Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Harness Racing: finding new ways to reject trotters...but why?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Some people dislike trotters because they think they break excessively.
Some people dislike trotters because they think they are difficult to train.
And some people dislike trotters because they can't pronounce their names, or remember which ones they've previously gambled for future flutters with the bookies.

I know right, hard to believe anyone has ever admitted to the third complaint.  Alas, the debate is currently raging on Facebook about this very thing, and it has had me laughing and holding my head in my hands in despair in equal measure.

I don't speak a word of French.  When I arrived in Paris in December 2016 on my first international visit as a STAGBI Director, I literally showed a taxi driver the printed address I had for the hotel that all delegates were staying at.  When he dropped me off at the hotel and handed me my suitcase from the boot of the car, I couldn't for the life of me remember how to say 'thank you' in French.  So I ended up saying 'thanks' (CRINGE).  Now if Le Trot were in fact Der Trab and the trip had been to Munich not Paris, I would have been able to hold half a conversation with the taxi driver.  Unfortunately for me and my semi-fluency in German, this is not the case.

One of the best things about going racing with William Smart Snr before he passed away was sitting in the car with him at a track and going through the card together.  Smarty and I used to purposefully skip to the trot race and get him to tell us which ones he fancied.  Remember this was back before the TF had arrived en masse, so it was a variety of Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch trotters primarily, but even at that...he just could not pronounce a single one correctly.  His variations on their names were so much better than their actual names.  Over the past few years we've often joked about what he would have called some of these French Trotters that have arrived.  It would have been a hoot.

When I was at Portmarnock back in August for the VDM meeting, Darren [Owen] and I went around the paddock before racing on the Saturday to interview some of the trainers and drivers for pre-recorded segments to be shown during the course of the afternoon on the big screen.  I interviewed Sean Kane, who coincidentally has been on both of my trips hosted by Le Trot at Vincennes, and we had a huge debate before filming as to the name of one of his horses.  I thought I had gone mad because I had three Irishmen trying to tell me how to pronounce the horse's name and what they were saying versus what I was reading on the racecard appeared to be two different things.  Darren got involved and his interpretation was different to both versions that had previously been mooted.  The main thing is: we had a laugh about it.  It didn't matter in the grand scheme how we chose to pronounce it.  After all, there are two very separate and distinct camps when it comes to pronouncing the late and great Kauto Star.  Tomato/tomato, potato/potato...even names which appear so distinctly 'British' can confuse people.

For it to then be bandied about on social media this afternoon that in order for trotting (as opposed to general harness racing, including pacing races) to be shown on a mainstream racing channel such as At The Races ('ATR') and be welcomed by the general public, horses from France should have their names changed in order for them to be more easily remembered and for people to start following these horses, to me seems absolutely ludicrous.  One comment from a horse owner was that if their horse was exported to a country where its name wasn't easily pronounced or understood, they would have no issue with the horse's name being changed to something more appropriate in that new country of residence.  Whilst as an owner they may be happy for a name change, I suspect that the majority of breeders would not be.  I know I certainly wouldn't want any of my horses' names changed.  Some of mine have our registered prefix; some do not.  We don't simply allocate names by plucking them from thin air without any forethought.  A lot of time goes into choosing a name that often means something to us, even if the history behind the name never becomes common knowledge.  Naming a horse is a breeder's way of putting their stamp on something they helped to create.

Some people might tell you that it doesn't matter what a horse is called; if it's good, it's good.  It doesn't know what its name is and that has no bearing or relevance on its ability to race.  Therefore, its name should be adapted where necessary to suit those whose sole involvement in racing is to hand their money over to bookmakers and hope for more back.  These people, apparently, can only remember anglicised names; they are only willing to remember anglicised names.  So either the country is full of close-minded racing fans or these people making these bold claims are massively underrating their compatriots.  Somehow though, I suspect these people didn't forget to back Buveur D'Air from one Champion Hurdle victory to the next.

I don't hang about with big gamblers.  I don't make a habit of hanging around with bookmakers either, save the one I happen to live with.  I do hang about with a lot of occasional gamblers though; people who put a 50p accumulator on at the weekend or beg for a tip off me in the week so they can have something to cheer on at the weekend in front of the telly.  I know, from spending time with them, that it doesn't matter if a horse has an easy to pronounce and remember name or not - if it puts money in their pocket on a Saturday afternoon then they follow it from that day forth.  When I was younger, I followed Hors La Loi III.  The fact that his name isn't the easiest to get your tongue around had absolutely no bearing on my support for him.  Edredon Bleu, Voy Pur Ustedes, even Senor El Betrutti (not French, no, but one of my all-time faves)...they hardly roll off the tongue do they?  And yet the betting public were able to get behind them one way or another.

So what is in a name?

To those of us not connected to a particular horse, nothing.  But to the person who bred the horse, potentially everything.  Every breeder has a method of naming, whether it's a prefix or suffix, naming with the same start letter as the dam, following a theme of the dam's name, following a theme of something the person is interested in...anything.  It might even be something totally random in the moment of decision-making, but from that point onwards that name belongs to that horse.  No matter where that horse ends up, the breeder has given it something that will stay with it forever.

