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.


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.


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] 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

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

     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 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

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

Thursday, 20 July 2017

2017 Season: Week 12 - Corbiewood, Tir Prince & Wolsingham

I feel like this needs to be a bit short and sweet, what with the fact that I've been a bit post-happy this week (with two driver interviews posted - Sean Kane and John Henry Nicholson) and moving house and work etc.  I'm rushing around trying to get this posted before Corbiewood on Thursday, followed by Musselburgh on Friday and Saturday.  But remember, it's about quality not quantity (not something I have adhered to previously!).

Corbiewood last week saw the fourth of the six legs for the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series and once again we had a different winner, this time in the form of last season's Scottish Horse of the Year, Starzapan.  You can read my report from the meeting on Harnesslink here.

As referenced in the report, there was a popular winner in the form of Littlemill Jo.  As a 2YO, she gave a credible performance in the SHRC Futurity at Corbiewood, and quite a few people have been watching her with interest this season (myself included).  'Jo' is 100% homebred, being by the Henderson family's own homebred stallion, Littlemill Rogue, himself the current 3YO track record holder at Corbiewood, and out of their homebred mare Hendos Star.  And she is a real family favourite, with video footage emerging on social media prior to her win of breeder/owner/trainer/driver Steven's two young children, Jamie (7) and Emma (5) jogging her at the family's stables.  One thing I truly love about harness racing, and particularly so at the moment, is the involvement of youngsters who are either too young to be involved in any official capacity, or who are just emerging onto the track having obtained their licences.  It truly is a family sport, with no barriers in terms of gender, length of involvement, or experience.  Anyone can give it a go.  And I'm glad to see that they are.

Track photographer Bill Cardno was absent so myself and Willie Paterson stepped in to *try* to take photos.  I'd managed to turn up without my spare battery and with limited juice left on the battery in my camera, plus I was working with my 70-300mm lens and nothing else.  Then it decided to rain as the qualifiers were being run, and for the remainder of the night it was fairly gloomy and not ideal conditions for a total amateur like me to take photos.  Nevertheless, I managed to get at least one half-decent photo of the race winners (excluding K And M Redpandana, who turned out rather blurry).  For anyone who cares, here's what I managed:

Littlemill Jo & Steven Henderson
Merrintonmoonlite & Gordon Gilvear
Porterstown Keith & Stephen Cairney
K And M Redpandana & Hugh Menzies
Starzapan & Stuart MacKenzie
Camden Massino & William Greenhorn

Total amateur!!

Again it was three countries in four days, so on Saturday we headed to Tir Prince, North Wales, for the VDM prep races and the first of the Crock of Gold heats.  It was probably the busiest it's been there all season, with plenty of buzz about for the juvenile races and in particular, the feature race.  Two of the three leading 2YO colts were non-runners for the colts/geldings division, with the third not entered, and three horses eventually faced the starter.  Georgie Camden, owned by Peter Davison and trained by Sally Teeboon, was driven to victory by Richard Haythornthwaite in the absence of stable driver, Patrick Kane Jnr, who was plying his trade on home soil in Ireland at the Barney Joyce Memorial Weekend.  Not to be outdone in his absence, Patrick went on to win the Irish prep race for colts/geldings the following day with his wife, Rachel Bousfield's, homebred Stakes On The Pan.  The fillies division went the way of the very impressive Ayr Empress, bred, owned, trained and driven by a variety of O'Neils.  As in, 'Boots' off of 'Big Burd and Boots', and his family.  Poor Hughie (aka Jnr Jnr, aka The Baby-Faced Assassin) was once again called into the stewards after the race, having been pulled in on Thursday night at Corbiewood for 'excessive shouting at his horse'.  I think sometimes rules get made up on the spot.  I also think that the rule could have, and perhaps should have, been applied previously to other drivers.  And indeed, members of the crowd (anyone else remember the 'f*** him up Dougie!' comment shouted at a driver to cut up another horse during a race?).  Anyway, that's by the by.  Clearly I need to work on Jnr Jnr's discipline.  Although he doesn't look to be as unruly on the track as the officials keep claiming him to be.  But contrary to some people's belief, I don't have eyes in the back of my head so I'm probably just not noticing his wanton disregard for the rules.

