So when I said I wouldn't be posting until after my return from Wales this weekend, clearly I lied because here we are again. I have been prompted to write due to sitting down for an hour or so last night with Smarty discussing proposals for me to hand over to Roy Sheedy, the new Chairman of the British Harness Racing Club (BHRC) when I visit Wellfield Stud (you will recall I'm going to stay with Roy's groom, an annual tradition to celebrate her birthday, collect my Christmas present which can never be posted for some reason, and help out with the ever-increasing number of horses that Roy has in training). It wasn't so much the proposals that compelled me to write, but more that so many changes have taken place within the sport over the last few months, and so many more major changes are in the pipeline that if I wait until everything is resolved in some manner, then I'll end up writing for days and you'll be left reading the world's longest blog post. Ever.
The easiest place to start would be a recap of the situation in British harness racing from 2008 - 2014 (I can't comment on anything prior to this because I wasn't involved in any way in the sport). During this time, the BHRC Chairman, Vice Chairman, and as far as I am aware the Council (made up of, at least in part, regional stewards voted on by clubs around the UK) remained unchanged. The state of harness racing however, did not. I so wish that I could be sat here telling you that in those years I watched the sport I love become recognised on a national scale, in the same manner as Thoroughbred racing, greyhound racing, or even pigeon racing (which probably has more followers, more money, and is heard of in more places across the country). I wish that I could tell you that the prize money increased year on year, that the number of licence holders and horses in training increased, that sponsors were falling over themselves to get involved in the sport. But none of that would be true.
More alarmingly, the polar opposite was the reality. The worst example I saw of reductions in prize money was at Allensmore, a track that held a two day meeting when I first started racing, with a final for thousands which attracted the top trainers across the UK. Last summer, Allensmore held four one-day meetings, with prize money as low as £150 to the winner. People were selling up and leaving the sport in their droves; the handicap system was such that an alarming number of horses were becoming uncompetitive very quickly, causing more and more people to leave the sport and more and more horses to fall by the wayside, destined for racing with Wales & Border Counties or riding homes if they were lucky, and the slaughterhouse if they were not. Obtaining sponsorship money became increasingly more difficult. From my own personal experience on the committee for Cilmery races, we actually stopped running fundraising events as we were simply tapping the same people for money, as were other committees. Those who gave the most were already in the sport already, and had costs of their own to consider simply to race their horses.
In 2013, John Menzies from Scotland ran against the existing Chairman in an attempt to bring about change within the BHRC, but was unsuccessful due to a number of reasons. The biggest factor however was the way in which those in power at the BHRC had created a system to protect their positions, and they worked together to keep each other in place. In November 2014, a public trainer by the name of James (Jim) McInally convinced Roy Sheedy to stand with him as a Chair and Vice Chair combination. They travelled the length and bredth of the UK meeting with clubs and licence holders to put forward their ideas to help the sport should they be successful in their bid. They were well received everywhere they went, including with stalwart supporters of the existing regime. The votes from the clubs began to come in one by one, and it appeared that the tide of support had turned. Before the AGM could be held for the Council members to also cast their votes, the Chairman resigned (with a very flamboyant and creative reason) and was swiftly followed by the Vice Chairman. Roy & Jim took up their official positions, with the remaining Council around them, at the AGM at the end of November.
All was quiet until word came to Smarty and me, from an undisclosed source, that a meeting had been held in December to make changes to the current handicap system. Some twelve days after the meeting, no official statement had been made by the BHRC regarding the decisions made at the meeting, so I asked Smarty to publish the email he had received on two public forums. Jim & Roy had promised transparency in the event of their success, and we both felt that failing to notify people was a breach of that promise. Within 24 hours an official statement was made by the BHRC and published across a variety of platforms. The feedback regarding the initial lack of transparency was clearly taken on board, as two new proposals which have been put forward (one by Huw Evans, owner of Foolaround and the Chair of Tregaron Trotting Club, and the other by Roy Sheedy himself) have been published today on the BHRC website (http://www.bhrc.org.uk/racing/news/bhrc-national-pacing-series/ & http://www.bhrc.org.uk/racing/news/bhrc-changes/). I too have a list of proposals to take to Roy, ranging from the handicap system to the BHRC Classic races to the make up of the BHRC itself, and hopefully in due course some of these will be put forward by the BHRC for consultation with members.
With the loss of the Rasus coverage by S4C (the Welsh language channel which provided the sole coverage of harness racing in the UK - albeit only live coverage in Wales, with some pre-recorded segments from elsewhere), I am pleased to read this evening that George Harrison, another individual who previously put himself forward for the Chairman's position, and a very successful businessman with a number of well bred horses used for racing and breeding, has met with BBC Sport to discuss potential TV coverage. This is most definitely a step in the right direction.
Change is definitely afoot. This is a marathon, not a sprint; a mile and a half race not a mile, if you will. The 2015 season won't suddenly be drastically better than the 2014 one, but with the return of Tir Prince and the Crock of Gold series, the continuing growth of 2 and 3 year old stakes races in Ireland and the UK, and the impending arrival of another consignment of French Trotters for the Le Trot series, hopefully we are well on our way to improving the sport for all existing participants and, I hope, new ones also.
Here's to a prosperous season for us all.