I'm that much of a naming obsessive that I have to tell people the stable names of horses I sell.  I was affronted after selling Merrington Missile (known to me simply as Missile) as a rider to learn that his new owners had renamed him 'Sgt Bash', or 'Bash'.  One of my friends nicknamed his foal one name, then changed it when the horse was a yearling.  I told him it was bad luck.  Another of my friends bought a horse that I had known several owners previously.  I told him its stable name from when I knew it (which he thought was weird that I would know such a thing) and he told me its new stable name.  Within a fortnight he was back to calling it by its original stable name, the name I had told him.

OK, so French names are a little challenging.  They aren't as challenging for us as they are for our commentators.  I simply take my lead from Darren Owen.  Whatever he calls them, I call them.  And yes, it can be confusing with the three- and four-year-old trotters, whose names all begin with the same letter, but that is the naming system in place in France and we must respect that.  Remember that one of those horses whose name begins with a certain letter may have been the only foal bred that year by its breeder - it wasn't one horse lost in a sea of horses with names beginning with the same letter.  I dislike the younger trotters personally, but not because their names are so difficult to differentiate on a start sheet or a bookie's board.  I adore the older trotters (and I appreciate that the younger trotters of today will become the aged trotters of tomorrow).  I don't have a photographic memory.  In fact, I have a memory like a sieve.  If things aren't written down, I've no hope of remembering them.  But we have a finite number of horses racing in this country.  We see them almost on a weekly basis.  If you can't remember the names of horses, that's your problem and not the problem of those who name the horses.

I didn't hear anyone demanding that the Kane family change the name of Maitha Buachaill, even though to date that remains THE hardest name for any non-Gaelic speaking person to pronounce.  Martha Buckle got bandied about A LOT.  Ffairrhoshillbilly, or Fire House Hill Billy as he's known to the non-Welsh speaking division of our household (that's Smarty, in case you're wondering) - not so simple is it?

Let's just face the facts here: people who moan the loudest about the French Trotters aren't going to like them even if they had anglicised names.  Then they say they don't like them because they gallop excessively.  I put forward to you that the aged trotters gallop about as frequently as pacers do, and yet those who moan will still *try* to find fault.  They moan that the trotters do not provide a spectacle for race-goers and are too unpredictable to gamble (or lay).  The fact that they are racing for vastly increased purses compared to pacers is irrelevant to them because racing should be doing more for the spectators.

And yet, these same people are almost always the first to complain that pacers don't race for enough money and the sport doesn't do enough for those involved in owning/training/driving horses.  Pacers provide a better spectacle for the crowd, they say.


Do you want a good spectacle and betting opportunity or do you want the money in the sport to be better for those directly involved?


Well to have both, you need to accept both divisions.  By accepting both divisions, we might actually have a chance to move forward so that the trotters can begin to become a better spectacle for the crowd and the pacers can start to race for increased prize money.

Moaning, on the other hand, because you don't like the 'new' (hardly new now, but comparatively speaking, it is) style of racing on these shores, and finding fault in anything and everything (including the horses' names) won't bring about any positive change.  I see things I don't like and I approach the relevant groups or individuals privately to express my concerns and to make suggestions for improvement.  This doesn't always go down well, but I have learnt over the years (and from the mistakes in the past of jumping straight on social media to crab things) that this is the proper and appropriate way to do things.

If trotting from France makes it on to the telly in the UK, at least people in this country won't automatically assume we're all road-racing travellers who leave horses in the ditches to die.  They'll have half an idea about what our sport is.  Names, and galloping when they should be trotting, won't come in to it.

There's not much going wrong here... (Pikehall, 2017, Sarah Thomas photo)
Over and out,

#1 Groom

Aka Sarah, not Sara, because Sarah is my name and I don't want it changed, thanks.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Harness Racing: The Shows

Let's totally ignore the fact I haven't posted since about five years ago (OK, so more like two months ago, but we'll get back to that another time) and just jump straight into talking about something REALLY IMPORTANT:

The Shows.


(Feel free to click on any of the above to take a peek at their respective websites).

'What's so great about these shows?' I hear you ask.

Well, if you've never been, let me paint a picture for you:

Imagine thousands of people descending onto a grass field, often on the outskirts of the village/town that the event is named after, browsing various stalls and stands, arts and crafts tents, machinery displays; enjoying fairground rides and main ring attractions; and taking part in various competitions such as animal showing (sheep, cattle, in-hand and ridden horses), gymkhana, jumping, 'Best Cabbage' etc.  Then at the climax of the day these thousands of people, many of whom only see harness racing on ONE DAY OF THE YEAR, line the entire length of the home straight to cheer on those taking part in the most thrilling event on the schedule.

I'm not over-egging the pudding - there are literally thousands of people at these events all picking a horse, having a bet and cheering it home.

These shows have one thing in common which separates them from any other harness racing events in the entire country: after each of the races, the crowd give a genuine ROUND OF APPLAUSE.  These people are clapping in appreciation of the spectacle that we, harness racing people, are putting on.  Just imagine that.  Now I know this isn't something which goes unnoticed, as Kilnsey 2018 was driver Lauren Moran's first ever visit to the show and immediately after the first race she turned to me and Richard [Haythornthwaite] in disbelief and said 'they're clapping?!'.  I felt the exact same way back in 2013 when I attended Kilnsey for the first time.  I couldn't believe that such a large number of people were applauding what I, and others who race on a weekly basis, take for granted.  I know that after most races at Corbiewood for example, most of the crowd don't even watch the winner's presentation as they have their backs turned to the track waiting for the bookies to price up the next race.

