Thursday, 12 October 2017

2017 Season: Week 20 - Crock of Gold Night @ Tir Prince

I am aware that I have now let so much time pass that the epic-ness of the 2017 Crock of Gold has all but worn off, but I have to revisit it for the simple reason that IT WAS EPIC.

I managed to scramble around the day before and the morning of the event to put together a small something for one of the UK's leading harness horses over the past 20+ years: Stoneriggs Mystery.  In it I made reference to the potential fairytale ending to his illustrious career should he win the Crock of Gold for the third time on his final career start, and the Lord only knows how much I was willing him on that night.

Smarty, George [Carson] and I had travelled down to Tir Prince with two horses to race - Crosshill Ace in the BHRC 3YO Fillies Oaks over 1.5 miles, and Valentine Camden in the Low Grade OPH.  I knew Ace wasn't going to suit the trip and she proved me right when finishing a well-beaten fourth.  A huge WELL DONE to the connections of Greenhilldebateable, and to the filly herself who has finally joined the open handicap ranks after the win in the Oaks wiped away her 'Novice' status.  She must have been one of the richest novices in the country's history, with earnings of the guts of £12,000 against her name before the race.  A competitive prospect for the 2018 season.

'Val' was a victim of racing luck, and ran well to finish fifth in somewhat of a bunch finish.  It was hoped the run on the bigger track would bring him on for his return to Corbiewood, however to date he's only managed one placed run and I've been told the stable has been finished up for the year.

We've been going racing long enough to not let something like our horses failing to pick up rosettes dampen the evening so once both horses were settled back on the box, we were able to wander over to the main part of the track to watch the penultimate race of the night: Crock of Gold.

Before I talk you through it, blow-by-blow, I must make one quick point (which I have sent by email to the BHRC office for dispersal to Council members and the promoter in question).  There is insufficient lighting in the paddock area at Tir Prince.  This is applicable in fact to all race tracks, however Tir Prince is so affected due to its nighttime fixtures in the latter part of the season when the nights are drawing in.  Whilst we were able to tack/untack/wash Ace in half light (race 5/10), by the time Val raced (race 7/10) we were forced to use torches on our phones to tack/untack/wash him.  I did see people wearing headtorches of their own accord and cursed myself for not thinking to bring mine (I will the next time I'm racing there in September), however for the purposes of insurance and health & safety, relying on people bringing their own lighting equipment is not sufficient.  The floodlights from the track only exacerbated the situation by casting dark shadows on the far side of everything.  My suggestion was to have external lights fitted to the barn which is located between the gravel lorry park and the grass lorry park, and perhaps to erect central floodlighting (in the grass area particularly) to cast light in all directions.

A certain portion of people reading this will notch the above down to another classic example of me sticking my nose in where it's not wanted or needed.  Sorry, but safety comes first.  Just because things may always have been like that doesn't make them right.  After all, working class men and women in general couldn't vote once upon a time.

Without further ado, let's go back to the main event - THE CROCK OF GOLD FINAL 2017.

Before the draw was made, commentator (and ambassador for the sport) Darren Owen ventured around the paddock to interview some of the trainers and drivers who were fielding runners in the Group 1 event.  The video is conveniently situated here for your viewing pleasure.

Eight of the best pacers in the UK and Ireland faced the starter, with the draw as follows:

2 - PARTYATTHESPA - A Haythornthwaite
7 - MIKEY CAMDEN - W Greenhorn
8 - MIRACULOUS - P Kane Jnr

This had been billed as the first head-to-head between superstar pacers Evenwood Sonofagun (aka Gunner) and Miraculous (aka Ted).  Both having reached the lofty heights of Grade 12 (the highest grade achieveable in the handicap system) via two very different routes (Gunner as a maiden/novice/up through the grades from G1-12 and Miraculous as a successful stakes campaigner notching up the largest chunk of his earnings to enter the handicap system so high aged only 4).  Many were quick to point out that this was not a two horse race (to paraphrase one person - "we could have an Imperial Commander situation on our hands" {if you don't know what that means, Google Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander and just do a bit of reading}) and that horses such as Coalford Tetrick and Mikey Camden could 'spoil the party'.

