To make this easier for me, I'll use a weather analogy. Let's just say the weather for the last few weeks has been cloudy. Pretty damn cloudy. Like the thick, dark kinda clouds. And they haven't shifted. And there's moments where the sunlight breaks through and I hope today is the day the sun comes out for good and then it's cloudy again. But we live in hope of sunny weather because it's been sunny before so it has to be sunny again. And all the times you see me in public and I have this big smile on my face and I haven't a care in the world, well it's not always the case. Not right now anyway, right now it's not the case at all. Sometimes I'm aware I'm trying too hard, and I know I'm coming across as over the top or borderline neurotic. But that's better than the reality, at least in my mind anyway, because at least then I'm deflecting attention away from how I feel. One of my friends in high school once told me she wished she had my confidence, and inside my head I was shouting 'IF ONLY YOU KNEW'. I've just become very good at faking it over the years.
And that's it, in a nutshell. There's a bit more to it, but Smarty says I need to be mindful of not being long-winded. I'm OK but I'm not OK, if you get me. I'm trying. Believe me, I am always trying.
Now back to what you actually came here for: the racing recap. Don't think from the above that I haven't enjoyed myself at times over the past few weeks, because I have. Sometimes being out and about with good company in glorious sunshine is exactly what's needed.
I had a really nice day at Hellifield a couple of weeks back; I really enjoyed the racing there. I was asked to take some photos which could be used on posters for future meetings so I had to try to channel my creative self. Turns out I don't have one of those and after some failed attempts at 'panning' (people in my camera club keep telling me that's what I should do for racing photos) I opted for framing photos with flowers and trees and stuff. Just like my dad always showed me when we went on family holidays and him and I had little digital cameras and a whole load of landscapes to photograph. Darren Owen told the world in our Facebook Live review of the racing that I was stalking William Greenhorn (who had three winners on the day for the Foody stable). For the record I'm not, he just has a wicked sense of humour on and off the track and he's tremendously good fun. The day was a real day for the 'small' stables, with the Foody's (who have some of the country's finest horses in their stable) taking three of the seven races with Rodney Camden and All Good Hanover (heat and final winner); Pam Haythornthwaite's Oaks Maddico winning with brother Alan at the reins; John Towe and Moorside Icon (one of my favourite horses) and James Haythornthwaite getting a driving double with the Nicholson stable's Tasty and then John Wood's GDs Hurricane who was awarded a race following a stewards' enquiry after some interference from the horse that passed the line in front.
|One for Elsa and her posters|
|All Good Hanover & William Greenhorn|
|The cheeky chappy himself (STALKER ALERT)|
At Pikehall I was the official photographer, having stepped in last year when the winning connections of the first race were standing patiently in the winner's circle waiting for their photo and I realised nobody was coming forward to take it. This year I knew where to stand and I risked working with the new camera for the first time - I think it paid off because I got some nice shots. Having sold Cassius Clay at the start of June, this was his first outing for new connections and he romped home in his heat to win from the eventual final winner, Olivia Camden. I was delighted to see him win, even though it meant he drew first blood in the competition between him and Elmo. That made it 1-0 to Cassius with Elmo only finishing third on his first start for us three days earlier at Corbiewood. Time for us to get a move on (try telling Elmo that!).
I was particularly impressed with the Gilvear family's Lose My Mind (aka Cheddar) who won his maiden in style, and also Olivia Camden who was somewhat a surprise winner of the final and who was confirmed on the day as making the line up for the Star Makers Final at Tir Prince on 14th July.
|Winning connections with Cassius Clay|
|The eye-catching Lose My Mind & Gordon Gilvear|
Rhyds Nightlife's two big runs on the Saturday suggested Tir Prince the previous week was good form, and indeed Rhyds Passion won her heat on the Sunday to give owners Kelvin and Shelley Tucker an absolute thrill. JMs Macy Hallstar also impressed me when winning her heat. But it was Springhill Glory on his first appearance for the Laidler stable who took all the glory - winning both heat and final very impressively. His 3YO season last year was littered with big wins and perhaps he wasn't given the praise he should have been come the end of it when other horses had come to the fore. It won't happen again, that's for sure!