When did we stop appreciating the spectacle of what we are doing?

I'll leave you all to ponder that one.  Try to take a step back and consider what you have achieved this year in your efforts as an owner/trainer/driver/groom.  You may not have hit the heights that you dreamed of back in the spring when the racing season was a distant glow on the horizon, but I can guarantee that you have achieved something along the way that plenty of people who go about their day-to-day lives haven't.  Remember that.

All too often we hear complaints that as a collective we are not doing enough to promote the sport of harness racing.  It can be very difficult to tap in to such a competitive market with a product that is so far behind its Thoroughbred counterpart.  Yet, these shows are ready-made platforms upon which we can reach out to the masses to showcase what we have on offer.  Yes, we are racing, but we could be doing more.  Pre-race and post-race driver interviews, an introduction to the breed and sport, demonstrations and explanations of the harness used (and why).  Filling the race cards with the fixture list, BHRC website, social media pages, information for people to read when they get home after an enjoyable day at the show.  A trade stand to draw people in and get the message about what we do out there to people who might be interested in getting involved.  There are people with even better ideas than these crying out for their voice to be heard and for an opportunity to take on some of the workload involved.  Let's see if we can work in conjunction with these show committees to make these things happen.  Jump on my 2019 Show Bandwagon if you dare!

Now, I can hear some of you readers saying to yourselves 'why is she making such a big song and dance about racing at the shows?'.

I'll tell you why.

Some of these shows are beginning to struggle for entries.  You may say that's because they are 'low level' racing, unsuitable for big name stables and high quality horses.  You're wrong.

Firstly, these shows offer phenomenal prize money in comparison with other weekly meetings on dedicated harness racing tracks where racing is the sole event.  Prove it, you say.  Well, in 2018, Cumberland Show ran a £4000 handicap final; Kilnsey Show ran a £900 handicap final; Wolsingham Show ran a £1000 handicap final; Longnor Sports ran a £500 handicap final; and Stanhope Show ran a £900 handicap final.  Do you see a pattern emerging?

There is really good prize money on offer.  Longnor Sports even gave FREE entry to all horses to race, and to all connections of horses into the event.  I myself travelled to Longnor with Smarty and G Whizz, our driver for the day, with two horses.  Winning both heats and the final, we left that day with £1100 in prize money between us.  Not a bad day's work, especially as our costs were limited to the fuel to get us there and back.

Secondly, the quality of the tracks is often exaggerated to their detriment.  Having attended all bar Stanhope (which is on my bucket list for 2019), all I can say is that as long as you drive according to the conditions on the day (which should apply everywhere) and harness your horse according to the track (again, which should apply everywhere), there is little wrong with the tracks.  You're not going to set any records or earn a decent lifetime mark there, granted, but the variety that these places offer compared to the larger tracks allows for horses who don't necessarily suit speed mile racing to excel.  There's a lot to be said for three minute racing as well as two minute racing after all!  And variety is the spice of life, so they say...

Thirdly, these places DO attract successful horses from big stables.  Happy Hands (trained by Alexis Laidler and driven by Rocker Laidler) was the winner of Kilnsey 2018; Rhyds Solution (from the same barn) has won TWO Scorton Feast finals (a meeting which was not staged this year due to an archaeological dig at the venue but which it is hoped will return in the future).  Over the years, there have been numerous top class horses which have raced and won at these shows.

The fact that so many people look down upon these shows is having a detrimental effect on their viability for the future.  In addition to Longnor struggling for entries (which seems mad considering the already-mentioned FREE ENTRY and good prize money), it now appears to be a given that these show meetings are allowed to suffer fixture clashes with other harness racing events that definitely draw participants and spectators away from the shows.  Those in charge of approving the annual fixture list do not seem to appreciate the importance of supporting these shows.  If harness racing dwindles at these events and fizzles out completely, they will be lost.  To explain the severity of this, let me explain that all of these shows, bar Cumberland, have the majority (if not all) of the prize money provided by the show itself.  If a harness racing event which has harness racing sponsors is lost, there is a possibility of that sponsorship money being secured and redistributed at another harness racing event.  If the racing at the shows is lost, that prize money is also lost.  It would not be handed over to another event entirely separate to the show.  These show committees have ringfenced prize money for us and we must not be so shortsighted as to forget this.  Remember: the shows don't need us, but we do need them.

As I write this, Smarty has the pre-race parade from the Little Brown Jug at Delaware County Fair, Ohio, blaring from his laptop.  If that isn't akin to our shows over here, I don't know what is.  In America they've managed to make one of their 'shows' one of THE biggest events of the racing calendar.  Over here, our LBJ would be Wolsingham Show.  I don't often say we should 'copy' other countries (because I get annoyed that we pick and choose what we copy, often inappropriately) but in this instance, I think we should.  Let's celebrate the show circuit and make Wolsingham the BIG ONE.