Anyway, it was good to see a Scottish horse travelling down to one of the bigger tracks and showing some real class and flair.  She looks a strong candidate for the big final in August.  In Ireland, Robyn Camden narrowly beat the debutante, Reclamation, to take the fillies division.  The Murphy's, who train the runner up, won the VDM Fillies final last year with IB Coyote so have solid form heading into the race this year.  They also enjoyed success with IB A Magician, Rebel Rouser and Tenor Meslois over the weekend - that'll make the epic journey from Cork to Dublin worthwhile!!

Back to Tir Prince and my favourite race of the night - the Crock of Gold heat.  Stoneriggs Mystery was drawn 1, and was a deserving betting favourite, but he was headed at the first bend by the heavily-backed reigning champion Porterstown Road, who in turn was cleared by Deans Alibi by the quarter, having shown a blistering turn of foot under a bold drive from Stevie Lees.  Heading down the back straight for the last time, I wasn't convinced Mystery was going to be able to clear the two in front of him, no matter how much I was willing him on, but as they turned for home and everyone started screaming he seemed to find another gear and cruised past them to a very popular (and slightly emotional) victory.  Form is temporary, class is permanent.

Before I move on to our visit to England, I also have to give a mention to Sulky Du Blequin in the George Dixon Memorial FFA Trot over 1.5 miles.  John Foy sent Sulky away positively at the start, and with each lap he went further and further clear of the field.  It seemed that the further he went, the better he went.  He will be a tough nut to crack in the FFA trots for the remainder of this season.  It was pretty impressive, I have to admit.

For the second weekend in a row, Smarty and I stayed away from home in order to avoid the mammoth drive back to Scotland, only to head back to the north east of England the following day.  We're learning all the time.  The following day we headed across the country to Wolsingham, one of the best grass tracks in the country although like Binchester, not as well supported by spectators as it probably should be.

I was due to interview John Henry Nicholson as part of the build up to Musselburgh this coming weekend, what with him winning the Hurricane Pace Final last year at the tender age of 16.  Incidentally, the interview, which was published yesterday (19th July) has been my highest viewed post of the year so far, and has also been shared by Musselburgh Racecourse's official Facebook page, which is followed by over 19,000 people.  That's the way to get the sport out there in the public eye - on the back of official and trusted organisations/bodies who have a wide client/fan base.  Strangely, although possibly connected, Newbury Racecourse's official Instagram account began following me tonight.

Anyway, the whole Nicholson family were great to work with once again and are a joy to be around at the races - although a warning to anyone who wants to preserve the full function of their eardrums: DO NOT stand next to Savannah when her father, mother or brother is in a race; if one of them wins, she will deafen you.  Unfortunately, Scott [Murray] and I found this out the hard way!  But way to go John Snr on your two wins!  What a time to get the stable back in form, with Musselburgh literally just around the corner!

My favourite winner of the day had to be Next Generation, part of owner/trainer/driver Kelly Peacock's extended family.  At the end of last summer, he won three races in two days; the Appleby Brough final on the Monday, followed by heat and final on a very different, but equally testing, track at Kilnsey.  At Wolsingham, with just over a lap to go he was sitting at the rear of the field and appeared to not respond to some gentle reminders from Kelly, however down the back straight he was airborne and he came home a clear winner to round off a day of competitive racing.

And that was that.  Three countries in four days.  Time spent with Scottish friends, Welsh friends, English friends and even Irish friends.  We even saw Acey Baby when she worked out at Wolsingham after the racing, although she seems as disinterested in me now as ever.  Clearly Andrew, Joanne, Geoffrey and the girls are spoiling her and I'm no longer her favourite!

Before I sign off, we must re-visit the 'MISSING' list.  Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned missing items have been found.  If anyone knows where they are, please do bring them to the attention of the public.  Alas, in the past week, further items have gone missing.  If anyone knows where these are, again, please bring them to everyone's attention.

MUSSELBURGH 3YO PACE - advertised, entries taken, not on the start sheet. Where is it?  How many horses entered?  I believe the entry form stated a minimum of 8 runners - does this mean that there weren't sufficient entries?

OFFICIAL NOTIFICATION OF NEW TROTTING RULE - on Saturday evening at Tir Prince, as the horses were parading for the heat of the 3YO Le Trot series, the commentator announced that there was a new rule in force which meant that any horse which broke stride for more than 15 strides would be disqualified.  Can you imagine being at Cheltenham or Aintree and hearing the commentator announce a new rule set by the BHA, without the BHA having first published that rule on their website?  I still don't think I've seen an official notice.  Also, what happens to the prize money if horses are disqualified?  Is it re-distributed to the finishers of the race?  In Ireland on Sunday, every horse bar one was disqualified for a similar rule.  Will the winner receive the full purse for the race (as would happen in the Thoroughbred world when only one finisher)?  Answers on a postcard.