Neither of the protagonists had landed easy post positions and plenty of people told me Miraculous simply could not win from the far outside.  I remained quietly confident; from the 8 hole his driver would need to take back and although in top company you wouldn't want to concede any ground to your rivals in the early stages of a race, Miraculous had already proven his unbelievable engine in the closing furlongs on previous occasions.  With speed merchants Porterstown Chris and Coalford Tetrick on his inside, it was Evenwood Sonofagun who potentially faced the stiffer task.

And that is exactly what happened.  Patrick Kane Jnr (who was subsequently berated on social media by people who should know better than to stir) immediately dropped in to land on the rail before the first bend, where he remained until just before the half when he tipped out and took cover for much of the remainder of the race.  Evenwood Sonofagun found himself parked early up front and had no choice but to tough it with no cover.

I'll not talk you through it anymore.  Just watch the video.  When I watched this back on social media in the days after the event, it was the first time I had heard Darren's commentary.  I was stood just past the finish line (somehow surrounded by about 10 children, all shouting on different horses and drivers) and I cannot describe the noise in the place for the last quarter of the race.  It was deafening.

Miraculous got the better of Evenwood Sonofagun in the stretch but 'Gunner' came back to him in such a display of determination and guts.  The fractions that were set in the first half of the race should have led to the total collapse of Evenwood Sonofagun in the final furlongs; he defied the logic of all that we know from what has come before him.  And Miraculous...people forget he is only 4.  To be racing in the pinnacle of FFA races at the end of a 4 year old season having sustained a minor injury and posted numerous sub-2 minute performances already in 2017?!  Honestly, in the immediate aftermath of that race, there was not a place on Earth I would rathered have been.  I could not have seen better harness racing at any track, in any country, than what I saw in the one minute fifty six point two seconds prior to that.

The judge couldn't split them.  It was a dead heat, in a track-record equalling time of 1.56.2.

In what had been billed as the ultimate head-to-head, the two titans could not be separated.

Miraculous (outside) & Evenwood Sonofagun head to the wire together (Graham Rees photo)

And look here, what's this in the background?!

Well it's only Mikey Camden putting in the performance of his life to land himself third place!! William Greenhorn kept him out of trouble for the entire race and produced him for a place at the finish - textbook drive and brilliantly executed.  Mikey Camden finished realistically in the best position he could and for some, much closer to the front two horses than expected.

And then, as if my nerves could take any more, Stoneriggs Mystery was walked back to the winner's circle.  I'm not ashamed to say I cried.  I cried without abandon.  At this point, I felt as though anyone judging me for being emotional in the aftermath of such a tremendous race and in the face of a true legend of our sport being stripped of his harness for the final time must have a heart of stone (or just be terribly judgmental).

I wasn't there the night dual-Crock of Gold winner Scootaround was ceremoniously unharnessed at Tir Prince, but I had heard about it from several people and I knew it would be a fitting tribute to a warhorse such as Mystery.  What touched me in particular was that Alexis Laidler, trainer of Evenwood Sonofagun and former trainer of Stoneriggs Mystery, was leaving the track to head back to the paddock after the Crock of Gold but stopped, perhaps 50 yards from where current trainer Sheelagh Lord and her daughters Kelly and Catherine were helping driver Mick unharness the horse.  As the audience gave him a round of applause, so did Alexis.  People forget that he took Alexis and Rocker to the lofty heights of winning the Crock of Gold a long time before Sonofagun's joint-victory that night.

I haven't been able to source the professional photos so all I have to add to this are a couple of grainy pics from my phone.  I think you'll get the message from them nonetheless.

Handler Kelly & Mystery

Driver Mick follows his charge off the track
Farewell, Mystery; thanks for the memories!

The final race of the night happened to be the richest harness race in the UK's history; the £30,000 purse Gold Le Trot Final for 3YOs.  I have to admit, I missed all of the race bar the closing strides as I had my face buried in the Crock of Gold with one set of winning owners trying to figure out (a) how they were going to decide which set of connections was getting to keep the trophy and (b) how to distract those in possession of it long enough that I could run away with it and pretend I owned the best FFAller(s) in the country!

Based on previous form and previous races, the final was a two-runner race between the Rhys Evans-trained Equilea Du Hauty and the Jody Foody-trained Ecume De Mer.  Right enough, the two were going at it hammer and tongs at the finish but it was the Mound family's Equilea Du Hauty who stayed on to land the £15,000 first prize.

