Saturday, 9 September 2017

Farewell Old Friend - A Tribute to Stoneriggs Mystery

Champions don't show up to get everything they want; they show up to give everything they have. - Alexander den Heijer

Tonight (Saturday 9th September 2017), harness racing fans are set to say 'goodbye' to a horse who has dominated the highest levels of British harness racing for the past 9 years:

STONERIGGS MYSTERY

From the first moment that 'Mystery' burst onto the scene way back in 2009, he showed tremendous potential.  The 11-year-old son of Village Jasper out of Stoneriggs Quality (herself a product of solid British breeding [Todays Man-Monkroyd Mystery]) won his maiden at York in an impressive 1.59.6.  Then owned by breeders the Slack family from Appleby, Cumbria, and trained and driven by the champion duo Alexis & Rocker Laidler, Mystery went on to win a Grade 1 at Brough before wrapping up his 3YO season with a victory at Tir Prince in 1.59.5, finishing up unbeaten in his first three lifetime starts.

This electric inception to his career did not go unnoticed and he was subsequently purchased by David Morton from Larbert, Scotland, remaining in the same stable for his second season campaign.  Mystery carried on where he left off, winning heat and final at Appleby, before he first tasted defeat when finishing second to Adore Hanover at Ffos Las.  He went on to have another 3 wins that year, taking heats of the major handicap finals at Musselburgh and Tregaron and a heat of the 4YO Championship at Corbiewood.  Alas, the finals of all 3 eluded him.

Leading the field to victory at Appleby (Graham Rees photo)
In 2011, Mystery climbed to new heights, finishing in the first 3 in every single start that year.  This included three wins on the bounce at the start of the season (York, York & Musselburgh, where he again won a heat of The Famous Musselburgh Pace, finishing third in the final).  His first foray into the Free For All ranks came in the Billy Williams Memorial Pace at Tir Prince, and it would become the first of three victories in the event commemorating the founder of the track.  His next win came in the Dark Rum FFA at Corbiewood, and he went on to win again twice at York off long trails in heats of the Daniel Welling Memorial and Dennis Leonard Memorial, finishing third in both finals.
 
Victory at Musselburgh (Graham Rees photo)

In 2012, he went on a streak of four wins in top company to bag the York Championship Flying FFA, the Musselburgh FFA and arguably most importantly, heat and final of the pinnacle of FFA racing, the Crock of Gold.  Not unbeatable, he suffered defeat at Musselburgh the day after his FFA victory and despite winning a heat of the Welsh Classic at Tregaron, was subsequently disqualified in the final.  Undeterred, he bounced back to win his second consecutive Billy Williams FFA at Tir Prince and finished off the season with a victory in the Anchor Inn FFA at York.

Winning a heat of the Tregaron Classic @ Amman Valley in 1.57.9 (Graham Rees photo)
Mystery started his fifth season of racing with the same vigour as every previous year, winning firstly at Appleby and then at Pikehall.  The cracks began to show however when he finished fourth in the BHRC European Pacing Classic at York and then third in a heat of the Crock of Gold, and he did not perform to his usual high standards in the final on the same night, finishing unplaced and bringing an early end to his season.


Winning at Pikehall (Graham Rees photo)
They say a change is as good as a rest, and 2014 hailed the beginning of the next chapter of Mystery's long and illustrious career as he moved to the Mick and Sheelagh Lord stables, where he has remained as a firm favourite to the present day.  Despite finishing second on his first start of the season at Corbiewood, he went on to record victories at York and Boughrood, before returning to Corbiewood for a match race against Astounding (the current track record holder) which was a thoroughly enjoyable head-to-head which drew in the crowds, and despite being the so-called 'invader', Mystery was a popular winner.

Winning at Aberystwyth (Graham Rees photo)
Winning at Boughrood (Graham Rees photo)
The following year, doubts began to creep in again as Mystery started the season with lacklustre performances at Appleby and Wolverhampton where he was unplaced in legs of the Battle of the Big Guns Series.  'Form is temporary, class is permanent' has never applied more than to this horse, and Mystery put all doubts to bed when storming to victory in the Battle of the Big Guns leg at Tir Prince, a win which kickstarted an unbeaten run of 7 races including further legs of the series at Tir Prince and Tregaron, the Daniel Welling Memorial FFA at York, the Brian Thomas FFA at Aberystwyth and his third Billy Williams FFA at Tir Prince.  In scenes reminiscent of Kauto Star regaining his Gold Cup title, Mystery went on to win back the Crock of Gold, and when winning the Battle of the Big Guns leg at Corbiewood secured the title as the original 'Big Gun' in winning the Standardbred Sales Company-sponsored series.  Victory in the BHRC European Pacing Classic at York in the September finished off an amazing season with nine top class wins across the country.

