On October 1st Smarty and I boarded a plane and headed for Cleveland, Ohio (via Iceland), to start a 12-day road trip which would see us finish up in Nashville, Tennessee. The plan for the first 9 days was to take in as much harness racing as possible before spending the last part of our holiday relaxing and getting our fill of country music (Smarty was totally converted by the time we flew back to the UK, as evidenced by the fact that recently when I came home from work he was sat listening to 'Total Country' on the telly).
Cleveland may have seemed like a strange place to start a road trip (the guy at the Border Control desk thought it was weird that of all the places in America we could visit, we chose Cleveland) but there was method to the madness: for those who don't realise, Cleveland is the 'home of the flying turns' aka Northfield Park.
Our first adventure took us to Sahbra Farms, a training centre situated about 16 miles away from the racetrack. It came by way of recommendation from Steve Wolf, whose friend Paul Holzman has his training base there, and it was there that we were able to meet the legendary Southwind Amazon (USA leading horse by wins in 2018 [22 wins at close of the year]). It was very good of Paul to take time out of his day to show us the superstar, as well as answer Smarty's endless list of questions about different training methods!
|Southwind Amazon on a turn out day|
That night we made our first visit to Northfield Park. Heather Vitale had put me in contact with the Horsemen's Rep, Amy Hollar, with the simple disclaimer that I would love her and that she's hysterical. I can confirm that I do, and she is. Amy gave us the grand tour of the paddock, leaving Smarty in the drivers' room discussing the various aspects of bookmaking whilst I landed in the start car for what was meant to be one race and ended up as three-in-a-row. Ronnie Wrenn Jr was forced to sign a pair of his gloves for his #1 UK fan, Watson Harrop Jr; and Keith Kash Jr somehow got railroaded into giving me his rain jacket (if you don't ask, you don't get). We finally tracked down Aaron Merriman (remember when I did that driver interview in the back of the lorry at Portmarnock? No? You can read it here in that case...) and in between his many drives, he asked if we had plans the following day. We didn't, and that is how the epic road trip to The Meadows began!
|Personalised souvenirs for friends back home!|
|Good job Ronnie had a spare pair of gloves...|
|My view from the start car|
|Keith Kash, who gave me his jacket because everyone else was giving me stuff!|
Upon arrival at the track we were met by Dawnelle Mock, PR guru at The Meadows, who gave us the guided tour of the paddock and owner/trainer/driver facilities. She then handed us over to the inimitable Heather Wilder (minus Mike, who was holidaying in Vegas) who gave us a further guided tour of the grandstand area, before whisking us up to the commentary booth to see Roger Huston. Roger has been travelling to the UK and Ireland to announce races for a number of years and I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time at the VDM weekend at Portmarnock earlier in 2018, as well as Heather. Anyway, without warning I was shimmied into a chair and before I knew it I was being interviewed by Roger on the live Meadows simulcast commentary, which according to Roger is beamed out to around one million listeners. No preparation, just me waffling on about how awesome our trip was and the differences between the UK and USA harness racing scenes (that list is endless).
Cue another start car trip (or 3) for Sarah, then an introduction to track photographer (and in my eyes absolute hero) Chris Gooden, before Smarty wandered off to give young Irish driver Jack Killeen some 'advice' before he went out for the first of his two drives of the afternoon. Jack met Heather and Mike [Wilder] at the VDM meeting in Portmarnock in the August, and by the autumn had landed himself somewhere to stay in order to give driving a go in the USA. Heather and I settled trackside to watch the racing, and after Jack's first drive landed him a second place (on what he felt was his better chance of the two), we thought maybe we should give him some vocal support for his second drive. Bearing in mind that Smarty and I hadn't planned to be at The Meadows on this day but for Aaron's very kind offer, it was absolutely out of this world for us to be there for Jack's first win on American soil! Pretty sure Heather and I screamed the full last half before running like two crazy people to the golf buggy to meet Smarty and head over to photobomb the winner's photo (whilst I was FB Live for the whole thing). The full day was absolutely surreal and wouldn't have been half the experience it was if it wasn't for the people named above (and everyone else who made us feel so welcome).
