Wednesday, 16 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Monday, 7 May 2018

2018 Season: Week 1 - Record falls at Tir Prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

10 Reasons to #ComeHarnessRacing in 2018!

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

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

OK so here we go...


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

You can check out the #ComeHarnessRacing video here.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over and out,
#1 (Scottish) Groom

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Looking forward to the 2018 season...


I know we're well into February and I know that the title of this post is looking forward to the forthcoming season but I must quickly look back somewhat in order to explain my hiatus from writing.

(Stuart Morris photo)

My favourite time of the year, and also, possibly, my least favourite.  The former because it's an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of equines and humans alike - with highlights from the SHRC Awards event being Horse of the Year EVENWOOD COOLSTING, the entire MacKenzie family coming up to collect for Leading Owner TRACKSIDE RACING STABLES and Driver of the Year, WILLIAM GREENHORN; and highlights from the BHRC, STAGBI & TROTBritain Awards event being the entire Laidler & Huschka team coming up on stage to collect the award for Horse of the Year EVENWOOD SONOFAGUN, celebrating the STAGBI Future Broodmares winners (Loriznitestar, Laneside Lotus, Greenhill Lilian, Rhyds Passion, Shades Of Grey & Starzapan) and Phil O'Neill's borderline infrasound tones during his interview with Darren Owen when collecting the awards for TROTBritain's Aged Horse, Aged Horse Trainer & Aged Horse Driver of the Year (Sacha Of Carless, John Foy & Phil himself).

The latter simply due to the increased workload I put myself under.  I know, I know, I choose to do it.  Every year I volunteer with the same enthusiasm, and every year around halfway through the preparations I regret it.  Only one week ago I vowed to do no more and focus on my personal goals for the season.  Yet here I am, about to outline not only the ideas and ventures proposed by others within the sport, but also the ideas and ventures that I myself have begun working on.

Three words:


Trackside Racing Stables collecting the SHRC Owner of the Year trophy (Bill Cardno photo)
Team Laidler & Huschka collecting the BHRC Horse of the Year trophy for Evenwood Sonofagun (Stuart Morris photo)
That's enough about what has passed, and now it is time to look forward.

Social media is currently alight with debate surrounding some of the proposed changes and ideas for the forthcoming season; featuring both positive and negative output from licence holders and regional club members alike.  Let's take a look at what the 2018 season has in store:

This one is my baby.  The series started up in 2017 at Corbiewood following a brainstorming session between Smarty and I in the car travelling down the M6 ("lucky b*stards") as to how we could combat the reduced number of mares races on offer from STAGBI to the regional hard tracks.  Corbiewood is very fortunate to have a pool of horses available to race and the fixtures to accommodate them on a weekly basis; so it made sense to offer a series to the quality mares who normally would race in mixed company.  The inaugural series was named after the main sponsor, Oakwood Stud, and became a really competitive affair with the Gilvear family's DONTSTOPTHEPARTY winning the £1000 prize in the final on August 10th.

For 2018 we have a new sponsor, Greentree Standardbreds, and the series remains largely unaltered.  Mares are now required to race in at least one of the first three legs (run as open preferred under the National Handicap System) and at least one of the second three legs (run as open preferred based on monies won in the series) in order to be eligible for the final; this is to combat the reduced numbers in the latter three legs last year once mares had accumulated sufficient monies in the earlier legs to secure their places in the final.  As the series ran last year with 11 mares (rather than the initially required 12), this year the minimum number of entries has been reduced to 11 (whilst the maximum remains at 12).  The race dates are provisional at the moment due to a potential additional fixture which Corbiewood has requested in between the proposed dates which would require the races to fit in with an updated fixture list however the series will be run from the middle of June to the beginning of August as per last year.


We don't know who the driving force behind this series was but WE LOVE IT as a concept.  Details are still being finalised by the BHRC but what we do know so far is that it will be a series aimed at up and coming horses around the UK, with a grand final for the heat winners to be staged later in the season.  I'll revisit this once the details are published!

Details can be found HERE.

It is known across the entire country that Peter Wallace loved his racing.  It is also known across the country that his wife Carolynne and daughters Anna and Katey have sought to achieve so much in his memory in such a short space of time since their tragic loss.  These races, to be staged on the UK's best five eighths of a mile track, are a truly fitting tribute for the north east to stage in his memory.