CONSISTENCY - just in general.  When horses were made to requalify under rule N15 at Corbiewood last season, they were not permitted to race on the same day as they re-qualified as it was impossible for them to be cleared by the BHRC at this time, when they had essentially been suspended from racing until re-qualifying.  This was a rule which the stewards in Scotland stuck to religiously.  Unfortunately, it appears that the rule is applied differently in Wales & England.  If anyone finds consistency lurking anywhere, point it in the right direction.

I'm away to get ready for some crazy antics over three days of racing in bonny Scotland.  This is my home tie, I don't need to travel far for these!  Let the fun begin...

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

An interview with...John Henry Nicholson

On 24th June 2016, John Henry Nicholson made history when becoming the youngest ever driver to win the Hurricane Pace Final at Musselburgh.  At 16, he catapulted himself into the spotlight as one of the country's up and coming drivers, and his cool and calculated drive on board Cochise won him the Tim Tetrick-sponsored Drive of the Year Award, voted for by the general public and celebrated at the annual BHRC and STAGBI awards evening in February of this year.

With Cochise winning the Hurrican Pace Final (Bill Cardno photo)

John Henry trains horses alongside his mother, Georgina, who also drives occasionally. Dad, John, is a regular driver and sister Savannah competes in the saddle races.  The family have plenty of racehorses, as well as broodmares and stallions, most notably The Firepan, and breed horses with the prefix Evenwood.  That's right, this family is responsible for breeding World Record holder, Evenwood Sonofagun!

In the build up to this year's event at Musselburgh, I took some time to chat with John Henry about last year's phenomenal victory, the opportunities that have come his way since and his plans for this season and the future.

Let’s go back to 12 months ago – talk us through your first visit to Musselburgh as a driver.
I had three drives at Musselburgh last year; it was my first time driving there as I’d only started driving the year before [2015].  I won heat and final of the Hurricane Pace with Cochise and also a heat with Silver Alert.  My mum had said before the meeting that if I won heats with both of them then she would come out of retirement to drive in the final!

And how did that go down with your dad?!
Well, it was all agreed beforehand and that was that!  She hadn’t driven for a couple of years and the decision was made before we even got to Musselburgh.

John Henry (second left) lines up for the final with mum, Georgina (fourth left) (Bill Cardno photo)
Not only was it your first visit but weren’t you also a C Class driver at the time?
Yes, I’d won with Rhyds Beijing at Haugh Field and with Silver Alert at Kilnsey the summer before, and then Jasper Hill won for me at Hellifield a week before Musselburgh.  The three wins at Musselburgh tipped me over into a B Class driver.

What was going through your mind in the final stages of the Hurricane Pace Final?
I was calm, I knew I had to keep him going so I was focussed on that.  All the way from the two furlong marker all I could hear was screaming from the stands, the atmosphere coming up there is unreal.  Then I could see my dad and Savannah shouting on the rail and gesturing to keep going.  When I hit the line though, my mind just went blank.  I actually said ‘what do I do now?’; I was completely lost in the moment.  I just didn’t know what to do!


Did you think you had a chance of winning?
The horse had worked well the week before, his trainer had brought him down to me to work him out and afterwards I told my dad what time he’d done and we knew it was alright.  Going into the final I was quietly confident because he’d won in a good time and done it easily, although I had to stand away from everyone else before the race because I felt sick with nerves and couldn’t speak to anyone.

The drive on Cochise in the final was nominated for BHRC Drive of the Year 2016 and ultimately went on to receive the highest number of votes – what did you think of that?
When the drives were shortlisted and the voting opened, I thought it might be close between myself and James [Haythornthwaite].  None of us knew who the winner was when we attended the awards night in February though so I was really nervous on the night.  When I found out that I was the winner and that I’d received such a large share of the votes, it was great.  I was able to collect the award sponsored by Tim Tetrick with my family there.

Collecting his Drive of the Year award

Not only did you receive a gift pack from world-renowned driver Tim Tetrick, but you also got to meet him?
Yes I did.  I went to America in May and while I was there I met John Campbell and Tim Tetrick so I had my photo taken with them both.  Tim said he’d seen the videos shortlisted for the award and was really chatty, although they were getting ready to go out and drive so we didn’t have long to talk.