|View from the start car|
|Caught on camera, on camera, by Chris Gooden|
|With harness racing's winning-most driver of all time, Dave Palone (>18,000 wins)|
|Jack Killeen on board Late Night Delight|
|Before Heather & I started screaming...|
|So much love for Heather W!!|
|Photobombing winner's photos since 2008|
|We had a BLAST!|
You'd think after the day we had had, we'd be ready to crash out. But no, we were living a day in the life of...Aaron Merriman, so we met back up with him and whizzed our way back over the state border into Ohio to make the meeting at Northfield Park that night. This was the crazy part...even though this was only our second night at Northfield, having been away for the day it genuinely felt like we were coming home. I likened the atmosphere amongst the horsemen and women to Corbiewood, our local track in Scotland. We were being greeted by people like old friends - including Smarty's new BFF Dakota Jackson, who happened to have a twin brother [Zach], both of whom may or may not be coming to the UK at some point in the future (after watching the race footage of Elmo's final win at Longnor they were desperate to come here and try it out for themselves!). I was spreading the word as best I could at The Meadows, and here was Smarty spreading the word...well, with videos of Longnor.
The day didn't end after the last race...from the track we headed to a bar and met some of Aaron's friends, including my new Canadian friend Darrell (who had better be reading this, even if it's like 3 months after I've posted it). He was responsible for the jagerbombs...inside my head I was reciting the mantra of my late teens - "No more J'bombs for the S Thom"; alas, it didn't stop me.
|In my defence I had his share of the jagerbombs too|
Day three and it was time to hit the road. We were winding our way down to Lexington slowly, with a pit stop for ice cream in Mt Hope (mainly because I wanted to see Amish people going about their daily business) and another pit stop at Delaware County Fairgrounds where I gatecrashed the (completely deserted) track to see what it felt like coming down the home straight where the Little Brown Jug is staged. I even climbed in amongst the topiary spelling out the name of one of the world's most iconic races. I think the drink from the night before was playing havoc with me.
|Before I tried to complete a lap of the track...|
From there we called in at Sugar Valley Farm to visit the resting place of Dragon Again (obsessed). There we met 'Uncle Billy', who was more than happy to show us two of the stallions who were currently residing at the farm - Mr Wiggles and My MVP. Before we left he told us a story about a trotting filly his nephew [Joe McLead] had purchased after being explicitly told not to 'buy any trotters'. Said filly went on to win multiple times at the highest level, and indeed did so again in a World Record-equalling time at the Red Mile two days later. Her name was Im Pink Too, half-sister to Hambletonian winner, Pinkman. But before we get to that, Smarty and I left Sugar Valley and headed to Midland Acres. Here we met Sheila. Now I don't know how I'm ever going to get in touch with Sheila again, but if anybody is ever visiting Ohio, please go and meet this woman. We intended this to be a flying visit, which became over two hours, and quite frankly could have been the remainder of our holiday because Sheila was a delight.
|Between those two trees rests a legend|
Sheila introduced us to some of the stallions - Art Official; Big Bad John; Yankee Cruiser and first-season sire Long Tom, who she treated with a level of affection many would reserve for their children alone. After that she took us through to the office, and upon learning that we were heading to the sales at Lexington, showed us the catalogue and her pick of the sale - none other than Im Pink Too. Her exact words were 'she's the one to buy!' - and she must have said them at least 10 times. By this time we were well-versed in Im Pink Too's story and we may have been accidentally giving off vibes that we were maybe interested in purchasing her. Who knows, but we left that place with the biggest smiles on our faces. Sheila was one of those people in the world who gets supreme job satisfaction and I found her enthusiasm absolutely infectious.