I was at Binchester in 2016 when racing was first staged there and couldn't believe the quality of the track that the organisers had been able to source.  In 2017, we returned and as we were early (it doesn't happen often) I took the opportunity to walk to track and I was amazed at the impeccable standard of it; it was like a bowling green.

I sincerely hope that with prize money like this on offer, and with the meeting being staged to remember one of harness racing's true enthusiasts, the track will get the nationwide recognition that it deserves.  A BIG WELL DONE to Ronnie Ralph for getting this up and running - I can't wait!

Darren Owen, recipient of the 2017 BHRC Special Contribution award (watch video here), claimed in his acceptance speech that he is, essentially, just a commentator.  Well, here's one example of why he is so much more.  Last year Darren assigned Group 1 status to numerous races in the BHRC calendar, and this year he is working on this again (and involving the general public by asking for suggestions and ideas) to enhance the existing Group 1 scheme and introduce Group 2 status to further races.  I'm trying to ensure that Corbiewood doesn't miss out on a slice of the pie, so with a little bit of luck we'll at least be seeing one or two Group 2 races at Corbiewood in 2018 (is it too much to ask for a Group 1?!).

It's been 8 years since the Breeders Crown was last staged at Corbiewood, and many thought it would never return.  Whilst the main event will still be staged at Tir Prince in 2018, the organisers have at least tipped their hat to the Scottish owners and trainers who have continued to support the event since it left Scotland, and this year will see 2YO prep races being staged at Corbiewood in July (as well as Portmarnock, Ireland, and at the venue of the full event, Tir Prince in Wales).  Long may this continue!

Joanne Taff (Micklewood Stud) and Sue Young (Stateside Stud) have been sharing the news on social media in the past week about a new site near Cannock, Staffordshire, where it is hoped a fixture can be staged this year.  It will be a grass track, probably a half mile but potentially room for a 5/8 (like Binchester).  They are currently waiting on a date to be granted by the BHRC so I will follow this up nearer the time.

Wales & West have also confirmed a new grass track venue near Leominster; a much needed boost in light of the loss of the tracks at Walton and Allensmore.

It's not top secret, but it's also not been approved by the committee yet so I won't be divulging the details of this until I get the go ahead and start seeking sponsorship and nominations.  If you're wondering what it might be, look to Woolworths for inspiration...

Unfortunately, not all the news heading into this coming season is good.  As mentioned above, the grass tracks at Allensmore and Walton will NOT be staging harness racing going forward.  In a major blow to the North East, and indeed the wider country, York Harness Raceway was once again offered for sale and owner, Mick Welling, has confirmed to the BHRC that at present it will not be able to fulfil its 2018 fixtures.  As a result, these dates have been put back out to other tracks to apply for.  At the time of writing, the track has not been sold, however for the timebeing harness racing at York Harness Raceway (and also the annual Standardbred sale) are off the cards.

Not all of the projects that I have been/am involved with have gotten off the ground either.  This is something I'm getting more and more used to though, so I'll just keep dusting myself off and working around the wall instead of trying to go through it!

Rest assured folks, I and many others are working on a whole host of different things to try to make the 2018 season the best yet.  Stick with me and I'll keep you updated about the various projects happening across the UK in the build up to the first meeting of the season on May 5th at Tir Prince.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Sunday, 24 December 2017

2017 Season - Alternative Awards (A Year in Review)

As the year draws to a close and many of us begin to look forward to the challenges and adventures of 2018, I thought now would be as good a time as any to cast our minds back to some of the highs (and lows) of the 2017 season.  It's not that I have a tendency to live in the past (I leave that to everyone else) but more that I am about to immerse myself fully in the creation of awards presentation videos for the BHRC & STAGBI (and TROTBritain) awards event in February, which means for the next 5 weeks I will be watching a LOT of race videos from the past season and reflecting on the achievements of the award winners.

Whilst my heartfelt congratulations are extended to all of the official award winners, I feel there are some human and equine performances and achievements which have not been publicly recognised but which deserve to be mentioned, and as per last year this has led me to announce my own alternative awards (formerly known as the Sarah Thomas 'You Were Great!' Awards).  But first, let me talk you through who I voted for for each of the official BHRC categories and why I felt they deserved their respective accolades this year:

2YO Colt of the Year: MATTICULOUS (Hasty Hall-Another Mattie).  Impressive in all of his wins for both trainer/driver combo Joanne & Andrew Cairns and later formidable duo Alexis & Rocker Laidler, the half-brother to last year's Horse of the Year MIRACULOUS and full brother to the ill-fated but exceptional 2 and 3 year old TITANIUM became the third colt from the mare ANOTHER MATTIE to win the Vincent Delaney Memorial Final at Portmarnock.