I also must mention trainer/driver Rhun Wilson, a lad (I say lad, I think he's older than me) who in the early stages of the season regretted making the move from W&BCRA to British Harness, struggling to get in the placings let alone win a race.  He only went and won the Silver Final with Eldivina d'Esge which landed owner Joby Randall with a cheque for £10,000.  I bet if I'd said to him in May that he would win a race for £10,000 on a trotter in September, he'd have laughed at me.  Honestly.

Also well done to the syndicate, the Globe Trotters (which includes commentator Darren Owen) as their horse Emirat Du Levant won the Bronze Final (netting them £5000) in the hands of Richard Haythornthwaite who is a massive fan of the horse.

It was a long drive home; we got back to the stables at 4.30am and gave the horses an early breakfast so that we could have a lie in.  We were exhausted the following day at Corbiewood. But on nights like that, nights when you cheer in the next generation of top Free For Allers and wave goodbye to the old guard, no distance is too great to miss it.  I still say this is the greatest sport on Earth.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

2017 Season: Week 19 - Wolsingham Show & Haugh Field

Right folks, I'm going to keep this one short.  I debated for a long time whether or not to simply give this weekend a miss, as somehow it didn't feel right to celebrate the racing in light of the tragic accident which occured prior to racing at Haugh Field.  However, I have taken note of the inspiring way in which Carolynne, Katey and Anna Wallace have dealt with the aftermath of the loss of their husband and father, Peter, and I have decided to shine the light on a couple of performances which meant a lot to me.

Wolsingham Show

Frisco Jenna - winner of heat and final at Wolsingham Show in front of a bumper crowd.  As highlighted by many people in the North East of England, this show is a fantastic opportunity to showcase our sport as there are thousands of spectators present.  Frisco Jenna spent a very short time with us and I found her to be a very willing mare to work with.  After her impressive win at York which provided Jordan Heath with his first driving win on UK soil, she was really on form when taking both the heat and the final with Vicky Gill on board.

A big mention also to the old-timer Afan Romeo who won the top heat with John Nicholson.  I have loved watching this horse race and he is as genuine as the day is long.  I gave him a good shout coming down the stretch!

My one sticking point of the entire day was the attitude of the Show President, who coincidentally used to be the BHRC Chairman at one time.  Bearing in mind that the racing was advertised to begin at 15:30, this was subsequently delayed to 16:00 due to another exhibition in the main ring (which was also the racetrack) running over.  At 16:00, the exhibition was over but the horses involved were being cooled down on the racetrack.  All racehorses, trainers and drivers were ready to go in the paddock.  The large crowds were beginning to thin because it was not announced that the harness racing was due to begin.  I felt this was a perfect opportunity to get the horses out to warm up and capture peoples' interest.  A lot of people were already approaching the bookmakers to ask what we were all doing there.

With this in mind, I ventured to the Show office to ask when the racing would be starting.  At first, I was advised that the horses needed to loosen up, which would take roughly 20 minutes.  Then they would be able to start racing.  I explained that I am familiar with harness racing, but that I had concerns that the crowd was leaving because the racing was delayed.  I was then directed to the President.  I explained, again, that there was a missed opportunity occurring as we spoke, as people were leaving whilst the racehorses were unnecessarily being held in the paddock whilst other horses were walked around the track to cool down (which could have been done on the in-field).  I felt that this was a golden ticket for us to showcase our beloved sport.  The President cut me off, and told me he used to be the BHRC Chairman.  I told him that was nice, but would it be possible to get the horses onto the track to warm up whilst some of the crowd were still there?  He then told me he didn't need my help in running a successful show, he'd been doing it for years.  I left it at that.  I've met enough people like that and I don't need to be spoken to condescendingly anymore.

Racing was good, we got the product out to a decent-sized crowd.  Could have been bigger.

Haugh Field

As mentioned above, a tragic accident occurred and therefore the meeting was run under an enormous cloud.

That said, I was incredibly proud of my good friend George Carson who enjoyed much success 12 months earlier at this fixture when winning two heats of the low grade handicap with Valentine Camden and Country Major, before going on to win the final with 'Val'.  This year, he won the first heat of the low grade handicap with Sunnyside Clinton, before winning the second with GDs Baby.  Driver Willie Drysdale had a quickfire treble when winning the third heat with Lady Mary (presenting him with somewhat of a dilemma of which horse to drive in the final).  He chose Sunnyside Clinton, and it proved to be the right decision when winning the final, making it two years in a row for trainer George.