Winning at York (Graham Rees photo)
Nobody told Mystery that at 10 he should be considering winding down, and he came back for the 2016 season with a bang when winning his first three starts (Tir Prince, Tir Prince & Appleby).  Despite hitting a bad patch of form, he returned to winning ways at the Golden Anniversary fixture at Corbiewood when winning his second leg of the Battle of the Big Guns series, which despite his lesser form from the previous year, was enough to secure Mystery back-to-back Big Guns titles.   He finished off the season unplaced at Tregaron as the next generation of Free For Allers appeared to be coming to the fore.

Winning at Appleby (Graham Rees photo)
Winning at Corbiewood (Bill Cardno photo)

Bringing us to the current season, Mystery looked well beaten at Appleby on his first start of the season when faltering at the start of the Battle of the Big Guns leg, finding himself tailed off from the field with almost too much to do.  With a lap to go he was still chasing the pack; and then Mick switched on the turbo and down the back straight he was airborne, clearing the field and coming home to cheers from a most appreciative crowd: Mystery was back!

Tailed off at Appleby (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)
Heading home in front after clearing the field (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)

A firm favourite with the stable (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)

Beaten in a thrilling finish into second at Aberystwyth by the star-juvenile-turned-free-for-aller Miraculous, Mystery returned to Tir Prince to win a heat of the Crock of Gold on the 15th July, coming three wide off the last turn to roars from the crowd.  Despite three unplaced runs since at Tir Prince, York and Tregaron, tonight he heads into his last Crock of Gold with an outside chance.  The fairytale ending to such an impressive career is not outside the realms of possibility, although he will face a field of younger contenders all vying to take the crown, including the afore-mentioned Miraculous and the superstar Evenwood Sonofagun who is chasing his fifteenth consecutive win.

I have been fortunate enough to witness the majority of Mystery's victories from trackside and I have felt every emotion there is to feel on this journey that he has taken so many of us on.  I still recall vividly the sense of pride on that night at Tir Prince in 2015 when, after two below-par performances at Appleby and Wolverhampton, he romped to victory.  I was one of the doubters, those who said 'maybe he's done, maybe now is the time to call it a day for the horse who owes nobody anything'.  Smarty said to me, 'if he still has anything left, if he is still the Mystery we know, tonight is the night'.  And that night was the night.  That performance forced a lot of people to eat their words.  I also remember taking great umbrage in Ireland that same season when, before he was beaten by Bath Lane in the FFA, an Irishman who had been out of the sport for a few years asked me what would win the race.  I didn't hesitate in saying Mystery, 'he's the best FFA horse in the UK'.  After the race, the gentleman approached me, and mockingly said, 'the best you've got huh?'.  I was furious.  Mystery was never unbeatable, but over the course of so many years he truly was, and is, one of the best horses ever to grace the track.  To insinuate, based on one performance, that he wasn't that good, was an insult which I felt as personally as if he was my own horse.

And that has been the joy of Stoneriggs Mystery.  We have all seen him race.  We have all cheered for him when he has come home in front, and we have all commiserated with him when he's been beaten.  We have all felt our hearts swell with pride when he has overcome the odds to win, and all suffered the disappointment when through his own errors he has lost a race.  No champion is infallible, but in the face of defeat he has been picked up, dusted off, and gone back out there to compete.  He has been a credit to both stables who have guided him on such a glittering and successful course, winning in every season he has raced from 3 through to 11, and to his owners, David and Wilma Morton, and all of their close friends and family, who have believed in him for all this time.  With a record of 1.55.7, UK earnings of £55,442, and 43 wins from 79 starts in the UK, he has done everyone proud.

Tonight I fully expect to be a blubbering mess.  I am an overly emotional person at the best of times, but moments like this don't happen every day.  This is the end of an era.  As we move into the Miraculous/Evenwood Sonofagun/Coalford Tetrick era, we must thank Mystery for his years of service to us and our sport.  Good horses have been, and good horses will come, but there will only ever be one Stoneriggs Mystery.  With his unique style of racing, his determination and heart, he has taken us all on the greatest journey over the last 9 years.

Thanks for the memories, Mystery.
 
The one, the only: Stoneriggs Mystery

Sunday, 27 August 2017

2017 Season: Week 17 – Tir Prince & Bells Field vs Boughrood



Once again, eagle-eyed readers will notice that I have missed to cover a weekend in the racing calendar.  It wasn’t any ordinary weekend either, it was the Vincent Delaney Memorial at Portmarnock.  But I wasn’t there, because I was busy being an awesome bridesmaid at my best friend’s wedding in Eastbourne.  Worse still, I missed the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series Final at Corbiewood on Thursday 10th August, won by the Gilvear family’s Dontstoptheparty.  You can read a full review of the inaugural series here.  I already have plans for the 2018 running of the series – provided the club and its members agree to stage it.  I’ve convinced them once…