2YO Filly of the Year: GREENHILL HANOVER (Bettors Delight-Artaffection).  This category was actually a walkover as Greenhill Hanover was the only nominee, however over the course of the season the 2YO Fillies division was in fact a wide open affair.  The Irish filly, ROBYN CAMDEN won twice in the UK (subsequently securing her BHRC Overseas Horse of the Year); BROWN EYED GIRL was also a multiple winner; there were credible performances from numerous other fillies also.  For me though, Greenhill Hanover seemed to improve as the season went on, winning her last 4 starts (heat and final of the Junior Welsh Dragoness at Tregaron, the Group 1 National Pacing Futurity at Tir Prince and the SHRC Futurity at Corbiewood).

3YO Colt of the Year: RHYDS ROCK STAR (Hasty Hall-Tonda Star).  Hailing from a family littered with champions, this horse started off the season winning in maiden and novice company and showed very little evidence of becoming the superstar that he graduated into by the end of the season.  He was, as we described him in the beginning, a horse who didn't win in style; that's to say, he didn't record flashy times or win by big margins.  But he sure knew where the winning line was and he seemed to always have his nose in front when it mattered in those first few races.  Early doors it looked as though he was going to stick to the handicap route, as SPRINGHILL GLORY took the honours in many of the early season stakes races.  When first venturing onto the 3YO scene he was well beaten and it wasn't until the end of July that he recorded his first win in 3YO company and it was only at Tregaron in August (in the heat and final of the Little Welsh Dragon - won by NO BRAKES) that he was beaten in his age category right up until Wolverhampton in October where his long season came to an end on a high.

3YO Filly of the Year: LYONS LEMEMAY (Lyons Danny-Lyons Montana).  This filly, in my opinion at least, was very hard done by not to win the official award and one can only speculate as to why.  Never out of the first 3 in her debut season, she was only beaten once in her age division by GREENHILLDEBATEABLE over the extended distance in the Group 1 National Pacing Oaks at Tir Prince on her final start of the year.  She recorded wins both on UK soil and in Ireland and for me she had this award sewn up when she won at Tregaron in the Little Welsh Dragoness heat and final where she notched up 2 of trainer/driver Michael O'Mahony's amazing 9 wins over the weekend.

Trotter of the Year: T'ES TROP FOOT (Little Crack-Hase Da La Meritee).  Whilst the 3YO Trotteur Francais filly EQUILEA DU HAUTY probably deserved this title for winning 5 from 6 starts including the £15,000 Le Trot Gold Final (racking up £18,000 in prize money this year), I would not be so hypocritical as to vote for a 3YO when I was quite vocal to some of the TROTBritain committee members about how little I enjoyed the 3YO series vs how much I enjoyed the aged trotting races.  I just love the old guard, the originals, the bombproofers who go about their business and provide thrilling finishes and this horse in particular was a delight to watch racing.  A winner of his last 3 starts of the season (from 6, due to a shortage of runners/races for these horses), he won on grass (Almeley), hard (York) and tapeta (Wolverhampton), making him as versatile as he is reliable.

Pacer of the Year: EVENWOOD SONOFAGUN (The Firepan-Im The Last).  If anyone reading this is a fan of National Hunt racing, you will remember a time when Kauto Star and Denman ruled the roost together.  During that period, you asked people which side they were on and they would be able to tell you immediately which horse they rooted for when they faced each other (apart from me, as I liked them both and anyway Neptune Collonges was racing from the same stable in the same races and I would always pick a grey in John Hales' colours as my favourite).  Evenwood Sonofagun and MIRACULOUS echoed this rivalry this year.  The pair dominated in their respective seasons, Gunner in the handicap races and Miraculous in the 4YO stakes races and indeed, the Free For Alls.  It wasn't until the Crock of Gold Final night at Tir Prince on 9th September that the pair went head-to-head, and although some warned us not to ignore the other contenders in the race (lest there be an Imperial Commander-type scenario when a relative outsider beat both Kauto and Denman in the Gold Cup after the media pegged it as a two horse race), the race became a duel to the wire between the two superstars.  All evening prior to the race if you asked people who they wanted to win, they were either Team Miraculous or Team Gunner.  The race turned into the fairest and perhaps most fitting outcome of all: a dead heat between the two.  And although Miraculous was a most worthy nominee for this award, which he won last year after a stellar 3YO campaign, I could not see past Evenwood Sonofagun who achieved so much in his unbeaten 2017 season.