Sunnside Clinton & Willie Drysdale (Bill Cardno photo)
Winning connections (Bill Cardno photo)

Camden Rocco was an impressive winner of the high grade final for trainer Eck Taylor and driver William Greenhorn.

Camden Rocco & William Greenhorn (Bill Cardno photo)
Winning connections (Bill Cardno photo)

Well done to all winning connections.

Following on from the terrible incident which happened, the Wallace family have been fundraising to purchase a defibrillator to be used at harness racing fixtures and so far have raised over £4000.  If anyone would like to donate, you can do so here.

Peter Wallace was known by everybody.  He was always there.  Unwaivering in the support of his daughters and all of their horses, and of harness racing.  It is testament to how well thought of he was that the harness racing community reacted in such a way as we all did, with drivers at Stanhope Show wearing black armbands, and the joint-winning driver of the Crock of Gold wearing a hi-vis yellow armband as a nod to Peter's famous hi-vis jacket which he was rarely without.  You didn't need to know Peter, to know him.  He was a harness racing stalwart.  He will be missed by so many people, but none more so than his two daughters, Anna and Katey, and wife Carolynne.

RIP Peter. One of harness racing's own.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 28 September 2017

2017 Season: Week 18 - Tregaron

Now it would be unfair of me to claim that I knew that Michael O'Mahony would go on to have a blinder of a meeting at Tregaron, but I can say that it came as little surprise to me.  The cream has a funny way of rising to the top, after all.

Tregaron Festival 2017 has already been covered on Harnesslink - read here - and you could forgive writer Kayleigh Evans for being a bit less measured in her report than usual, although she writes as professionally as ever.  The reason being, for those of you not familiar with Michael and Kayleigh, that for the last number of years Michael has been training horses from Kayleigh's family home in Penuwch, alongside Kayleigh's brother Mike [Evans].  I think we'd all forgive a bit of bias in a report which means so much to the writer (who shed more than a few tears after Meldoon won the Welsh Classic Final!), so well done Kayleigh for the utmost professionalism in print!

As I go to print with this myself, 4 weeks have passed since the Tregaron Festival.  My timing is getting increasingly worse.  Once the subsequent weeks' updates have been posted you may begin to understand this tardiness.  In a reflection of the month of August for harness racing, I have been overrun with projects, trips and in recent weeks, preparing sales adverts for both York and Builth sales.  This time of year is hard, albeit enjoyable, work.

Anyway, we shall delve in to some of the highlights from Wales' premier meeting which, this year, was back on par with some of the previously more enjoyable stagings and one which you would have regretted to miss.

Michael O'Mahony wins NINE (Graham Rees photos)
Let's begin with the NINE winners piloted by 'man of the moment' (or, indeed, 'man of the weekend'), Michael O'Mahony.  First up was the first heat of the Little Welsh Dragoness, in which he drove the Geoffrey Lyons-Mound owned Lyons Lememay (1/9), winner of the Oakwood Stud 3YO Fillies Oaks at the VDM weekend.  This filly joined Michael's stable mid-season and has come on leaps and bounds under his care, going on to win the Little Welsh Dragoness Final later that day (2/9).

Michael & Lyons Lememay winning the Little Welsh Dragoness heat (Sarah Thomas photo)
Michael then went on to win the first of the five Strata Florida heats with Style Matters (3/9), owned and trained by Lowri Jones.  He was unable to take the drive in the final after steering Southern Sunshine to victory in the last of the heats (4/9) with a well-timed late run in the stretch and it was the Irish-owned horse which came home in front in the final (5/9) with a mirror image drive from the man with the most laid back driving style on the British Isles.

Winning connections of Southern Sunshine after the Strata Florida Final (Irfon Bennett photo)
Southern Sunshine & Kayleigh Evans (Irfon Bennett photo)

On the Saturday, Michael gave little away in the Facebook Live interview with Darren before the racing, but it wasn't long before he was back in the winner's circle in the first of the five heats of the Welsh Classic.  This time it was with the Bethan Kelly-owned and trained mare, In The Ayr (6/9), which he guided over the line in front, with a whole host of ladies piling in to the centre of the track for the winning celebrations after the race.

Owner/trainer of In The Ayr, Bethan Kelly (centre, pink jacket) and friends (Irfon Bennett photo)

Michael was straight back into the winner's circle in the next race, again with a mare, this time in the shape of Meldoon (7/9) who looked impressive when finishing second to Rhyds Passion in the STAGBI Future Broodmares race at Tir Prince a week earlier.  It was the Roy Roberts-owned mare which he later chose to partner in the final.