On the Friday we landed in Lexington for three days of racing at the world famous Red Mile. Smarty had basically died and gone to heaven and spent much of his time over the course of the three days sat high in the grandstand studying the horses warming up and ultimately enjoying the highest standard of racing. Me on the other hand...I was milling around 'celeb-spotting' and bumping into familiar faces. Oh, and some casual photobombing in the winner's circle as well. Standard. The first of these visits to the winner's circle came when Annie Hill won the third, a 2YO Fillies Pace for British owner Tom Hill and trainer Chris Oakes, who Smarty and I had been in semi-regular contact with since meeting in Florida two years earlier. My thought process was 'I'm British, Tom's British, it doesn't matter that he doesn't know me, we know the same people, I'm going in'. It's a tenuous link but I've photobombed on lesser grounds before and I have zero shame. After that I met up with Amy Hollar (her off of Northfield Park) who introduced me to her sister, Jennifer, and brother-in-law Brian Brown. Somehow during this phase of enjoying the air con inside Joe Sbrocco joined the mix and before I knew what was happening I was drinking whisky sours and watching Joe jump the queue to get us drinks because apparently Joe Sbrocco doesn't queue. He doesn't need to, because just like my Grampa in Builth on a Saturday night, everyone knows Joe.
Whilst hanging out with Amy we witnessed a new 2YO World Record for pacing fillies being set as Warrawee Ubeaut flew home in 1:48.3, before Amy took us on a tour of the place. She was keen to introduce Smarty to the 'whales', and whilst I didn't really understand what was happening (I was quite merrily drinking my whiskey sour and nodding along), it was something to do with gambling, I'm guessing with rather a lot of money. Smarty knew what was going on anyway.
We'd spotted Dexter Dunn out on the track a couple of times and indeed he was driving in the last race on the card, so once the racing was over Amy took us through to the paddock to meet a few people and help us get our bearings before we tracked down Double D. Dexter took us round to Brett and Stacey Miller's camper and we sat down for a few beers and a major catch up, having not seen Dexter since the VDM meeting at Portmarnock in 2016. For anyone who hasn't read my blog for very long, I interviewed Dexter back in 2016 when he visited the UK to drive en route to Ireland. Smarty and I drove Dexter and his cousin Tom from Edinburgh to Tir Prince in north Wales, during which time I interviewed him for my blog but also he and Smarty started the world's strangest bromance. Anyway, whilst sitting at the camper reminiscing and finding out how Dexter was settling in to the North American racing scene, Yannick Gingras rocked up and joined the party. During conversation, Dexter disappeared to find a pair of gloves he had offered to give me as a prize for a driving competition back in the UK and straight away Yannick wanted to know what the gloves were for. A short conversation about fundraising ideas later, he offered to give me his set of colours on the condition that I returned after the last race on Sunday to get them from him. I didn't need telling twice!
It was a shame to leave the track as we could literally have stayed there chatting all night but we had plans to head to the sales at Fasig-Tipton - I'll keep this section short as it wasn't really the highlight of my visit to Kentucky. In my opinion, if you're not buying, the sales are a bit...boring. I love the sales here in the UK because I know all the people so I'm the nosy one rubber-necking to see who's bidding and who holds their number up when the hammer falls. I like to know who's bought what (and yes, I know the official sales results are published within 12 hours but I like to know as it's happening). Whilst it was great to walk around the facilities and have a few horses Smarty had marked in his catalogue out to inspect, it is much of a muchness after a while. There are only so many horses you can look at in the collection ring and in the sale ring itself without even raising your hand once before a girl gets a bit bored. I did however track down Joann Looney King on the Saturday evening at the sales and introduced myself as 'Heather's friend, Sarah', which opened the door to me photobombing again at the track the following day...
On the Saturday morning we headed out of Lexington and into the country to Saga Farm, Georgetown, to find a horse we both adore - Blissful Hall. Schare Adams, owner of the farm, was in Lexington however her friend Sue Shields was at home and was more than happy to take us to see the old boy (with some carrots, just to keep him sweet!). Having been gelded since retiring from stud, Blissful is now living out his days as a field companion for youngsters and, I suspect, being spoilt rotten by anyone who comes into contact with him. He's an absolute gentleman, as well as being a complete legend - and as we explained to Sue, we are currently expecting a foal by a half-brother to Blissful (Hasty Hall), and another foal by a son of Blissful (Matador Hall). It was great to be able to see him in the flesh!