Overseas Horse of the Year: WHITE FLAME (White Fire-Panne Ala Vodka).  Yes, that's right.  I voted for a coloured horse.  Let this be a timely and appropriate reminder to you all that I am both fair and impartial and despite my noted dislike of coloured horses (of any breed, not just Standardbreds) I voted for this horse because he was an impressive multiple winner when he ventured across the Irish Sea to race in the UK.  It was in fact his stablemate, 2YO filly ROBYN CAMDEN who took the title in this category and a worthy winner she is, but for me this horse just edged it.  He added a new dimension to the sport and incited heated debates about his ability which certainly lit things up.

Mare of the Year: RHYDS PASSION (The One Night Pan-Bouncie).  I was quite animated about this category on social media in the run up to the voting date and delighted to learn that this mare had won the award.  In the strongest of all of the categories, this mare tipped it for me based on some truly phenomenal performances at Musselburgh (Hurricane Pace Final winner), York (Blossom Kelly heat winner in sub two-minutes from the 10-hole) and Tir Prince (STAGBI Future Broodmares race).  Having started the season as a maiden, she finished second to another nominee, MELDOON, in the Welsh Classic Final at Tregaron, as well as recording wins at Aberystwyth and the spring fixture at Tregaron.  Takes some horse to win at those tracks all in the same season!

Young Driver of the Year: JOEL RICHARDS/LEE WAKEFIELD.  I'm going to have to split this award in two for the simple reason that I was equally impressed with both these two young men.  Joel's last win of the season saw him escalated from C Class driver status to B Class, when winning in very impressive style on board RING OF FIRE at Wolverhampton.  Bearing in mind that this was his first full season driving, and that he shares driving duties for his stable with his father, Bobby, and he doesn't get any outside drives, this made his multiple winning achievements all the more impressive.  As for Lee, at 15 he was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, driver to record a win in 2017.  He took the opening race at the two-day Aberystwyth festival on his driving debut - what a way to start! - when driving FOREST DRIFTER, and went on to record another two wins with the horse in following weeks.  I'm hoping to see him (and possibly sister Chloe) competing in the C Class Drivers race at Musselburgh in 2018.  Watch this space!

Best Drive of the Year: THOMAS MACKENZIE JNR & STARZAPAN.  Those who weren't there on this Thursday night (3rd August) at Corbiewood won't truly understand what made this drive so special; and indeed some of those who were there might not either.  In the preceding race, the mare's regular driver Stuart Mackenzie (son of trainer Ally Mackenzie) was involved in a hook-up which ultimately saw him unseated on the final lap, and for a long time Stuart remained down on the track as the loose horse continued for several laps without a pilot.  Stuart had taken a hard knock to the head and given many of us a fright; with Starzapan due to run in the final leg of the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series immediately after the incident, Stuart's cousin Thomas was drafted in to take the reins.  Whilst the two branches of the Mackenzie family race independently of each other on a weekly basis, with their own separate training facilities and charges, when the proverbial sh*t hit the fan, the family came together and although the drive was a 'lead out and make all' kind of drive, there were people cheering the pair on at the finish who under different circumstances wouldn't have been that bothered as to who won.  I found it to be a rather poignant moment and that is why I'm awarding it Best Drive (and thankfully Stuart was back in the bike the following week for the final).

Astounding Top Supporter Award: This is one of my favourite awards of the year.  It stems from Astounding's victory in the York leg of the Inter Dominion Qualifying Series in 2015.  Caretaker Ron Caddies provided the day's best entertainment when screaming for most of the race at his charge, then almost dropping his mobile phone as he told me to ring his wife (who had no idea who I was), and then almost dropping his phone again when taking it back off me to tell his wife that Astounding had won.  I've never seen a man shake so uncontrollably when his horse has won a race.