I went over to visit my good friend Jeffrey Greenberg in New York and he arranged for me to have a drive at Yonkers in an amateur race.  Before the race all of the other drivers were giving me advice and they were all really welcoming.  I drove a trotter called Windsun Fireball in the race, he was drawn 8 so there wasn’t much I could do other than take back for the first part of the race.  Going down the back for the last time I pulled out and followed Paul Minore who had been giving me loads of advice beforehand, and I ended up beating him by a nose for third.  It was my first time driving a trotter in a race! (Read the Harnesslink report, giving John Henry a brief mention, here).

I also got to warm up a horse at the Meadowlands which was a great experience, and I saw Huntsville jogging at Goshen.  While I was there I visited the Hall of Fame and spoke to a driver who told me that winning is 50% horse, 25% luck and 25% driver and I believe that’s true.

Warming up at the Meadowlands

Meeting Tim Tetrick
Meeting John Campbell

Since you won at Musselburgh, do people talk to you more now?
Definitely; I’ve gained more respect from people and I’m getting more catch drives.  Not that many, because we have maybe 10 or 12 horses running at meetings some weeks but if I can fit them in then I take them.  Sometimes my mum and dad will drive two of ours so that I can take an outside drive in the same race.  It’s important to make time for people where I can.

How has the 2017 season been for you so far?
Things didn’t start so well as we had a virus badly in the stable and all the hard work seemed pointless, I was worried and didn’t think we would get there but we’re coming back into form after winning at Binchester, and I drove the heat and final winner, All Fired Up, as well.  We had another couple of winners at Wolsingham last weekend too.  It’s the right time to come into form with Musselburgh next weekend!

Winning the final on All Fired Up at Binchester, July 9th 2017
Which horses are you looking forward to driving at Musselburgh this year?
All of them, but my favourite two at the moment are All Fired Up and my aged trotter, Tenor D’Ouville.  I’m looking forward to driving them; they’re both good horses and stayers which will suit the track.  I just need a bit of luck!

Now that you’ve won Musselburgh, do you have any other goals for the future?
I take every win as I go.  You’re trying to win everything so you just go out and do it again and again.  I love driving and winning a race is a bonus, but winning at Musselburgh is different class, it’s something else.

Who is your driving idol?
John Campbell by far.  I sit and watch videos of him all the time.  It was great to meet him in America.  We’ve got two race carts from him which are arriving just before Musselburgh so we’ll get to use them there.

What about your parents; have they influenced your driving style?
Well I’ve got my mum’s quiet hands but I’ve got my dad’s finishing hands.  I can get a horse home but I can also sit and wait.  It’s the perfect combination.  Look, if I’ve got the engine I feel like I can pilot anything, but you need the engine!

Family affair - John Henry (centre) with parents John & Georgina, and sister Savannah (all in blue)
Do you have any advice for the young drivers competing in the C Class race at Musselburgh this year, which for many will be their first time driving at the track?
Just keep cool, don’t rush.  You have to keep your cool.  Watch when you’re going over the road and just wait.  It opens up on the home straight for you.  Just go with the group into the straight and it opens up for you.

We know you’re busy training horses every day with your mum and going racing, but what do you do for fun in your spare time?
Chase women!


Thank you to John Henry for taking time out of his very busy schedule, training and racing horses and chasing women (he was being serious!), to answer my questions.  Just over 12 months ago I only knew the Nicholson family by name; the victory in the Hurricane Pace Final, and the subsequent reporting I did on the landmark win, sparked a friendship which will undoubtedly last forever.  The four of them encapsulate everything that is good about harness racing; their passion, commitment, good humour, graciousness in defeat and exhilaration in victory...they make being a part of this sport all the more enjoyable.

It's hard to believe that John Henry is only 17 years old.  Despite claiming to be nervous in various situations, he comes across as cool, calm and collected, with an air of confidence that could never be mistaken for arrogance.  He's very cheeky, that I can say!  On the track, he doesn't look out of place, nor inexperienced.  I firmly believe that he has a very bright future ahead of him.

To the young drivers who will be lining up on Saturday, 22nd July, behind the starter at Musselburgh for possibly the first time in their driving careers - one of you is about to experience something unlike anything you've ever experienced before.  Good luck and most of all, ENJOY IT.

#1 Groom