|Just chillin' with Blissful Hall|
From Saga Farm we ventured to the Kentucky Horse Park. Whilst this is a venue that could take all day to explore, we didn't have all day and ultimately, we were only there for one reason: to find Won The West, who resides in the Hall of Champions. The reasoning behind this visit (and let's face it, there is always some sort of method to the madness) was because Won The West's full sister, Open Plains, is the dam of our broodmare Vain In Spain (dam of Crosshill Ace and Crosshill Diablo [Denver]). With Denver being the first colt from the mare, we were keen to see 'W' in the flesh to see what we're aiming for. If we could get one a fraction as good then we'd be onto a winner!
|Won The West - basically family!|
You'd think we'd have done enough for the day by now but it was only just past midday and we had a date with the Red Mile, and in particular had to keep an eye out for Im Pink Too in the first. She didn't take much finding as she came home clear down the stretch in 1:49.4 (26.3 last quarter), which meant I was able to get a decent shot from the space I'd managed to stake out in the reserved seating section (just act like you're meant to be there...until someone who is actually meant to be there turns up and looks at you like you're not meant to be there and you scarper). Im Pink Too was very impressive and it certainly added to the hype of her going into the sales ring on the Sunday night (she subsequently topped the inaugural Mixed Sale at $300,000).
Fast forward a few races and it was another trotter making the headlines - this time Homicide Hunter, trained by Chris Oakes. We met HH at Pompano in 2016 shortly after he came into Chris' care and we were able to watch him qualify; little did we know he was on his way to setting a World Record: 1:48.4 with a blistering 26.0 last quarter (the quickest of the day across both gaits). When you actually take into consideration the quality of the horses racing all day and the records that were falling...that's a phenomenal feat to be achieved, and by a trotter no less.
The other highlight of the second day for me was seeing McWicked and Lazarus N going head-to-head in the Open Pace. Leading up to our visit to America I had been leaning towards the McWicked camp (just like when Always B Miki and Wiggle It Jiggleit used to race each other and although I appreciated the both of them equally, Always B Miki was the horse I wanted to win) - seeing him in the flesh warming up and during the race just confirmed it for me. He has a great attitude to racing and a will to win, you can genuinely see that.
Sunday, our third and final day in Lexington featured the Kentucky Futurity for 3YO trotters Whilst Smarty and I didn't commit ourselves strongly to the fillies' eliminations and final, we took a huge interest in the colts' races and after watching Tactical Landing (for Jimmy Takter) and Six Pack (for Ake Svanstedt) win their eliminations in very different manners (albeit the same time, for all the clock watchers), we nailed our colours to the mast of Tactical Landing. On this occasion we got it wrong, as Six Pack held off all challengers to win the $434,000 race, however Tactical Landing subsequently went on to win the Breeders Crown for his division at Pocono Downs later that month and then the TVG Free For All Trot against aged trotters at The Meadowlands in the November before retiring to stud. So we weren't far out with our judgment in the long run!
Having bumped into Joann Looney King the evening before at the sales, I made a beeline for the paddock to see if I could find her before Shartin N's race (and also to make sure Yannick hadn't forgotten his promise of the signed colours!). I found Joann and husband Jim watching the racing and was able to see firsthand the preparation and nerves experienced before racing a horse at the highest level. Joann admitted that she is a nervous wreck before a race and I witnessed that - she even asked Jim if maybe they should consider scratching the mare because she wasn't sure if she was showing signs of tying up after warming up. Jim remained unruffled throughout, and as I left the paddock I told Joann I hoped I'd be seeing her in the winner's circle shortly, although her nerves had started to rub off on me and I felt that familiar feeling I get when I put my own horses on the track back home. Joann nor me had any cause for worry, as Shartin N brought her A game and was driven to perfection by Tim Tetrick to win in 1:48.2. Cue another winner's circle photobomb, and indeed a selfie with Joann while we were there!
The Red Mile was incredible: the facilities, the atmosphere, the quality of racing...it was second to none. It was topped off by some brilliant company across the 3 days: in addition to everyone already mentioned, we also spent time with Donal Murphy off of Ireland, and I was able to finally meet Dean Hoffman, the man who described me as 'a truly remarkable woman...or [I've] got them all fooled!". We had an absolute blast!