Saturday

Fast forward to the weekend and Smarty and I found ourselves heading south on the M6 on another adventure.  I have to apologise to him for my behaviour in the car – I was (im)patiently waiting to hear whether or not I had won the ‘Best Social Media’ category at the International Media Awards at the World Trotting Conference with this very blog after having been shortlisted in the top three.  My contact on Prince Edward Island was sending live updates…most of which involved food breaks.  It wasn’t until nearly 18:30 that I was told ‘sorry, no win’.  I was able to view the category winners on the Standardbred Canada site almost immediately (nothing says professionalism like contemporaneous reporting *cough* my biggest flaw *cough cough*) and from there look up the category winner on Facebook.  How an amateur with a blog which lacks any direction could compete against someone who has such a professional looking social media page, I’ll never know.  For the first time I was a little ashamed of how amateur my blog is.  In my head I can think of a million different ways to improve it, to make it more professional…

Then I realised my blog simply reflects the sport in our country.  I’m covering an amateur sport.  I can think of a million different ways to improve it, to make it more professional…

The category winner’s professional coverage probably reflects well the professionalism of the sport in Australia; my amateur but passionate coverage hopefully reflects well the passion of the people of the United Kingdom when it comes to our beloved sport of harness racing.  If I’m achieving that goal, then I’ll never be ashamed of my little blog.

Anyway, once the disappointment had subsided I was able to enjoy the racing.  As I’ve touched upon previously, I’ve felt a bit lacklustre about Tir Prince this season.  That changed on Saturday night.  Even serial moaner, bookmaker Tim Brown, was forced to admit that the first race of the night was super competitive as three horses crossed the line almost together.  There was a good crowd and plenty of activity in the betting ring to keep us busy.

The first race saw a thrilling three-way finish between Coalford Earl, Triplicity and Finley Wells with the former coming out on top by a neck.  This was the horse's first start under the care of Alexis Laidler and he made it a winning one for owners Gary & Joseph Maw.  Finley Wells showed massive improvement to finish half a length down from Triplicity in third, and will surely go on to win in the near future for trainer/driver Michael O'Mahony.

We only witnessed two disqualifications in the two Le Trot 3YO races (one in each leg) which is a step in the right direction...Viccy & Marc Elvin's Eclair Du Torp finally got off the mark on the seventh time of asking with an all-the-way victory over Mike Evans and Eden Des Anges.  In the second of the two legs, Equilea Du Hauty notched up her third victory for Rhys Evans and the Mound family, beating the 'star so far', Ecume De Mer fair and square.

Equilea Du Hauty & Rhys Evans heading to victory in Leg 24 (Jamie Gilmore photo)
The Mounds recorded two winners on the night, with Lyons Aceofspades showing phenomenal improvement on its 2.14 performance at York only two weeks earlier to win in 2.06.8 from Coffee Mate and long-time leader, Sugar Cane Howard.

The NWHOA 4YO Championship became a walkover for Partyatthespa after his three competitors, Miraculous, Jessies Conquest and Rockin Mambo all withrew in the 48 hours leading up to the event.  It would have been good to see old foes 'Party' and Miraculous go head to head again after the latter's narrow defeat in the Senior Welsh Dragon at Tregaron at the beginning of the season; especially with that being his only defeat on British soil so far in 2017.  Alas, it was not meant to be and I hope we will see Miraculous again shortly for the Crock of Gold Final at Tir Prince.

The slightly bizarre Open Preferred Handicap for horses grade 1 to 7 was, rather expectedly, won by Rhyds Design who led from start to finish and did not look like being headed.  There was a large amount of support in the ring for Dreamfair I Say, however the chestnut found himself parked early and in the closing stages of the race looked in danger of being passed by his much lower handicapped competitors, although he did hold on for second.

The top two races of the night, for me at least, were the last of the Crock of Gold heats and the STAGBI Future Broodmares race.  The COG heat went as expected, with superstar Evenwood Sonofagun making best use of his pole position draw to lead the field from start to finish, coming home in 1.59.3.  This was his 13th consecutive victory, which is a new British record.  WELL DONE GUNNER AND CONNECTIONS!!

Evenwood Sonofagun winning the Crock of Gold heat (Jamie Gilmore photo)
Delighted connections including owner, trainer, driver & breeder (Jamie Gilmore photo)
Mare of the moment, Rhyds Passion, stormed to victory in the final race of the night from Meldoon in second and Greentree Serenity in third.  Dontstoptheparty was also in the shake up, finishing fourth.  The race seemed to build in suspense as it progressed, with four solid mares all sitting with a live chance in the final quarter of the race.  Meldoon (Michael O'Mahony) came with a very strong late run to challenge the leader, but as evidenced at Musselburgh when winning the Hurricane Pace Final, Rhyds Passion just keeps going.  She is an out-and-out stayer and connections appear to be having the time of their lives with a mare that they 'couldn't give away for free during the winter, nobody wanted her'.  The saying 'what's for you won't go by you' springs into my mind when I think of Rhyds Passion and her owners.