Before heading to the final, Michael made another detour via the winner's circle with another Geoffrey Lyons-Mound 3YO filly, Lyons Saint Marys (8/9), the heavily backed favourite in the second of two maiden races on the Saturday.

The field on the final circuit in the Welsh Classic Final (Sarah Thomas photo)
As if the tally marks after each winner weren't enough of a giveaway, and in order to truly be the 'man of the weekend', you should have come to the very obvious conclusion that Michael topped off a phenomenal weekend with victory in the Group 1 Welsh Classic Final when romping to victory on Meldoon, the four-year-old daughter of Doonbeg out of Real Melody.  Emotions were very high immediately following the race, and despite trying my best not to succumb to the tears, when I looked at fellow STAGBI director Gwenan (who is heavily involved with the staging of the fixture at Tregaron) and saw her crying without abandon, I went over the edge!  Then Kayleigh appeared on the track, in tears, with her mother, and also Michael's number one fan, his niece Chloe Anne who was such a delight over the course of the entire weekend and seemed to love every minute of Michael's success.  Michael's family soon joined the party in the winner's circle, followed by Meldoon's deservedly emotional owner, Roy, his wife Diane and friends.  There are moments in racing when I look around me at the way in which winning affects people and I think 'this is the drug we all crave'.  That high of victory is what we all chase after every time we put our horses onto the race track.  I love the feats that horses achieve and the manner in which they do it, and I love the emotions that people show when the horses they care so much about fulfil their potential.  Roy was unashamedly emotional about the victory and nobody could blame him; owning a Welsh Classic Final winner is one thing but to have bred her as well, that's just wonderful.

Meldoon winning the Welsh Classic Final (Irfon Bennett photo)
The realisation quickly sinks in for Michael (Sarah Thomas photo)
A popular winner with the local crowds (Irfon Bennett photo)
Michael's #1 fan - niece, Chloe Anne (Sarah Thomas photo)
Celebrations (and tears!) for the team (Sarah Thomas photo)
More tears - from the owner this time! (Sarah Thomas photo)

Delving back into the general racing, I must mention the spectacular drive that Steve Lees gave No Brakes in the Little Welsh Dragon 3YO Final on the Friday.  Regular driver Grant had qualified the horse in the last available place in his heat; as a fourth place qualifier he was left with a choice of the two worst picks for the draw and as such, Grant made the decision to drive Tarawood CJ (drawn 2) who, having won his heat with Grant at the reins, was entitled to second choice after the other heat winner, All Good Hanover (drawn 1).  I was a little surprised to see Grant choose a horse he'd only driven once over a horse he has driven (with much success) all season, however all's fair in love and racing and based on their heat performances, CJ looked to have the better chance in the final.

CJ looked to have an even better chance as the race went off when All Good Hanover broke at the start, massively impeding the horse drawn behind it, GDs Hazzard.  The starter allowed the race to continue without calling a false start, which in hindsight would have been the correct decision.  Starter Shae Price has taken a lot of stick (borderline abuse) for the decision, and I am going on record as saying it was the wrong decision to make in not calling a false start.  However, people make mistakes.  It's very easy for me to sit here and say all of this with a level head; I've been known to lose my rag at the starter at Corbiewood in the past when it's been my horse which has been impeded by a breaking horse in front of it at the start, only for the race to go ahead and my horse to be tailed off.  Impartiality is a wonderful thing.  To the connections of the two horses involved: nothing could be changed once the race was over.  To the Thomson's, I feel for you as your horse was innocent in the whole debacle and was never given a fair chance, and despite being impeded ran a stormer to finish fourth, only losing out on a rosette by a nose.  To driver Lee Fletcher on board All Good Hanover - if what you have said is true, that the reason you had your horse turned back into the stretch after pulling up whilst the race was still going was because you were going to send it hell for leather towards the field and bail out and see what damage the horse could do - shame on you.  I sincerely hope this was a bad joke and that despite the red mist which I'm sure many of us suffer from, you are able to accept that your horse was in the wrong; had you galloped on the second line and not hampered anybody, you'd have been left, fairly and squarely.

Whilst I don't particularly want to give the former Bishop Auckland Soccer Hooligans co-leader a stern telling off, here I find myself.  Let's put this all behind us and move on; the starter made a mistake, he has learnt from it, calling for him to never start a race again simply adds more pressure on the BHRC to find volunteers for thankless tasks.  Remember that.  I don't see an orderly queue forming to take on the job.