Whilst our departure from Lexington heralded the end of the racing segment of our road trip (we were destined for 3 days of live music and alcohol), we did manage to meet up with Ryan Macedonio and Kate Forry for food during our stay in Nashville. I suspect Ryan now thinks I'm madder than he originally thought when he interviewed me for Trotcast earlier in the year!
Upon our return to the UK, we headed straight to the annual sales in Builth Wells. We had marked a horse from the 'Horses in Training' section to fill the void that was going to be left by Elmo Hanover (who had been sold to Wales where the style of racing would suit him more) - however whilst in Nashville we found out the horse had been sold privately before the sale. I had gone to the trouble of marking my catalogue on the flight with some of the yearlings I liked on paper which might not be too expensive, but the general consensus between Smarty and I was that we didn't need a long-term project (what with youngsters of our own at home due to come through in the next few years) so we went to the sale with no intention to buy.
Famous last words.
At the sale, I am jointly responsible for scanning microchips to ensure the horses presented are correct as per their paperwork. One of the benefits of this task is that I get to be up close and personal with every horse at the sale, which means I'm able to check them all out before the sale begins. Sometimes you haven't marked a horse because it hasn't necessarily caught your eye on paper and chances are you won't go to take a look at it, but I have no choice. I have to check all of the horses - sometimes I'll leave a stall to read my catalogue thoroughly as I've liked the horse in the flesh. In this instance, I was nearing the end of the list of horses to scan and as my co-worker and I headed out of one barn to search for any latecomers, we were passed by a very flashy colt being led in. A quick check of the list revealed that he hadn't been scanned, so we waited for him to be taken into his stall before confirming his microchip details. I liked him. A lot. I also knew that I had an asterisk next to his name in my catalogue. I rang Smarty immediately (it had been too early a start for him to get to the sale when I left my parents' home) and told him to go and take a look at #56 when he arrived.
Smarty could find no major faults with the horse; a discussion ensued as to our bidding limit. Eventually Smarty decided we didn't need another youngster, because we had no intention of racing a horse at 2 so it would be over 18 months until the horse would see the track. His parting words to me were 'but if you want him, I'm not stopping you buying him yourself'. So that's what I did. I ran inside, asked my Dad if I could borrow his buyer's number and set about buying myself a horse. I didn't think I'd get him as my budget had been halved with the removal of a partner from the equation, but as the auctioneer stalled and asked again for any further bids, here comes Smarty running up the stairs to where I was sitting (with me thinking 'oh no, I'm in for it now') to tell me to keep going if I needed to. I didn't need to. The hammer fell at £800. I had my horse and thought he was an absolute steal*. One out; one in - Elmo had been delivered the previous day, and now 'Joe' was coming home to Scotland with me. Orphaned at 12 days old and successfully fostered on to a Welsh cob mare, his breeder had passed away before seeing the fruits of his endeavours. Joe has a long way to go, but we are going to give it our best shot. Also, Smarty wanted in as a partner in ownership before we'd even driven half way back up the country.
|Lot 56 - Afan EJO (The Cammissioner-Bells Image-Armbro Harrier)|
*to this day, I still think the same.
You thought this was nearly over, didn't you?! Well fear not, it nearly is.
November brought with it the annual awards events and both the SHRC and the BHRC & STAGBI awards events were moved forward (having been in January and February of 2018) to fall into the correct year of racing. This required multiple new dress purchases by me.
Smarty and I attended the SHRC awards dinner in Stirling to collect our Horse of the Month - July award for the mighty Elmo Hanover, which was a very proud moment for us both despite Elmo having flown the nest. This horse has had a profound effect on Smarty and I, 'he is what he is' became 'it is what it is', our new motto in life. Enjoy things for what they are, not what you want them to be.
At the end of the month I returned to co-hosting duties with Thoroughbred and harness racing announcer Darren Owen at the BHRC & STAGBI awards dinner, featuring TrotBritain award winners also. As per usual I was stressed in the build up but once things got underway everything went smoothly. Darren had encouraged a more relaxed approach to the hosting this year and this worked for me - sipping gin & tonic throughout the presentation helped settle my nerves! Highlights of the evening for me were seeing the mare Rhyds Passion crowned Horse of the Year following the licence holders' vote, and introducing driver Steve Lees into the Hall of Fame - the standing ovation and cheers he received gave me goosebumps and his acceptance speech had me in stitches!