Connections of STAGBI Future Broodmare winner, Rhyds Passion (Jamie Gilmore photo)
The event had been billed as ‘Ladies Night’ and attracted a few fancy outfits...myself included.  I have an annual 'effort' quota and I used it all up on Saturday night, but it paid off (that, and knowing the 'judge') as I won Best Dressed Lady and a spa day for two at The Kinspa, Kinmel Hotel close to the track.  Lovely!























Sunday

Ahh, the age old conundrum - stay in Wales or head back to Scotland?  Well, it's not really 'age old', it's only the second year we've been faced with the problem.  Back when Bells Field used to run at the end of July, there wasn't a clash between Scotland's second biggest fixture and Boughrood, one of the fairest tracks in the country and a place which essentially guarantees good racing for this very reason.

Long before Smarty and I met, he was making the 12-hour round trip to booky at Boughrood, but with Bells Field moving its date a couple of years ago, he would be mad to choose an 'away tie' over a 'home tie' which is less than 45 minutes down the road.  I, on the other hand, have found it harder to turn my back on Boughrood, perhaps because for me it still feels like my 'home tie'.  Nevertheless, I gave Bells Field a go last year...and didn't really enjoy it.  In hindsight, I decided it was due to the fact my dog, who had come along for a day out, decided that every single man, woman, child and other dog was a deadly threat to me and therefore had to bark constantly throughout the day.  That was fairly tiring to deal with.  So this year she stayed at home and I went in with an open mind and relative enthusiasm following an enjoyable night at Tir Prince.

Big Burd & Boots on tour at Bells Field

I hate to be a 'negative Nancy', but I still didn't really enjoy it.  I landed a free lunch in the sponsors tent with my partner in crime, Michael 'Boots' O'Neil which admittedly started the day off well, but my enthusiasm waned as the day progressed.  I'm not sure what the cause of this is, but I have tried now for two consecutive years and on both occasions I have found myself texting friends attending Boughrood to find out who's winning and how the racing is going.  I wished I had been in Wales instead.  I am sure everyone else at Bells Field enjoyed themselves and I'm the odd one out.  I'm just being honest.

Regarding the racing itself, Mikey Camden was an impressive winner of the £5000 final when coming off 70 yards to beat Tommy Camden (Mick Welling of Camden Stud will be pleased!).  Rhyds Rockstar won the 3YO race absolutely unchallenged, with the filly Fools Delight surprising connections to finish second.  Ayr Majesty notched up his first win since moving to the Laidler stable when taking the Battle of the Big Guns FFA which only saw four horses face the starter.  Unfortunately I can't really comment on any of the other races as I couldn't remember who had won them without looking at the official results on the BHRC website, so the best I can do is point you in that direction.

Before I bow out on this one (and don the armour and protective headgear for when the promoter reads this), you'll note from the results that Ladyford Lad finished third in his heat and then third in the final.  This is off the back of finishing second in his heat at Musselburgh and fourth in the final (Hurricane Pace), and winning a heat of the William Keith Memorial at Corbiewood, in recent weeks.  'Yeah, so the horse is in form', I hear you say.  Well, he is.  But he's also 14.  This is his final season of racing due to compulsory age restrictions and boy is he giving his all for connections.  Good on ya, Gilbert!

Due to the lateness of this post being published, I can't say 'onwards to Tregaron', because I'm already home from Tregaron.  Awkward.

I'll write about Tregaron imminently.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Monday, 14 August 2017

2017 Season: Week 15 - Blossom Kelly Memorial Weekend @ York

Eagle-eyed viewers will note that 'Week 14' is missing.  That's because, sandwiched between two epic weekends such as Musselburgh and the charity fixture at York, I really don't think it justifies a post to itself.

As a quick summary, here's what happened between Musselburgh finishing and York starting:

Tuesday 25th July - Tir Prince.  Ace finished 4th of 4 in NWHOA 3YO fillies.  Two accidents during course of the night, no serious injuries to drivers or horses (although the owner of one horse may question that statement in light of his vet bill).  Winner of a later race disqualified for not being on correct mark, although allegations that starter called him on to the gate in the wrong position.  Disqualification stood.  Trainer sent two horses out on track in big race of the night with incorrect number cloths and head numbers.  Stewards did not notice.  Commentator led to believe that drivers had swapped horses.  Advised not the case as race went off, was not happy and faced difficulty calling race until accident stopped the first running.  Situation resolved for re-run.  Results can be found on BHRC website.

Highlight: Grant Cullen's drive on No Brakes to finish second to an impressive Rhyds Rockstar in the NWHOA 3YO Colts & Geldings.  Looked after the horse throughout the extended distance and kept something in the tank for coming home.  This writer was very impressed.