Back to the race itself: I was partaking of an alcoholic beverage with my friend, Hayley Cassells, who happens to be the groom to No Brakes (aka Charlie).  Below par earlier performance in his heat, bad draw in the final and the fact that Hayley couldn't see over the crowd in front of her to watch the race meant that the two of us were basically having a bit of a blether in the background and not really paying attention.  At the business end of things I saw Alan Jones coming wide with My Buddy down the stretch and got all excited because I love underdog-type scenarious and major upsets in big races and all of a sudden No Brakes is storming through the centre of the field to get up by three quarters of a length.  I turned to Hayley, who had a full pint in her hand, and screamed 'CHARLIE HAS WON' and for the first time in the 3 years I've known her, Hayley threw her pint in the bin.  In the bin.  Just lobbed it like it didn't matter and ran for the track.  And I followed, because that seemed like a good idea.

Whilst on the track I spoke to Steve [Lees] and his son, Stephen, and told 'little Stevie' that he'd need to work hard to be as good a driver as his old man, who'd won the race with a horse who scraped into the final by the skin of his teeth.  Little Stevie pointed up to the commentary box and said 'that's where I want to be, up there not out here'.  Duly noted young man.  We will get you on the right path to be a commentator.  I mean, surely we all know someone who could help out a budding young commentator?! *cough* Darren Owen *cough*

Will we see 'Little Stevie' here one day?! (Irfon Bennett photo)
Anyway, a massive CONGRATULATIONS to owners Bob and Linda on their win.  Linda's delight every time Charlie has picked up a rosette this season has been great.  The proud Facebook posts and the photos of his trophies and ribbons have been refreshing to follow.  Charlie's done good!

I'd also like to give a mention to trainer/driver Rhun Wilson for his training 1-2 in the fourth heat of the Strata Florida with Dulais Daniel and Reeds Scarlett.  Dulais Daniel is owned by Rhun's good friend Steven Williams and was driven to victory by William Greenhorn, while Rhun drove the runner up who seems to be flourishing in his care.  Bizarrely, Rhun was subsequently called in to the stewards over concerns that he had not driven his horse, Reeds Scarlett, on its full merits.  I must have been watching a very different race.  The horses may have the same trainer, but they have different owners, and what I saw was a hard driven finish from both drivers.  Rhun was only cautioned, but I was not alone in thinking he was hard done by.  Kudos to him anyway, this is his first season with BHRC having moved from WBCRA and after struggling in the early part of the season (and admitting he'd perhaps made a mistake in switching codes), after his first two wins at York with two trotters, he's really gotten into his rhythm.  Keep up the good work - and although Jimmy is yet to win a race off a stiff mark, please keep trying with him.  He's racing competitively and his day will come!  Although if you do change your mind, I would gladly take him off your hands!! Sorry Smarty, I'm casually flouting the 'no more horses' policy on a public forum...

To round off my recap from the first day, a mention must also go to Horse of the Year contender Evenwood Sonofagun who was commanding in his FFA appearance when winning the Battle of the Big Guns in an impressive time of 2:04.  This was his 14th consecutive win and his 10th of the season.  He's phenomenal and a joy to watch racing.

Evenwood Sonofagun heading to win #14 (Irfon Bennett photo)

The second day featured a few performances that I enjoyed, including Rhyds Adora (Dai Isaac) winning the first race of the day, a maiden race.  The runner up, Ayr Musketeer was also an eye catcher and subsequently went on to win his maiden at Lampeter.

Oaks Telstar won his novice by a head from Blackfield Jennie, and while I rate him a far better horse than that performance, he was decidely lacklustre and this turned out to be his final race of the season.  He will start the 2018 season as a Grade 1 and I think he's shown plenty of potential this season already to make him a really chancy candidate for one of the major grass handicap finals next year.

In scenes the stewards deemed reminiscent of Rhun Wilson's training 1-2, Alexis Laidler fielded the first two home in the third of the five heats of the Welsh Classic.  This time William Greenhorn was on the runner up, JMs Hallstar, while Rocker drove Jack Swagger to victory.  Willie was called in to the stewards after the race and was subsequently find £50 under rule M28 (In the event a drive is unsatisfactory due to lack of effort or carelessness, and the Stewards believe that there is no fraud, gross carelessness, or a deliberate inconsistent drive they may impose a penalty under this sub-section including, but not limited to, a fine and/or suspension or disqualification).