My favourite part of the weekend whilst doing the interviews was speaking to some of the 'forgotten' characters of our sport - the children of the trainers and drivers. First up on the mic I had Poppy and Ruby Cairns, daughters of trainer Joanne and driver Andrew. After Wellfield Witch had won, Andrew had to rush back to the box as he had a drive in the next race, so Poppy and Ruby stepped up to the plate to give a tremendous interview with their thoughts on their dad's winning drive and his chances in the next race. I'm pretty sure it was described as 'amazing' and 'great'! I also got to interview Ollie, son of driver Vicky Gill, after her win with American Mistress. Although a little shy, we broke the ice and I think I have encouraged him to get involved on the mic more going forward (as I'll touch upon later on in this post when mentioning Musselburgh).
One thing you may have noticed is missing are my reviews of Corbiewood. Don't worry, it's been plodding on in the background during all these weeks of racing. We brought Elmo out for his first start on 28th June where he finished third. We had tried working him out alone and with another horse in the build up to racing him however he was totally not on the same page as us with that so we decided to launch him into races to see how he progressed instead. I was delighted with third, especially as he didn't get a good draw. Most importantly, he stayed on well at the finish passing horses to land the third, however the officials misread this as potential non-trying and my driver paid his first visit to the stewards' room. It wasn't to be the last! The following week, on 5th July, he was drawn 6 of 6 and despite looking like getting a half decent start, he found himself affected by traffic which hampered his chances a bit. Again he finished well, albeit fifth and in a slow time, but the driver and I were quite happy. Smarty and the Gaffer on the other hand were not. They both told me he did not have the requisite speed to be competitive at Corbiewood and appeared to be more of a stayer, which would suit half mile grass tracks rather than the tight, speedy turns of Corbiewood. I was advised to look to sell and replace with a more suitable horse. I did not heed this advice.
Good job I didn't, because the following week we returned for a career-defining run for Elmo Hanover. With a good draw, he would be made to leave a gate to demonstrate what speed, if any, he had, and from there he would just need to run as fast as his little legs could carry him and we'd hope for the best. We got the draw - 2, with an erratic horse on our inside which did not get up on to the gate as forcefully as others might have (and subsequently broke after the car pulled away). We then got challenged aggressively by Hawthorns Dream & William Greenhorn to go a 29.1 first quarter, but Elmo held them off. After a short respite, they came again before the half to keep the pressure on. Again, the attack was repelled. Going down the back for the final time I could see the Jockey getting on at Elmo and I ran to the rail to shout at him as he turned for home, because Smarty told me he seems to respond to a bit of vocal encouragement, and he ran out quite a comfortable winner in the end - much to my absolute DELIGHT.
Unfortunately in the very early stages of the race, the outside gaiting strap snapped at the head of the shaft and trailed behind the cart for the remainder of the race. I describe this as unfortunate because it was not deliberate, nor was it anticipated. It was a piece of equipment which, at that particular moment, broke. It hit my driver in the leg when it did so (something he has only mentioned once or twice...). It was a little disheartening that in the immediate aftermath of the race, connections of other horses in the race felt it more appropriate to point out my broken equipment (and potentially insinuating it gave us some sort of advantage) rather than just say a simple 'well done'. I did offer at the time to pay any fine for unsafe equipment out of my winning prize money. The offer was not taken up.
Track photographer Bill Cardno wasn't present on the night and after I had heard my draw, and realised there was a slim chance of winning, I was worried that I wouldn't have a photo of Elmo for my Wall of Fame. This is how I met Annette Sproul and Fiona Brims, two very accomplished photographers. I accosted them, told them my horse was number 15 and a camel and not very photogenic and unlikely to win, but if he did surprise everyone on the planet, could they please try to capture it on camera. They didn't let me down!
|Elmo Hanover & the Jockey (Fiona Brims photo)|
|Sam & Smarty joined the Jockey & me in the winner's circle (Annette Sproul photo)|
|One of those moments of sun breaking through (Annette Sproul photo)|
After the highs of Corbiewood came the lows of heading to Tir Prince minus Al who had qualified for the Star Makers Final but had been sick for a couple of weeks leading up to the event. Instead we took an empty lorry to collect Stevie's dam, Dark Velvet (aka Peggy), who had spent a number of weeks with Matador Hall as his first ever lady caller, and Vain In Spain (aka Rita) and her colt foal Denver from Hasty Hall where she had been successfully scanned in foal with Denver's wee brother or sister.