Thursday 27th July - Corbiewood.  I entertained a visitor from New Zealand.  It rained, a lot.  Dontstoptheparty became the fifth winner is as many legs of the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series.

Highlight: Cassius Clay finished second in his novice race.  An improvement.

Saturday 29th July - York.  First race two horses were not given time to come up to the gate after the parade; start car went without them.  Starter did not activate lights; commentator did not know if the race was going or a false start.  Confusion ensued.  Start car driver acted as though race was going, drivers in race continued without stragglers.  The two drivers called in to stewards after race and fined.  This writer felt that was a touch unfair, as both drivers young and inexperienced.  Later in the day an experienced driver did the same thing, albeit it would appear purposefully: no action taken.  One accident which resulted in a horse crashing through the outside rail.  No injuries to horse or driver, although Mick [Welling]'s blood pressure probably rose a bit when he saw the damage.  Not sure if the public liability insurance the drivers must take out with the BHRC covers this sort of damage.  Driver on driver not covered, but driver on track owner's property?  Doubtful. Results can be found on BHRC website.

Highlight: Greentree Serenity's 1.58 performance to lead from pillar to post.  Now proven to be a speed and stamina mare.  Coalford Chief finishing second after a monster run off his trail.  A delight to watch.

Monday 31st July & Tuesday 1st August - Breeders Crown @ Tir Prince.  Wasn't there due to work commitments, found the timing of the event to be very difficult to attend for those in full time employment. Haven't heard much in terms of reporting from the event, saw two races on Facebook Live by accident.  Smarty didn't really provide much feedback upon his return.   Results can be found on BHRC website.

Thursday 3rd August - Corbiewood.  Members of public caused no start in one race when (correctly) objecting to gate positions as car took runners to the start.  Rectified for re-run.  Connections of horses not happy with the speed the car was being driven at.  Delays caused by stewards enquiries and faulty equipment in later race, then false start caused by our horse Cassius Clay due to extended time parading.  Accident during the race which resulted in a driver being knocked unconscious (or so I believe - he doesn't remember) on final lap.  Loose horse ran 6, perhaps 7 laps, with members of the public keeping it away from injured driver still on the track.  Multiple failed attempts at catching loose horse. Start car used to pin horse against a hedge using outside half of gate, against horse owner's wishes.  Fortunate not to result in an equine fatality.  Start car damaged.  Delays forced last race to be run in darkness, with start car using headlights.  One horse withdrawn on safety grounds.  Results can be found on BHRC website.

Highlight: Starzapan winning the sixth leg of the mares series to become the only multiple winner.  An emotional victory as regular driver Stuart was injured in the race before and cousin Tam took the drive. Cassius Clay finishing second once again in his novice race.  An improvement.

Plenty of racing, as you can see.

#eventful

If I didn't restrict it to the above, we'd find ourselves going over a lot of things which, quite frankly, are probably better left alone.  Don't get me wrong, there was some good racing interspersed between all of the seemingly negative things I've highlighted.  But every now and again we need a dose of reality and I have to hold my hands up and say 'not all is well in the world'.  Apologies if promoters or track owners or individuals who thought they would get a positive mention feel they have been a bit hard done by.  But I wasn't overly inspired at any of the fixtures I attended.  That's what happens after major handicap festivals.

LET'S MOVE ON.

Something I was sincerely looking forward to was the two day charity fixture at York Harness Raceway.  The event was named after Blossom Kelly, and you can find more details about the charity set up in her name here.



For those of us who were in attendance, we were treated to two days of top quality racing, with the Blossom Kelly Memorial Low Grade heats and final on Saturday, along with maiden and novice events and heats for the 3YO Le Trot series; and the Blossom Kelly Memorial High Grade heats and final on Sunday, along with maiden and novice events, the 3YO Le Trot Final and Le Trot FFA races for the aged Trotteur Francais.

I gave a not-so-brief synopsis of both days on Facebook, and to save you trawling through my millions of status updates I'll copy and paste them below:


Saturday

[Saturday] was Ladies Day at Hamilton Racecourse but it was all about the girls at York Harness Raceway with 9 of the 11 races won by mares or fillies. The constantly improving and gutsy No Brakes and the enormous Katanya Mathematix were the only boys to record victories.

All three Le Trot 3YO heats were won by fillies who put in strong performances - Evoilala Star, Emma Star and the unbeaten Ecume De Mer. Four of the five Blossom Kelly Memorial heats were won by mares - the first going to the 2015 Junior Welsh Dragoness winner Rhyds Nightlife; the second going to the improving Camden Claire who has been knocking on the door in recent weeks and clearly relished the return to hard track racing; the fourth heat went the way of JMs Macy Hallstar with stablemate (and fellow mare) Tarawood Joy a strong-finishing runner up for the Cairns stable; and the fifth and final heat was won by Hurricane Pace Final winner Rhyds Passion. A mare close to my heart, Frisco Jenna, went one better than last week to give Jordan Heath his first driving win on UK soil in the novice pace.