A lot of people were talking about the drive; I didn't see it on the day as due to the angle I was standing at I only had a head-on view down the stretch.  However, the racing was recorded for the Welsh language harness racing show, Rasus, and the race was (possibly poorly chosen) aired on the pre-recorded show.  The footage used showed, in my opinion at least (although as I'm not a driver I'm not actually supposed to comment on how others drive), a pretty bad example of not driving a horse on its merits (aka 'non-trying').  The penalty for a breach of this rule is 'Fine and/or suspension'.  Now, I'm currently working on another post/an open letter to the BHRC Council about removing the discretionary element of the majority of penalties in order to create a level playing field AND give stewards some added protection from often unfair verbal/written abuse (a case of 'don't hate the player, hate the game').  So we'll leave that for another day.  My point here is, whether we agree with the amount of the fine or not, the driver was fined.  I now hear a rumour (courtesy of Watty & Fletch on TrotTalk TV) that Willie has been called back before the BHRC Council for a hearing relating to this incident.  Whilst I fully agree with the BHRC as a governing body reviewing the decisions of stewards, in this instance I am unaware that anybody has appealed the decision.  The rule breach was identified and penalised as per the rulebook.  The BHRC seek now only to undermine the track stewards who imposed the (arguably too small) fine.  Regardless of the amount, the fine was still imposed.  The BHRC should perhaps instead seek to review the rulebook and penalties rather than retrospectively looking to punish a driver for an offence he has already been punished for.  Double jeopardy, as those familiar with the criminal justice system refer to it.  The man did the crime, now he's done the time, so to speak.  Let's all move on.

'The Greenhorn Glare' (Sarah Thomas photo)
Sadly, the horse involved in the incident, JMs Hallstar, has since been put down, and is a great loss to the team as he still displayed bags of potential for the future.  The owners were keen to locate another horse with potential for the 2018 season, and later that day a horse from the stable must have caught their eye when winning the Grade 1, as Easy Company (owned by Gregor Paterson and Scott Mason - the gruesome twosome) has since been purchased by the Huschkas.  Good luck and well done to connections, new and old.

'The Gruesome Twosome' and their trophy (Sarah Thomas photo)
Sticking with the Huschka/Laidler combination, their 2YO colt Merrington Movinup surprised many, but not all, when overturning stable mate and betting favourite (actually, unbettable favourite) Matticulous to win the Junior Welsh Dragon.  Some connections of the runner up were overheard stating their unhappiness with the way the horse was driven, but the draw was what made the crucial difference in this race, and the winner should never be underestimated.  He was a very impressive winner in 2:07 (bearing in mind that the Junior Welsh Dragoness winner, Greenhill Hanover, clocked 2:13.4 in the previous race).

My final observation of the weekend relates to a horse I am from now on referring to as 'The Iron Horse': Llwyns Delight.  And what a delight he is for owners Lee and Robyn Price and both their families.  He is such a family favourite and indeed a favourite with harness racing fans.  Having won the Tregaron Spring Handicap heat and final in May, he also went on to win heat and final at one of the country's fairest and toughest tracks - Boughrood, just 6 days before winning a heat of the Welsh Classic at Tregaron.  He then finished third in the final off a whopping 50 yard trail with a tremendous late run to prove his staying power.  From 19 starts this year, winner of 6 with 6 placings, all in good company.  What a superstar he is!

The Iron Horse - Llwyns Delight wins again for driver Lee Price (Sarah Thomas photo)
And there we have it.  A very belated review of Tregaron.  I am aware that I haven't touched upon all of the races, winners, incidents and news from the meeting, but as time goes on my memory begins to fail me and at meetings as big as this, I can only really process and retain so much information.  For two whole days I find myself taking in so much, both on and off the track, that when I finally get home to Scotland I need about 3 days to recover!  It's meetings such as this, and Appleby, Musselburgh and Aberystwyth, that so many of us train horses for - we want to win here.  I may not have mentioned every winner individually, but to those of you who won - WELL DONE.  It is a lot harder than many appreciate, and winning at Tregaron remains at the top of most people's bucket lists.  Rightly so.

Well done to all of the people involved with Tregaron Trotting Club - you smashed it!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

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:


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…


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!


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