This year the award returns to a previous winner; although there are technically multiple winners.  The 2015 winner was Kirsty Legrice (cheering on Sherwood Bluey at York); this year the winners are Kirsty Legrice, Simon Clarke, Dave Chan and the Millstream Stud Supporters Group for their performance at Wolverhampton when T'es Trop Foot won the final race under the floodlights.  As the field turned the final bend with roughly two furlongs remaining, the whole gang were stood behind me at the rail, all buzzing with nervous energy.  T'es hit the front and Dave [Chan] was the first to crack (admittedly at the time I thought a little prematurely) and began screaming at the horse, and driver Steve Lees.  Once he started, the rest of the group literally erupted and I found it difficult to actually focus on photographing the horse as the noise they were making behind me was deafening!  As the horse crossed the line I felt like we were celebrating winning the Hambletonian, and it was one of the most enjoyable winner's circle photos I have taken all year.

I would also like to dish out some 'Highly Commended' certificates to the team at Greentree Standardbreds (John Clark, Louise Davey, Marian Clark and others) for their performances at Appleby when Greentree Serenity won the Sunday Final and Corbiewood when she won at the end of the season; to Karen Kennedy for her performance when new purchase Evenwood Get Real (aka 'Larry') won at Corbiewood at the end of the season; and to Gerry Thomson for her performance when GDs Hazzard (aka 'Harry') also won at Corbiewood at the end of the season.  I genuinely think we should all take a leaf out of their books and scream at our horses like nobody's listening.  It would really make for an entertaining day at the races!

A Year in Review

Fear not dear readers, I'm not going to take you on a fixture-by-fixture journey of the 2017 season.  That's why I write a (kind of) weekly blog - to highlight the highs and lows each week so that at the end of the year I can whizz through my awards and give a general overview.  Here goes:

- Stoneriggs Mystery bows out
We finally had to say goodbye to one of the greats of our time, STONERIGGS MYSTERY.  A horse who has been at the top of his game for many years, he was the original maiden/novice/handicap route to FFA pioneer, a route which the next generation Evenwood Sonofagun has taken to his current throne.  Mystery has almost a cult following and will be sorely missed by harness racing fans up and down the country; his farewell after the Crock of Gold Final where he was stripped of his harness and led off the track by caretaker Kelly Peacock had me in tears and I didn't care.  It was the end of an era.  He has returned to his owner's home in central Scotland to live out his days.

To read my tribute to Mystery, click here.

- Mares win big races
Greentree Serenity at Appleby; Rhyds Passion at Musselburgh; Meldoon at Tregaron.  Rhyds Nightlife at York; Equilea Du Hauty at Tir Prince.  Loriznitestar, Laneside Lotus, Starzapan; Shades Of Grey, Dontstoptheparty.  These are just to name a few.  I've loved every second of their success and long may it continue - here come the girls!

- BHRC Social Media Policy
This went down like a lead balloon when it was first announced in the spring, however to date nobody has actually been disciplined under the policy (which was also adopted in Ireland shortly afterwards).  However, at least one person has been targeted under the policy and fears from across the globe (mainly in the media sector) have been that the policy stifles free speech.  Whilst I considered examining the impact of the policy and potential contravention of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 (areas of law I covered during my media law specialisation in university), I subsequently decided that there are more useful ways to spend my time.  And as it transpires, licence holders appear to remain free to write very bold and negative statements on social media platforms without fear of any retribution, so any concerns expressed by individuals in the media were unfounded and life has continued as normal...

...or has it?

Something I have noticed in recent months on social media is an intolerance of opinions which break from the status quo (aka 'negative opinions').  Anybody who expresses an opinion not commonly held by those who write on particular threads is immediately (and unfairly) branded as a troublemaker, know-it-all or someone who makes snide remarks.

Whilst growing up I was taught that if you haven't got anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all.  I strive to live by that principle (but I may not always be deemed to get it right).  So this is not a defence of people who deliberately seek to pick holes, criticise without construction or belittle the efforts of others.  It is however a plea to those who feel that their opinion is always right to remember that opinions are subjective; that constructive criticism is just that: constructive; and that voicing concerns publicly is far better than going behind your back to undermine you.  We cannot all agree all of the time, but we must be wary of falling into the trap of ostracising individuals who do not share our opinions and ideals.

Being different is what makes us great.