In the final the two Rhyds mares were favourite and second favourite and it was Rhyds Nightlife who led out and made all, coming home in a super impressive 1.59.7. Connections were beside themselves at the half and continued to jump up and down wildly for the latter part of the race as the four-year-old daughter of The One Night Pan romped home under a positive and confident drive from Alan Haythornthwaite. The trophy and gorgeous rosette (courtesy of Karen Kennedy) now head back to Wales, along with the £4000 cheque! Llongyfarchiadau i chi!

[Saturday] was top class and a credit to all who organised the event, put up the prize money, contributed to a worthy cause and most importantly, those who took part to make a great spectacle. [Sunday] promises to be just as good!



Rhyds Nightlife winning the Blossom Kelly Memorial Low Grade Final
Owner Dewi Lloyd-Davies & family

Sunday
I knew this morning that we were in for a treat on day two of York's charity meeting but I never imagined just how AMAZING it would turn out to be. My face was literally aching at the end of the day from smiling so much in sheer delight at some tremendous equine performances throughout the course of proceedings.



My good friends at Millstream Stud kicked things off with Sun Gahn in the Silver Division FFA for aged Trotteur Francais over a mile and a half - the win softened the hangovers somewhat after a night of singing and dancing in the bar!! Sacha Of Carless returned to winning ways in the Gold Division FFA when making every post a winning post over the extended distance for driver Phil O'Neill. The four heats of the Blossom Kelly Memorial were staged over 1 1/4 miles, with Rockin Mambo taking the first heat unchallenged from the eternally game mare Red Emerald. The Irish raider and recent Musselburgh winner Rhyds Cobbler took the next in impressive fashion for Simon Duggan with Desert Secret finishing second. The third heat went to Scotland when Gordon Gilvear took up the running approaching the final bend with Master Plan who stayed on from Rhyds Rainbow, a mare beginning to show glimpses of her old form. The fourth and final heat was won in a new British record time when Evenwood Sonofagun streaked clear of Rhyds Boots and Coalford Chief who also broke the previous record.

Interestingly, the four heats were won by horses from four different nations: Rockin Mambo - Wales; Rhyds Cobbler - Ireland; Master Plan - Scotland; and Evenwood Sonofagun - England.  The first four home in the final were also representing the four different nations: 1st Evenwood Sonofagun - England; 2nd Rhyds Boots - Ireland; 3rd Rockin Mambo - Wales; and 4th Master Plan - Scotland.

Tarawood Kiki won the maiden to give Andrew & Joanne Cairns yet another winner over the weekend, and Easy Company proved he is anything but when winning the novice by a wide margin, the official distance being given as a distance.

An early disqualification of the favourite Ecume De Mer allowed Emma Star to trot to victory in the £2000 Blossom Kelly Memorial 3YO Le Trot Final.

The richest handicap race ever to be staged on a hard track in the UK got a race worthy of its status with an unbelievably thrilling three-way finish in the Blossom Kelly Memorial High Grade Final with Evenwood Sonofagun coming out on top to bag the £6000 prize in a new British record over the extended distance. Runner up Rhyds Boots and third-placed Rockin Mambo lost nothing in defeat with solid performances to take it to the wire.

I have to say thank you to Mick Welling for staging such an event, and to everyone who worked behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly. In my opinion the event was a success and was enjoyed by many and hopefully it can become an annual fixture in the calendar.



Evenwood Sonofagun winning the Blossom Kelly Memorial High Grade Final

We were even treated to the presence of WBO Middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders, who immersed himself entirely in the occasion, from presenting the trophy to the final winner to posing with members of the public for photos.

L-R: Main sponsor, Anthony Timmins, track owner Mick Welling, WBO Middleweight Champion Billy Joe Saunders & racing manager, Craig Stevenson
On Saturday night, Smarty and I hooked up my laptop to one of the TV screens in the bar at the track and live streamed the racing from the Hambletonion meeting at the Meadowlands for those who had hung around once the racing at York had finished.  The atmosphere in the bar was fantastic and once the karaoke (courtesy of Millstream Discos, aka Millstream Stud, aka Simon & Kirsty) began, things just got a bit crazy.  At one point I looked around me and realised the main protagonists in all of the madness happened to be Scottish #sorrynotsorry.

The most important thing was that we had fun.  We let our hair down, we met new people, we had a good time.  And the best part was I didn’t feel too bad the next day (although I can’t say the same for some of the people who left when I did!).  Incidentally, and completely unconnected to the racing, Smarty and I accidentally gatecrashed a transvestite and transsexual convention in Harrogate.  That’s the last time I let him book us a hotel for the weekend (“I couldn’t believe it was so cheap – now I know why!”).  It was like Fawlty Towers but with a lot of ill-fitting wigs and dated floral-patterned skirts.  We were a bit hysterical when we got home and found out it was an organised event at the hotel!  We won't be staying there again...