It was disappointing not to be a part of such an exciting event, which for me was the highlight of the entire evening. Earlier in the evening we had witnessed Valseur Du Cygne notch up his sixth successive win of the season, proving that right now he is the best trotter in the UK by some way, regardless of distance or track. Rockin Mambo went on to record his fourth win at the track when taking his second Crock of Gold heat which sees him fast-tracked straight to the final on 8th September. At the start of the season we weren't considering him to be a FFA star, but here he is and absolutely smashing it. It's a joy to see, especially as Marc and Jenny [Jones] always seem so surprised by their success!
And on top of winning with their two-year-old filly The Mocking Jay, and then Rockin Mambo, they went on to land the Star Makers Final with Father Ted, a horse previously responsible for Marc running a lap of his training track at home in his underwear whilst being filmed by his rather disparaging teenage daughters (the commentary is worth it alone!). Three horses, three winners. That's some night out for the team!
|Runners line up behind the start car for the Star Makers Final|
|Father Ted & Marc Jones heading for victory|
|Owner Jenny plants a kiss on Rockin Mambo after his Crock of Gold heat win|
|Crosshill Diablo (aka Denver) - Hasty Hall-Vain In Spain-Artsplace|
Now that we've got Stevie's slightly lacklustre run out of the way, let's talk about Elmo. This is for Anthony Fettah, to whom I promised I would never say this again (I LIED): SO CLOSE. We were SO CLOSE. That was the funniest looking half a length I ever did see. Second. Second with the most eye-catching finishing run of the field. Second and closing with every stride. Second and oh how I wish he'd got the slightly better trip, the slightly sooner run on the leader, the slightly cheekier start. But look, he exceeded expectations. He gave his all. He proved any doubters still remaining after his maiden victory the previous week wrong. He's making headway. Game on.
|Big Bird & Elmo thinking about how CLOSE we got|
Finally, I want to thank all of the people who worked tirelessly to keep harness racing fans both home and away up to date with videos, results, previews and reviews of the racing. Lisa Farrelly, Karen Kennedy and Carmel Stewart - thank you. Everyone appreciated the information and footage you put out so promptly (even if my phone went berserk with notifications - 'British Harness Racing Club is now live'). To Thomas Bennett for all of the interviews, many of which had me laughing at the joint both days. On the Thursday evening before the two days at Musselburgh I bumped into Ollie, my interviewee from Aberystwyth, and he seemed much more at ease with the idea of being interviewed at Musselburgh. After Mahogany Ash won the 2YO race for Vicky and owners Margaret Ferns and Pat Anderson, I missed the interviews but I was assured that Ollie was involved somewhere. Good on you kid! To Darren Owen - you are the driving force behind trying to show off what we have and also trying to engage with people all over the world. The messages I have received about our mini broadcasts have been great, it's mad to think the world is watching us (and apparently enjoying it). To Elizabeth O'Neil for her standard top quality video service - we would be lost without you. And last but not least, to Craig Stevenson and Anthony Fettah (and all the other volunteers) for putting on such a competitive and well-run event. Keep up the good work!
As I sign off on this, Corbiewood looms large on the horizon again. Some people believe the weekly cards right now are of poor quality, but I live for my Thursday nights. As sick as I'm sure everyone is of hearing about bloody Elmo, he is often the ray of light shining through the clouds as I plough on through each week. I'm clinging to that pure, untarnished fun that comes from racing what others deem to be an average horse every week and seeing if I can get a bit of prize money and a rosette, or better, a winner's photo from Bill. Fortunately I am not alone, and I have surrounded myself with a group of people who feel exactly the same. If you need to find us tomorrow night, we'll be eating cake and drinking tea in a lorry. Stop by and say 'hi'.
Over and out,