And if Wolsingham Show is our LBJ, then Peter Deighton is our Roger Huston.  He has his critics, but man you can't knock him for his commentary at the shows.  Peter has a real knack for bringing the crowd right into the action and encouraging them to support the different horses and drivers as the races progress.  He did suggest at Longnor a couple of weeks ago that this year would be his last as commentator, but both Smarty and I sincerely hope this isn't the case as he brings something to the table that I'm yet to hear from any other commentator (although young Stephen Lees Jnr showed great promise at Longnor!).  The way he notches things up as the horses head into the last bend and he begins throwing suggestions out about this horse needing to make a big move or that horse taking the tough route three wide to mount a challenge, it all adds to the atmosphere and the crowd really gets into it.  I've been there, immersed amongst all these people who don't really have any idea what's going on but who wholeheartedly get behind the competitors, and I tell you what, it's really hard not to get caught up in it all.  I think I cheer loudest at the shows than I do anywhere else, even if I haven't got a horse racing.  At Longnor Sports he announced to the crowd that we had travelled all the way from Motherwell to support the meeting (OK, Motherwell was like the closest big town that G could give him as a point of reference for Cleland and Allanton respectively) and people actually stopped me in the crowd to double check that we'd really travelled that far.  It was almost like being famous for an afternoon.  He even thanked us publicly on the mic after the final.  Madness.

I would also like to take a quick moment to congratulate the winners of the finals from the 2018 show season:

Cumberland Show: Midnight Diamond - owned and trained by James Winter, driven by James Haythornthwaite
Kilnsey Show: Happy Hands - owned by Raymond Huschka, trained by Alexis Laidler, driven by Rocker Laidler
Wolsingham Show: Mayfellden Hetty - owned by Brian Laidler, trained by Alexis Laidler, driven by William Greenhorn
Longnor Sports: Elmo Hanover - owned and trained by William Smart, driven by Richard Haythornthwaite
Stanhope Show: Porterstown Jimmy - owned by Jody Foody, trained by Jack Foody, driven by Lee Fletcher

Mayfellden Hetty @ Wolsingham Show (Sarah Thomas photo)
Elmo Hanover @ Longnor Sports (Graham Rees photo)

I was present at four of the five events to enjoy the success of those involved (especially as Elmo is actually my horse, and I watched the race from inside the last two bends so I had a front row seat for the perfectly-timed challenge on the long time leader in the last eighth!), and despite being at Tir Prince for Crock of Gold Final night when Stanhope Show was being staged, I actually missed the draw for the racing because I was glued to my phone (along with a number of boys from the north east) watching the final from Stanhope on Facebook Live.  We had our priorities right!  It also allowed me to give Lee Fletcher and Porterstown Jimmy a big shout out on the mic when we did the draw for the CoG in front of the crowd.

Before I sign off, I think I need to ask the question:

What does the future hold for the shows?

Well, I'm no Mystic Meg so I can't tell you.  As long as the respective committees keep asking us to come back, and we keep providing the horses, the future remains relatively settled.  But we shouldn't 'settle for settled'.  We should be looking to build on these solid foundations that have been laid over multiple generations.

Firstly, I think we need to ensure that these shows have some sort of protected status when it comes to the fixture list.  In particular, Stanhope and Wolsingham.  Next year will be the 240th year for Wolsingham.  In 2018 it attracted 25,000 (yes, 25,000) people through the gate.  They are planning to be bigger than ever next year.  We need to tap into this, big time.  Having checked the dates, the 240th staging of the show will be on 7th and 8th September.  I would hope that no major event would be allowed to clash with this as although the event attracts primarily those in the north east of England (and Scotland), many of the top trainers are based in this area and it seems unfair to draw them away to other parts of the country.

Secondly, I think we need to work in closer conjunction with the show committees to really make our event on their schedule more than just racing horses.  I have stood and watched other displays at these shows and all the while that the spectacle is happening, there is always someone on a microphone talking the crowd through what goes into making this happen and what is actually happening.  I know we are the best people at talking about what we do, so let's do more of it.

Thirdly, we need to shake off this idea that the tracks at the shows are not fit for purpose.  I have raced my horses around two of the five this year and cannot fault them.  I fully intend to continue racing, when possible (remember I need to travel a minimum of about two hours - and a maximum of five and a half hours) at these tracks in the future.  The leading stable for the last eleven years bagged two of the five this year.  Bigger isn't always better and it's horses for courses as well.

I was asked to write something to draw some positive light onto the diamonds in the rough that are the show meetings.  I've tried to dispell some of the myths surrounding them.  If you've never been, I encourage you to go.  If you have been, let me know what ideas you have to make them even better than they are.  The shows have been running for, in some cases, hundreds of years with great success and for reasons unknown to me, they are allowing us to piggyback on their success so let's not waste these opportunities.  If we build on the existing shows, we might even be able to tap into new shows and before you know it, the Yanks might be flying over HERE for WOLSINGHAM before we all fly back over THERE for the LBJ!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Described as "far-fetched, but funny"

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

2018 Season: Weeks 8 - 12 - The hiatus explained (except, not really)

Just...yeah.  The last few weeks haven't been a barrel of laughs.  You're probably thinking 'her social media posts suggest otherwise'.  I was once accused (jokingly, by someone I still to this day admire despite not seeing them very often anymore) of 'living [my] life on Facebook'.   As hard as it might be to believe, what you see or know about me from my social media pages would be roughly 10% of what happens or goes on in my life on a daily basis.  I choose what I share with you, my friends, the wider world, and I choose carefully.  I paint the best possible picture that I can because in typical British fashion, it wouldn't do to share with you all the rough stuff that happens, or the bad days, or to draw your attention to the flaws in my personality.  Plus I want you to like me.  You'll like me more if I'm funny and upbeat.

