK.

Come racing.  Come to see me.  Come and tell me where I need to improve, or where I've got things right.  Come and ask questions.  Come and cheer on the driver wearing your favourite colours, or a horse with a name you like.  I'll be there, most of the time anyway.

Over and out,
#1 (Scottish) Groom