- 2017 for Sarah
That's right, I have taken a leaf out of Ryan O'Neil's book and started talking about myself in the third person.  Kidding, it drives me mad when he does that.

There's only one racing highlight for Team Crosshill/Smart as we only managed one win all season (Cassius Clay, Murdock Weekend @ Corbiewood).  We had some nice placed runs from both Cassius and Ace, but nobody remembers the seconds and thirds.  We waved goodbye to three team members during the course of the year (Wild Bill Hickok, Crosshill Costa and Eternal Flame) and our expected foal in the spring didn't materialise so we've kept numbers down in single figures for the first time since I met Smarty.  We are, however, expecting two foals in the spring which (all being well) would take us back up to double digits again (oops): a Hasty Hall and an Arts Conquest.  Keeping everything crossed for two healthy babies next year!

This blog somehow got shortlisted in the final three in its category at the World Trotting Conference Media Awards, although ultimately was nowhere near professional enough to win.  Two of my three photos entered in the Hoof Beats Magazine photo competition were selected as Editors' Picks and published in their printed publication and on their online version.

I discovered that I appear to be the lovechild of Clare Balding and Matt Chapman when going Facebook Live for what became known as 'Paddock Cam' at Musselburgh, and again twice at Vincennes in Paris at the International weekend.  I would love to do more stuff like that, but I fear I've already made a lot of people pretty sick of me just with this blog alone, so videos of my actual face accompanied by my annoying Bristol/Somerset/Essex/London accent and my complete ineptitude to operate my phone during such videos would probably be the final nail in the coffin.

I'm STAGBI President now, for the next two years.  I'm currently working on my legacy, or kickstarting what I hope will be my legacy.  I'd like to be able to make a difference.

Anyway, that's enough from (and about) me.

All that remains now is for me to say a massive THANK YOU to every single one of you who reads this blog, whether it be each post religiously as soon as I publish them or just dipping in and out of what look like the best ones every now and again.  The only person who ever seems to comment directly on the posts chooses to remain anonymous (and actually be quite needlessly negative with a big wooden spoon) however plenty of people express their thoughts on social media and when they see me in person so I am really grateful for the feedback (yes, even you Noreen, and all that trouble you gave me during the whole of October).

We'll probably just carry on next year as we did this year, unless any of you choose to start a petition to get me to stop.

Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, I hope you have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!  See you on the other side :)

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Meet the Dandridges

"Who are the Dandridges?", I hear you ask.

I'll tell you who they are.  They are a rare breed of people; people who encountered harness racing one day.  And then kept coming back.  Time and time again.  Just to watch.  Not to take part, but just to watch.  In a sport which is forced to admit that it caters primarily for those who compete, what made Melanie and David Dandridge decide to come back, when time allows, to watch?  What do we need to do as a sport to get more people like this through the gates at tracks?

Well, I asked them.

Tell us a bit about you both.
Right OK here goes...David has worked on farms and previously ran his own contracting business, he has driven lorries and now drives buses.  I grew up on a farm in a rented cottage, my parents weren't farmers but I was hooked on the lifestyle.  I worked with horses doing stud work and in hand showing and I now work in a school.

We trundle around the country at every chance we get from Musselburgh to Allensmore; Tregaron, Lampeter, Boughrood, Almeley,York, Presteigne and Aberwystwyth; the two of us in our car which we call 'Doonbeg' with a little harness racing sticker on the back!

How did you first come across harness racing?
We first came across the sport whilst visiting relations in Kinmel Bay.  We saw Tir Prince and my eyes lit up; I was intrigued but sadly it was the wrong time of year and the racing wasn't on.  A year later in 1998 we moved to North Wales from Buckinghamshire with our (then) two young sons and I kept badgering David to take us to Tir Prince.

We went to the odd meeting and enjoyed it and then in 2002 we went to Tregaron and we were hooked!

What is it about the sport that attracts you to keep coming back?
The racing is fantastic; it's interesting, we like the people and the different tracks.  We like looking at the breeding although we are no experts but find this interesting.  We don't bet just purely enjoy the racing.

As you are not connected directly to anyone involved in the sport, what do you think could be done to make it more 'user-friendly'?
I think the grass tracks are more of a niche market so only people connected in the sport in some way seem to go, whereas at the cinder tracks [Tir Prince, York etc.] it seems to be more public-enticing.  Tir Prince for example attracts the holiday makers because its location helps.  I think most people want the race package of betting, drinking, making it a social event, and harness racing is a little low key for them and perhaps not glamorous enough.  People want more for the children to do also.