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)
The following weekend we were at Tir Prince on the Saturday night and then Pikehall on the Sunday with a hotel stopover in between to save driving all the way back to Scotland just to head back down to Derbyshire the following day.  My main highlights of the Saturday night were Rockin Mambo notching up his third win of the season at Tir Prince when winning the three-horse British Pacing Classic.  I just think Marc and Jenny Jones have got him running tremendously and he seems to love the track in North Wales (as do they!).  Also Rhyds Passion beating Rhyds Nightlife in the STAGBI Future Broodmares Race - both mares are by The One Night Pan who in my mind was one of the country's most underrated stallions.  I was impressed with the winner and the runner up, driven by brothers Richard and James Haythornthwaite respectively.

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
Next up on the circuit was the two day festival at Aberystwyth, which has historically been one of my absolute favourite meetings of the season.  After my stint on the mic at Appleby, I was drafted in to do some interviews here which once again I absolutely loved doing.  I was able to see first hand the efforts of the organisers and stewards in keeping the meeting running smoothly, even with the pressures of having to run to third party timings as S4C's Rasus were streaming live between scheduled times.  We had intended to take Young Stephen to this meeting and were really looking forward to it as we felt the track would suit him, however 3 days before the meeting he had an accident in the field and despite our best efforts, on the morning of the Friday when we planned to leave we made the decision not to take him.  The eventual final winner, My Buddy, and the runner up Rhyds Nightlife, both came from what would have been Stevie's heat - racing him at not 100% would have been pointless in that calibre of race.  My remarks when interviewing winner owner/trainer/driver Alan Jones, who is a postman when not driving major handicap final winners, did not go down as hoped with the crowd.  After his heat win, I told him that it was a first class performance, and I hoped that he could deliver in the final.  I'm wasted on you all.

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
Due to us collecting the mares and foal, we chose to skip Wolsingham the following day.  Sometimes there is such a thing as 'too much'.  A long drive back north, but everybody on board travelled well and we were glad to get home at a respectable time.  Most of all I was glad to have my boy back where he belongs.  I can't wait to see how he grows and develops.

Crosshill Diablo (aka Denver) - Hasty Hall-Vain In Spain-Artsplace
And finally that brings us round to Musselburgh, this weekend just gone.  Another one of my favourites, and perhaps I wasted the buzz a bit this year by agreeing to work a betting without pitch for Smarty.  But, as I said to a few people, I couldn't turn down good wages in favour of taking photos in the paddock and soaking up the atmosphere.  Money is what makes the world turn.  I still got to hear the crowd roar in the stands at every finish, and that is what Musselburgh is most famous for (well, that and the road).  We had Stevie and Elmo on for the Saturday; Stevie's injury had been a slow recovery process and although we felt he was close to being back to where he was at pre-injury, we also had doubts about how much he liked the track.  Our doubts were confirmed both by his performance and from what the driver told us afterwards, and we agreed that should Stevie come back in to training next year (which is a BIG if), we won't take him back to the track again.  Three failed attempts at winning there, time for us to call it a day on the dream being realised by him.  His mother, Peggy, a winner at Musselburgh herself is yet to produce a winner there BUT I have a good feeling about my potential Matador Hall embryo (if there's one in there).

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
Of all the other races, there are probably too many highlights to mention.  To all of the winners, well done.  Musselburgh is woven into all of your histories and as someone who was only converted to it last year (the penny finally dropped for me), I now appreciate in some small way how important winning there is to you.  To the Gilvear family and Someones Fantasy (who won his maiden there last year), you were thoroughly deserving winners of the Red John Hurricane Pace Final.  Your patience with your horses is so highly commendable, having visited your stable and been treated to an insight into how you operate, I am delighted that you were able to win such a prestigious race on such a big stage.  A great team effort from top to bottom.   To Sally Teeboon and her team, and Kelvin and Shelley Tucker who once again couldn't be there, you have an unbelievable mare on your hands.  Rhyds Passion, who last year won the Red John Hurricane Pace Final as a rank outsider, returned on the back of some great form to firstly win her heat and then go on to win the big one, the Famous Musselburgh Pace off a 40 yard trail.  A mare, in mixed open company, on a trail.  She is a machine.  A glorious, female, staying machine.  I have loved her for 12 months and now I love her even more.  She had my vote for Mare of the Year last year (which she won) and she gets it now with half the season to go.  And to James Haythornthwaite, so reserved and humble in victory.  You deserved your moment because this was only one of many, many superb drives you have given in a relatively short driving career.  Both you and that mare could go anywhere in the world and have success, of that I am 100% sure.