You'll be glad to hear there wasn't much to report in December. Other than us quietly breaking in Joe at our own speed, December was very much a quiet month all round. The drama on social media about the forthcoming season usually waits until the turn of the year to fire up so on the face of it all looked well on the UK harness racing scene.
We all know that doesn't last...
And that's it folks. Three posts covering twelve months and as much of what I can remember crammed in to every single one of them. Finally, to round things off, it's time to announce my 'alternative' award winners for the 2018 season. Usually I go through each of the BHRC divisions and explain why I've chosen who I chose - although this year most of the award winners were actually the horses I voted for in the ballot so I'll only mention those who I would have alternatively awarded to.
2YO Colt of the Year - NORTHERN PRIDE - this horse didn't win the BHRC 2YO Colt of the Year award (the title went to Oakwoodinittowinit) however I felt 'wee Nigel's victories in the VDM Colts Final at Portmarnock and then the SHRC 2YO Futurity at Corbiewood were superb. He was very impressive when running out an eight length winner of the latter and some in Scotland would say he may be the best they've seen of his age going around there.
Introducing a new award for this year, the True Grit Award to be awarded to a horse that I feel showed consistent guts and determination througout the season.
After much deliberation at HQ, the recipient of this inaugural award is Bowriver, owned and trained by Alf & Joy Swinbank. From 25 starts in 2018, starting on 12th May and finishing up on 7th October, Bowriver achieved 3 wins, 2 seconds and 3 thirds. This could, and perhaps should have been 4 wins, however a disqualification at Wolverhampton due to numerous horses going through their mark at the start put paid to that. In my humble opinion, and indeed probably many others, the horse would have won the race had things gone smoothly at the start as it was likely to have been his best performance all season. Racing in Wales, England and Scotland, Bowriver showed up time and time again and gave his all and even after defeat, continued to bounce back for his next run. Genuine, honest and full of true grit, congratulations to Bowriver and his connections!
|Bowriver & Joy Swinbank|
Step forward please Miss Savannah Nicholson. On September 8th at Tir Prince, the Nicholson and Ralph families' Diamant De Godrel stepped up to the plate as a 7-1 fancy for the £10,000 Gold Le Trot final. This was simply the best of the best trotting horses in the UK and indeed Ireland (Ultimo D'Ouville had crossed the Irish Sea to take a crack at it also). When young John Henry Nicholson, a lad who has truly made a name for himself in the few years that he has been driving, crossed the line three lengths clear of his nearest rival, his sister Savannah became hysterical. I can't describe it any other way than that. 'D Godrel', as John Henry calls him in his frequent Snapchat posts, had been my nap of the meeting, although Savannah wasn't anywhere near as confident. Having nearly lost the horse when he first arrived from France earlier in the year, connections had worked hard to get him to the level he was at towards the latter part of the season, with multiple wins under his belt. His inclusion in the Gold Final had not initially been received well by them, as they thought they were destined for the Silver division where the competition may not have been as stiff for a horse who had already proven he could compete with the top tier trotters. However their concerns were misplaced. Immediately after the race Savannah couldn't speak for crying. In fact, at one point it was only the embraces from friends that was keeping her from falling over! That raw emotion...that's what this game is all about. Congratulations Savannah, not only for winning my entirely made up award but also on the successes that your family have enjoyed in 2018. Here's to more of the same for 2019!!
|Savannah says 'D Godrel' is #1|
And that, my dear readers, is that. From start to finish 2018 was full of ups and downs, highlights and low points. This sport we all love is a rollercoaster but year after year we keep coming back for more. The main thing is that we all enjoy what we do and strive to find those moments, like Savannah did, that make all the hard work worthwhile. Be as good in defeat as you are in success. Remember there is always another day. If you achieve your goal, set a new one. Keep trying and keep racing.
See you all in 2019.
Over and out,
#1 Scottish Groom