What do you think is the main thing holding the sport back from attracting new spectators, like yourselves, who do not wish to compete?
We think what holds the sport back is a lack of marketing.  The sport is not on TV and people don't know what it is.  I tell someone we're going to watch the harness racing and they ask 'what's that?' or 'is that what the gypsies do on the roads?'.  The lack of advertising is a major thing, even getting it out there by taking the sport to agricultural shows, or even getting it on TV in some way.

What have been the biggest challenges you have encountered in following the sport? 
The weather is the probably the biggest challenge, as it results in meetings being cancelled.  We work so our days off and holidays are based around the sport, cancellations obviously affect this.  Also finding some tracks can be difficult as the signposting is not always good or directions are unclear so we play 'follow that lorry'!

If you could change one thing about the sport, what would it be?
I wouldn't change anything about the sport, we are hooked and love it the way it is!

That said, it would be good to have the paddock easier to look at the horses so that the general public can look before the races at the horses parading up close.  The current impression given is it's a poor man's sport.

What do you think promoters/the governing body need to do to attract more people like yourselves?
A magazine would be good or a page in Horse & Hound, this might change the image the majority of people have about the sport.  Get it in the media with some articles about owners, trainers, tracks, horses etc.

Why not incorporate a harness race at more Thoroughbred racing venues?

Also maybe an app which has the horses, trainers and drivers on it?

How easy do you find the promotional material to access in order to find out more about upcoming fixtures?
We find it easy finding out about upcoming fixtures etc. as we go on various websites so it's no problem for us but before we had Facebook a year ago it was not easy to know if a meeting was cancelled or changed so we had to rely on what was announced at meetings or just turn up and hope for the best.

Do you think that negativity on social media has a damaging effect on the sport?  Or is fair to allow participants to voice their concerns on a public forum?
Everyone has a right to their opinions, I don't think it puts people off the sport, we read them and find it interesting.  We are also rally fans and you get positives and negatives on their sites in exactly the same way.  I don't think it matters or affects the sport at all.

If you've been Thoroughbred or greyhound racing, what are the differences and similarities?
We have never been greyhound racing, it doesn't appeal to us and even though Chester Racecourse is not far from us it's too busy and we don't fancy it at all.  We've been to point to points but for us you can't top harness racing.

Do you find the cost of going harness racing reasonable/value for money/too expensive?
The cost of racing is good; children go free and 10+ races for £10 works out at a pound a race or less so it's good value on that front.

Would you consider purchasing a horse and becoming owners?
We really would love a horse and would take great pleasure in that.

As you are new into the sport, would a syndicate or shares in a purposely-created Owners Club be the best way in?
That is a brilliant idea because on a budget you know there are no scary extras which are associated with horses.

What is harness racing in the UK's unique selling point?  How do you think it can promote itself in the open market for family attractions?
The unique selling point would be the drivers on sulkies and the excitement and closeness of the horses to the start car.  Also the speed the horses pass the crowd at.  The only way to draw in Joe Public is by having stuff for children to do.

As members of the general public, what elements would you change to make the experience of the spectator better? Pre-race interviews with drivers/trainers perhaps?
The interview thing is good but sometimes the PA systems aren't so good and you can't hear very well. Tir Prince is bad for that.  But a lot of my friends go to Chester Racecourse and really they go for the drinking, dressing up, socialising and betting; they pick horses by their names and are not really into the horse side of it or knowing who the jockeys are. 

That said, it would be great to meet horses and learn more about the trainers, drivers etc. and a demonstration on tacking a horse up, more interaction with the people and horses in the sport.  My work colleagues wouldn't be impressed going to watch in a field for example as they like the whole package associated with racing.  I have spoken to people who have come to watch for the first time and they don't seem to stay for the whole event but leave quite early so I think more variety and interaction may keep people there.

Thank you Melanie and David for taking the time to answer more than a few questions, and for putting so much thought and effort into your answers.

I think they have raised some interesting topics for further discussion between those within the sport who have the ability to make changes.  I urge anybody in a position to bring about positive change to consider what part the general public has to play in the furtherance of our beloved sport - the time has come for us to recognise that they are our target audience and not a forgotten byproduct.

Over and out,

#1 Groom