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,

#1 Groom

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

2018 Season: Weeks 6 & 7 - A busy fortnight

Ten days.  Five meetings.  Three countries.  That's what Smarty and I have accomplished in recent weeks.  An attendance record at harness racing fixtures across the UK this season only matched, I believe, by driver Richard Haythornthwaite who currently heads the leaderboard at Corbiewood on wins.  And is clearly as dedicated (read: mad) as us.

Let's start at the beginning.

Week 6

Corbiewood - Friday 8th June
After a busy (and successful) day of bookmaking at the Tradesmans Cup Meeting at Hawick, we headed straight to Corbiewood to meet the Gaffer and the Jockey who had brought our grey, Al Jolson, along for his first race of the season.  As an aside, if you're ever looking for something different to do in the Scottish Borders, the Tradesmans at Hawick is an absolute MUST - bearing in mind that I have seen some absolute sights in my time, nothing compares to this.  Smarty often tells me that I drag him along to weird stuff and he doesn't know how I ever came to know such things existed, but this one is 100% on him.  Although, in his defence, he finds the whole thing as weird as I do.  If you want to see in excess of 100 horses and riders galloping along a makeshift racecourse headed by a hatless man waving a flag while a commentator encourages you to shout 'hip hip hooray' at everyone, before said hatless man climbs up a ladder onto what looks like a council-operated toilet building to wave said flag at the crowd, again whilst everyone shouts 'hip hip hooray', then this is right up your street.  People drink rum and milk (which tastes as disgusting as it sounds) and walk around with colourful rosettes pinned to their jackets (or dresses, which in itself is odd because this event takes place on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere).  By the time the main event takes place nearly everybody is absolutely steaming drunk.  I promise to go Facebook Live for it next year.

Anyway, by comparison, Corbiewood is exceptionally tame even on a Friday night when hardly anybody has work the following day.  Although I may try to convince the commentator David Douglas to encourage the crowd to cheer 'hip hip hooray' as the starter climbs into the back of the start car.  Just for an added element of fun, obviously.

The meeting played host to the second of three Star Makers legs, in which Al Jolson was running, as well as the first of two STAGBI Future Broodmares races which featured 8 of the 11 mares entered for the Greentree Standardbreds Mares Pacing Series which I am promoting.

As I'm trying to keep my (very lovely) editor happy at Harnesslink, you can read the 'official' race report here.

As I'm also trying to keep my (very lovely) readers happy, you can continue scrolling down to see my personal take on the meeting.  Isn't that just the best of both worlds?!  Well, it would be, if I could actually get them written up slightly closer to the meetings.  By now you've all but forgotten the start of June and you're looking forward to the start of July.  Please bear with me!

Back to Al.  After requalifying at the opening meeting in May, we'd been working on his fitness with the hope of qualifying for the Star Makers final at Tir Prince on 14th July.  Whilst it wasn't the end of the world if we didn't win the leg on this particular attempt, it certainly meant the pressure was on come the third and final leg in Scotland on 21st June.  We wanted to get him to the final.  Al's owner, Dave, was also in attendance, and I didn't want him to be disappointed seeing as this was Al's first race since 2014.

I'm VERY pleased to say that none of us were disappointed.  Drawn 3 on the gate, he didn't have the best position and I was unsure what plan of action the Jockey would take.  Those of you who know him will be laughing here as his standard modus operandi is lead out, slow the pace, try to sprint home.  I still remember how affronted he was the night my mare, Shes Some Deal, was drawn wide on the gate in a Grade 1 & 2 race with Master Plan, Greentree Shorty & Evenwood Coolsting (the latter two being subsequent SHRC Horse of the Year winners).  I had to drum it in to him that he was NOT to push her out of the gate and get her involved in a ridiculous speed duel, but to take back and try to come with some sort of finish.  Master Plan went on to win in 2.02.15 (bearing in mind Star was a bog standard 2.07 mare around Corbiewood, although on this occasion clocked her track PB of 2.06), but the man still came off the track spitting feathers at me about how he could have led out if I'd let him.

I'll let you watch the video (courtesy of Elizabeth O'Neil) and see what you think.

What's not shown in the video is me shouting in Dave's face repeatedly 'ISN'T THIS FUN DAVE?  ISN'T THIS FUN?!', because I promised him if he let me train his horse that I would make it fun for him as an owner.  I'm not sure whether the look on his face in that moment suggested he was having fun, or whether he was actually quite alarmed by me, but frankly Dave, you have to take the rough with the smooth when it comes to me and I'm pretty rough.

Al Jolson & John Smart (aka the Jockey) on their way to victory in the Star Makers leg (Bill Cardno photo)
As I was down at the lorry (inconveniently parked in the car park) I missed the other race on the card which I really wanted to see (which is poor form considering I'm the current President): the STAGBI Future Broodmares race.  I bang on and on and on and on about mares getting the opportunity to race in female-only company and for mare owners up and down the UK, these races have become ones they really want to win.  I don't know whether the invitation to the BHRC & STAGBI awards event to be presented with their trophy helps, or the fact it's really good prize money (in comparison to other races), but these races are very well supported and have definitely grown in stature since they began (so hats off to the directors who came up with the initial idea!).