Next meeting I shall be attending will be...unknown at this point.  I'm taking a break from harness racing to focus on other aspects of my life, but I'll be back shortly with more news, views and borderline funny remarks to keep you all up to date!!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

2017 Season: Week 13 - MUSSELBURGH

Dictionary:
Musselburgh
noun
     The place where dreams come true.


I genuinely don't know where to begin with this.  Over twos week has passed since the third of the four crown jewel grass handicap fixtures was staged and somehow I'm still riding a high (and, occasionally, suffering from crippling lows now that it's over).  It has been a long time since I have been so deeply affected by a racing event.  I suspect that I have finally succumbed to the 'Musselburgh effect'.  I think that, for the first time since joining the sport nine years ago, I finally get it: what Musselburgh means to people.

Really, where do I start?!

Friday

Friday evening saw the staging of the Hurricane Pace, sponsored for the second year by The Friends of Red John, a group of individuals who have worked tirelessly to raise money for racing in memory of 'Red' John O'Donovan who sadly lost his life in 2015.  And there were Scottish winners a-plenty, with the first race, a maiden event, going to Easy Company, owned by Scott 'The Fisherman' Mason (I've just made that up, but he's really into his fish) albeit trained by Alexis Laidler (not Scottish).  I'm calling the horse Scottish nonetheless.  I'd given this horse the quiet nod when speaking on the 'Punters Panel' with Bill Hutchison and Barry 'Pinno' Pinnington, hosted by Darren Owen live on Facebook before the racing.  I'll not bang on too much about this but I absolutely loved it and took it really seriously (even though my tipping tailed off as the meeting went on).

Easy Company wins the opener
Scott Mason (front, left), with his gang!
The first heat of the Hurricane Pace also featured a Scottish winner, with my good friend Gregg Dunbar's GDs Warrior with champion driver William Greenhorn at the reins holding off a fellow Scot, Grant Cullen with his father's Royal Mint Howard by a head.  This was a pretty good victory for Team North Lanarkshire, and things went from strength to strength as Valentine Camden, owned by Gilmour Carson and trained by his son (and the younger brother I never wanted), George, went on to win the fifth heat from the 14-year-old (and also Scottish owned, trained and driven) Ladyford Lad.  This was an emotional victory for George, who couldn't hold back the tears as he led his horse into the winner's circle.  That's what Musselburgh does to people!

George, Val and driver Willie Drysdale
Water for the winner!
L-R: owner, trainer, driver
Willie D went right back out onto the track in the next race, a novice pace, to partner Cierans Star to victory for Thomas MacKenzie and family.  Another Scottish win on the day!  Our own Cassius Clay finished fifth in the race, being short of racing this year it was too big an ask but we were not too disappointed as the season marches on and he came off in one piece (as I write this, he finished second on Thursday night at Corbiewood and comes on leaps and bounds with each passing day).

In the final, it was the runner up from heat 2, the mare Rhyds Passion who stormed to an impressive victory under the control of Richard Haythornthwaite, himself a friend of Red John and clearly delighted to have won the final commemorating him.  Valentine Camden finished second, which we were all over the moon with, and a big mention to the old boy Ladyford Lad (aka Gilbert) who finished fourth on his last ever run at the track.

Connections of Rhyds Passion celebrating the victory
Trainer Sally Teeboon with driver, Richard Haythornthwaite
Before I jump head first into Saturday's racing, I have to give a shout out to a man who may possibly go down in harness racing history: Bobby Barry.  I missed the hype surrounding the third heat, featuring Bobby's horse Ontop Big C, as I was over at the boxes with Cassius and my friend, Marcia Thompson [Equine Products UK Ltd], but it is something that I have heard countless people talking about.  Bobby gambled his horse heavily, and after it romped home the crowds chanted his name as he collected from nearly every bookmaker on the course.  Sources say that he was still filling his bag as the next race went off, such was the amount he was collecting.  A funny clip has emerged during the race from a video taken by Elizabeth O'Neil, whereby Bobby is swinging his man-bag so exuberantly as his horse heads to the line that he actually hits someone in the face with it.  I had to laugh at that one...

Kudos to Patrick Kane Jnr for the drive on that one, and also for the drive on Miraculous in the FFA.  I think a lot of spectators were quite disappointed with the FFA as it recorded one of, if not the, slowest times of the entire weekend.  The following day, whilst preparing for the Saturday edition of 'the Punters Panel', Bill and Thomas [Bennett] asked why that was.  It seemed obvious to me, having watched Miraculous with awe since he first stepped on the track as a two year old, that now in his prime, the only way the other drivers felt they could beat him was to turn the race into a sprint finish.  Going too soon on a sapping track like Musselburgh would leave them exposed to his phenomenal engine in the final stages of the race.  So they waited.  And waited.  And it was the track specialist, the super mare Shades Of Grey who just adores the racing conditions at Musselburgh who went first, and she put the race to Miraculous.  Standing on the finish line watching the field come towards me it seemed for a split second as though she was going to hold the champion four year old off, but in the dying strides of the race he stuck his neck in front in that way that true champions do to land the spoils.  Hats off to Shades Of Grey though, she truly is the best race mare in the UK and Ireland and she holds so much promise as a future broodmare.