Well done to Alex and Glynis Hay on winning the first of the two races in Scotland with their homebred mare, Dynamic Ace (Windsong Dynamite-Dillys Red Ace-House Of Cards).  She joins Mattriarch (Young Commander-Lyons Attitude-Hasty Hall) on the 2018 roll of honour, with the Elwyn Lloyd Jones-owned grey mare winning the STAGBI Future Broodmares race at Amman Valley the week before in the hands of trainer/driver Dylan Lloyd Jones.

Dynamic Ace winning the STAGBI Future Broodmares race @ Corbiewood
with William Greenhorn (Bill Cardno photo)
Mattriarch winning the STAGBI Future Broodmares Race @ Tai'r Gwaith
with Dylan Lloyd Jones (Graham Rees photo)

Tir Prince - Saturday 9th June
I want you to be impressed with me now.  Guess what I did?!  I wrote a Harnesslink report about this one too which you can read here.  Talk about saving myself time when I'm trying to catch up with the blog.

It was a rather long day for Smarty and I, with an early start to get horses jogged at the stables before we headed south.  We also had to leave a lot earlier than usual as we had an extra passenger for the journey which was going to slow us down somewhat.  No, I don't mean Bernard McGovern, who also happened to be a passenger (although there were times when I thought about putting him in the trailer).  We were taking one of our mares to a stallion standing in north Wales.  We'd already taken Rita (Vain In Spain) and her Hasty Hall colt foal, Denver, back down to Hasty Hall in north Wales a few weeks earlier, so we knew the kind of journey we had in store, although at least with only a mare on board it's not such a stress.

Except when said mare hasn't left the field for nearly 7 years, has never travelled in a single trailer and has never been further south of home than Appleby before.

I won't bore you with the details of the mare, the pairing and the plan of action in this particular post as this is a racing synopsis.  My adventures breeding my first foal outright will be covered in separate posts in a warts-and-all account of the highs and lows of trying to breed a racehorse.  Watch this space.

Around 7 hours later we rolled into Tir Prince Raceway for a night of stakes race action, mixed with a handful of other top quality races, all of which I've covered in my article (above). 

For me, the best race of the night was the Crock of Gold Heat.  All the talk was about whether Rhyds Rock Star would be able to step up out of the 4YO category which he had already dominated in the early part of the season to compete against Miraculous (who did the same last year) and Evenwood Sonofagun.  It was exciting.  It was almost like the final last year when nobody could agree on who they thought the winner was going to be.  I'll be honest, I went for Rock Star drawn 1, I thought he had landed in a prime position to lead out and go the pace he'd gone earlier in the season at Tir Prince when he broke the track record (previously jointly held by Forafewdollarsmore, Miraculous & Evenwood Sonofagun).  After half a mile it looked set to go the way I'd expected, but as they turned into the back straight something totally unexpected happened.  Rockin Mambo, a horse by his connections' own admission was only really there to 'make up numbers', went by Rock Star like he was walking.  And he kept going.  Right to the line, in a track-record equalling time.  I was so overwhelmed with joy for his owner, Jenny Jones, that I ran on to the track to hug her.  I thought it was a really big moment for her and husband Marc, who trains and drives the horse, and I couldn't contain my delight.  Coalford Tetrick also ran a monster race to finish second, and the horse which cost £500 as a yearling at public auction continues to prove that horses don't know how much they're worth.

It was a long drive home to Scotland, especially as when I took over driving, Smarty fell asleep on the back seat and Bernard (the other bookie in the car) fell asleep in the passenger seat.  We only have one CD in the car, so I now know all of the words to every song from the Greatest Showman soundtrack.  A skill which I have no doubt will come in useful.  One day.  We got back to the stables at 4am, unhitched the trailer, fed the horses their breakfast and headed home to finally get some proper sleep.  I don't want to be doing that too many times this summer (although I have a funny feeling that won't be the last time!).

Week 7

Corbiewood - Friday 15th June
This was the weekend of what I have now dubbed the 'Triple C Tour': Corbiewood, Cumberland Show (Carlisle) and Cilmery.  Racing kicked off on the Friday night at Corbiewood with the feature races being the SHRC 3YO Derby divisions for fillies and colts & geldings, and the opening leg of the Greentree Standardbreds Mares Pacing Series.

You can read the official report on Harnesslink here.  It's just so great when I can do that!

Because of the way things have been planned for the horses in our stable and their summer campaigns, we didn't have anything on the card but I was still able to enjoy the racing nonetheless.  I'll keep it brief as there are still another two meetings to cover; I was super impressed with Saunders Hoochie making it back to back wins at the track after 30 luckless starts for her previous trainer.  Cathy Shields really seems to be getting a lot from this mare and the trainer described as almost unbeatable at the back end of a season is showing that she's pretty tough to beat at the start of the season now as well!  Also a massive well done to Claire and Shane Fletcher on winning both divisions of the Derby with the Teresa Haythornthwaite-trained and James Haythornthwaite-driven Casimir Royalflush (fillies) and Crack A Smile (colts & geldings).  They have supported Corbiewood for a number of years and it is good to see them enjoying success, even if some of the die hard Scots still view them as English raiders coming north to plunder the spoils!!