Miraculous & trainer Sally Teeboon
Saturday

This was the day of the big race.  The C Class Drivers race.


I kid you not, I declared this race to be the feature race of the entire fixture (for me, anyway).  Sometimes I get carried away with things and this was one such occasion.  If you want to see something incredibly stupid (and embarassing, if I was the kind of person to get embarassed), watch my unofficial Paddock Cam in the build up to the race here.

To date, one of the daftest things I've done.  But it was fun!

The reason why this particular race captured my imagination so much was because I am a big ambassador of involving young people in the sport, and also those I would class as amateurs.  Harness racing in the UK and Ireland is a wonderfully inclusive sport and on a stage as big as Musselburgh, it was fantastic to see a group of drivers, many of whom had never driven at the track before, getting the chance to race against each other on a more level footing.  I joked (heavily) that the eventual winner, Sean Duggan, was 'too old' to be in the race, but that was only because Sean and I go back a long time and we spend more time verbally abusing each other than actually being genuinely nice!!  Rhyds Cobbler won earlier in the day for Sean's cousin, Simon, and Rhyds Boots went on to win for Sean.  The two horses are out of the mare Brown Shoes, a mare who perhaps never produced the same quality of juvenile horses as some of the other mares owned by John and Grethe Wright; but Brown Shoes definitely produces solid staying horses, with Rhyds Rambler another impressive winner at the track a couple of years ago.  I gave Patrick Carberry a lot of stick for not wearing his brown shoes on the Saturday in support of the horses he has been involved with over the years.

(L-R): J Riley, R Park, A Wilson, S Flanagan, M McAleer, J Richards, S Duggan, J Campbell, T Allan
Heading into the first bend
The 'old man' wins!


The Scottish winners kept coming on the Saturday, with the Gilvear family's Someones Fantasy winning his maiden on the second attempt over the two days.  Camden Castellano was a popular 16-1 victor in a super competitive heat of The Famous Musselburgh Pace for Wilson Nichol, following up on his heat win at Carlisle the previous month.  I guess we'd be pushing our luck a bit much if we asked for more winners than that!!

I was lucky enough to get access to the balcony overlooking the finish line as I snaffled some VIP tickets off Smarty and took my friends George, Michael & Kareen for a free lunch.  Whilst up there I took the opportunity to get some photos from a different angle, including this one of eventual Famous Musselburgh Pace Final winner Evenwood Sonofagun (left), and runner up (and stablemate) Mikey Camden, going head to head at the start of their heat (where they also finished 1st and 2nd respectively).


I thoroughly enjoyed seeing John Barley (from the David Bevan stable) cruise to victory in his heat in one of the most effortless performances of the entire weekend, although he was unable to repeat in the final.  The four year old mare, Triplicate (from the Dunne stables, Ireland) was also an impressive winner of her heat and went on to finish third in the final which personally I think is a really major achievement for a mare in this type of company.

Naturally Evenwood Sonofagun and Mikey Camden provided one of the best spectacles with their heat and final placings, with the former really asserting himself as a leading horse in the country.  A winner on hard and grass, over various distances, as well as a World Record Holder in the saddle?  It seems there is little this horse cannot do.  And his pedigree dares a lot of people to think outside of the box.  It's very easy to be blinded by freezebrands and records from across the pond.  Fair play to anyone who looks a bit closer to home when considering buying a horse.  Don't be put off; it seems we here in the UK can breed champions as well.


Over the course of the two days I witnessed nearly every single emotion on the emotional spectrum.  Hell, I experienced most of them myself!!  I thoroughly enjoyed both days; the quality racing, the excitement in the paddock, the way the crowd sprung into life as the horses reached the two furlong marker and roared the horses home.  The work that Darren Owen put in in terms not only of his commentary but in making so much of the event available on social media via Facebook Live should be commended.  Thomas Bennett, Bill Hutchison and Pinno also added something different.  We joked that next year we would set up a live stream from the bench at the rear of the podium so that people could sit and chat to a 'presenter' of sorts.  We shouldn't have joked, because I've basically made that my new year's resolution for 2018!  And you're looking right at the person who thinks she's going to host such an informal but undoubtedly hilarious feature (just look how well unscripted Paddock Cam went...not!!).


Hats off to everyone involved in staging the event...and here's to the 2018 meeting!

Over and out,

#1 Groom