Casimir Royalflush & James Haythornthwaite (Bill Cardno photo)
Crack A Smile & James Haythornthwaite (Bill Cardno photo)
Cumberland Show @ Carlisle - Saturday 16th June
This was my first time at this new fixture, having missed the first ever staging last summer due to other commitments.  I had volunteered to help with whatever the promoter needed help with (I was hoping for the photography gig but that was already taken unfortunately) so I was roped in to take declarations and entry fees and hand out the numbercloths, which I have never done before but as with most things, I always ask myself 'how hard can it be?'.  Not hard, is the answer.  A little manic at times when there's a queue and you're trying to figure out what the total entry fee is for someone while someone else begins helping themselves to numbercloths and your phone is going with people wanting to let you know they're on their way but they're stuck in traffic, but we got there.  Eventually.

After that was over, I had intended to interview winning connections after each race (to give the general public something else to enjoy between races) however due to the racing starting late and an incident in the first race which held things up even more, I had to make the decision to abandon that idea so that racing could progress as quickly as possible.

I see potential in the venue going forward, however there are a few areas which need to be addressed for the purposes of ensuring quality racing and a safe racing environment for participants.  I've been in talks with the promoter since the event and hopefully next year I can work a bit more closely with them to improve on a fairly solid foundation which has already been laid in the first 2 years.  Provided the show committee has us back, of course.

Well done to all winners on the day, and to anyone else who was pleased that their horses ran with merit.  One horse which I believe will win imminently based on his last two starts (finishing second both times after having been stuck in a box) is Rhyds Cocoa.  I know he has a devoted support squad behind him too so I look forward to being there when they're celebrating his first win for the stable!

Cilmery - Sunday 18th June
From Carlisle we made the long journey south to stay with my parents for a brief overnight visit and a day of racing at the track which I used to help promote when I lived in Wales: Cilmery.  The fixture was originally staged on a Wednesday evening which I always felt worked very well in the local area in terms of drawing in a local crowd however this was the second year that it had moved to a weekend slot and this may have had a damaging effect on the turnover at the gate.

Nonetheless, after some of the dramas of the previous two days of racing I was very much looking forward to a day of healthy competition and good fun and everybody who was involved did not let me down.

The first race featured a thrilling three-way finish between Blytheviewpeterpan (Jaimie Davies), Forest Drifter (Lee Wakefield - a 16 year old driver with a very impressive win and place ratio per number of drives - I'd be interested to see his UDRS - more on that to follow) and the ultimate winner, Anniejoan (John Wright Jnr).  It was good to see the mare, who previously raced in Scotland, finishing strong to win in the closing stages of the race, giving C Class driver John another win to propel him ever closer to B Class status.

Anniejoan & John Wright Jnr
Full Throttle (Carl Morgan) was an all-the-way winner in the second race, aided somewhat by some backfield interference midway through the race which affected his main challengers however the horse had already flown the nest somewhat already with his usual early pace.  Carl appeared surprised to see his leading margin when looking back over his shoulder in the home straight and eventually ran out a 14L winner in the second of the five heats.

Full Throttle & Carl Morgan
The third heat reverted back to a similar style of the first with another close three-way battle in the closing stages, this time between Caenwood Jack (Julian Price), Lakeside Art (Jaimie Davies) and the winner Ithon Orbit who has already qualified for the Star Makers grand final at Tir Prince on 14th July.  I was very impressed with this winner's ability to stay on a track which I know is stamina-sapping, particularly as this was the first time I'd seen the horse running in the flesh.  It's also great for owner/trainer/driver Matthew Lewis to enjoy success considering he's doing the entire job all by himself!

Ithon Orbit & Matthew Lewis
A horse I like, Gift Of Life, was an easy enough winner of the fourth heat for Angie Dyer, with a real battle on for the minor placings between John Barley (David Bevan) and Wellfield Earl (Jed Strickland) with the former coming out on top by a nose.  I didn't mind as I'd backed Earl to finish third behind the pair - he is one of the country's most reliable horses and I think the absolute world of him.  I'm glad to see owner and trainer Roy Sheedy keeping him going and also giving young drivers a chance to drive him as well to gain experience.

Gift Of Life & Angie Dyer
As expected in the highest handicap heat, front marker Lakeside Paddy set a quick enough pace so as not to allow the back markers in the race to make too big an impact, however FFA quality Coalford Tetrick did enough to secure his place in the final when finishing second.  With the final being open preferred, he would take draw 10 on the gate which many thought would give him a simple victory.  They were right.  Once he flew the nest in the final, nobody was going to catch him.  A blanket finish for the placings showed the remainder of the field to be quite evenly matched, but on this day Tetrick was far too good for them.  Heat winners Gift Of Life, Ithon Orbit and Full Throttle took the minor honours in that order.

Coalford Tetrick & Aaron Williams
Full results of the remaining races can be found on the BHRC website (along with Corbiewood and Cumberland Show).

I'm gonna wrap this one up now because a) it's weeks late and b) it's really long.  Hopefully you'll have picked up something from it though to aid you in your betting or tipping selections come the next big meeting, like....Aberystwyth?!

My parting thought for the day is this: remember, this is a sport.  Be good sports.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

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