Saturday, 14 February 2015

Meetings, meetings, meetings.

Evening all. Or morning, actually, looking at the time.

I'm not long back from yet another meeting; my fourth in under a fortnight, and my third different organisation. I've been up since 5.15am and based on my usual sleeping patterns I should be out for the count right now but my mind is absolutely racing with all of the things that I've come across so far, and all of the things that I know are still to be discussed, debated and decided.

The first of the four meetings I attended was the Scottish Harness Racing Club (SHRC) AGM. I had put myself forward for the position of Vice Chairman and my manifesto had been sent out with the notice of the AGM and accounts to all existing members. My reasons for standing for the position were numerous, however the driving force was a feeling I had encountered from several members that their opinions, ideas, suggestions and grievances were not being listened to or taken forward on a national level. This had resulted in exceptionally poor turnout at members meetings (all of which I had attended since becoming a member in May). The feeling was shared by me in all honesty - I felt as though the passion of the members from Scotland could be better represented at the national meetings. Rather than join the ranks of those who complained about the situation we found ourselves in, I felt my only option to bring about change was to run for a position that would allow me to represent the members at BHRC meetings.

As it transpired, the existing VC did not put himself forward for re-election and I was elected as VC on the evening unopposed. I found myself thrown in at the deep end chairing the remainder of the meeting, in front of the biggest crowd I have ever seen at any SHRC meeting in the past 9 months. Thankfully the secretary helped me out and kept things running relatively smoothly. Whether it was naivety or being caught in the headlights, I must admit I didn't expect to be in that position so quickly. The Chairman (who returned to his position unopposed) was unable to attend the meeting at short notice, which left the responsibility on my rather over-awed shoulders. We got through it though, which is the main thing.

A BHRC Committee meeting was scheduled for three days later in Wetherby, and it was agreed that I would attend as the SHRC representative with Smarty attending on behalf of Corbiewood (Scotland carries four club level votes at a national level and is entitled to three representatives at any BHRC Committee meeting - we were the only two to attend on the day). I knew a number of those present at the meeting, primarily those representing other clubs from around the UK, as well as a handful of the Council. Smarty is much more clued up on certain issues facing harness racing in the UK so was better placed to put forward his thoughts, whereas I took the opportunity to make extensive notes to enable me to report back to my club fully. I was also able to take the time to get the measure of those in the room with me, and am pleased to report that there are a number of people really trying to take to take the sport forward with new and innovative ideas. These include the Chair and Vice Chair, who were both fair and respectful to all those present and the opinions they put forward. The five hours that I spent at that meeting flew by, and the only indicator that I had been there so long was the absolutely numb feeling in my back and legs by the end of it (that is a whole other story though!). I noted though that I was a good 20 years younger than any other person present (excluding the BHRC Secretary who was acting in an advisory capacity and taking minutes).

Next followed the SHRC Committee meeting, with all of its previous members (excluding the previous VC and one other member who stood down) and three new members including Smarty. We reported back on the discussions held the previous weekend and set about making plans and decisions for the forthcoming season at Corbiewood. Despite being the encompassing body for all of the tracks in Scotland, Musselburgh, Bells Field and Haugh Field are run by other committees or individuals and therefore the SHRC is primarily concerned with staging racing at Corbiewood. A number of people on the committee I had not had any previous dealings with and was somewhat apprehensive as to how my appointment would be taken, and also the type of people I would be working with. I am so so pleased to be writing that I was more than pleasantly surprised by those previously unknown to me. There are representatives from all areas of the sport - owners, trainers, track representatives, raceframers, bookmakers, stewards...every person has something to give to the committee, to the track, and to the sport in our country. I am really looking forward to working with the committee to ensure that harness racing at Corbiewood continues to be a success. Yet again though I noticed that I was the youngest by a few years, which is something that continues to concern me.

That brings us neatly around to the meeting today (or in fact, yesterday). The position I hold within STAGBI is one that I have held the longest. Having been the general secretary for three years, upon the cessation of my role with the society I was co-opted onto the Board of Directors. The Board is made up of some of the most prolific and knowledgable Standardbred breeders in the UK and Ireland; company which I know I do not yet deserve to be amongst based on my achievements as a small-time breeder. However, I am able to add some insight into the administrative side of the society due to my experience as secretary, plus I genuinely care about the breed (from start to finish, racing to riding, foals to stallions). I have worked tirelessly to improve the status of Standardbreds within the UK, and inadvertently used them to educate the general public about the sport of harness racing which has major image problems to overcome. Again, I am the youngest person present at these meetings by quite some age gap.

The meeting was long, but much was discussed, and although at times I feel slightly overwhelmed by the responsibilities I have taken on outside of my full time work and other personal commitments, I feel that I am doing the right thing. Plus I've started living my life on the premise that we're a long time dead. If I can do something to help, then I will do something to help.

I would like to take this opportunity to state that I am in no way looking for a pat on the back. I don't volunteer to fulfil these roles for any form of praise. There are individuals contributing so much more within each of these organisations than I am, and I appreciate what they are doing immensely.

Upon my return tonight I reflected on the fact that in the next month, I have at least another two meetings to attend. The meetings are only the tip of the iceberg, as each requires rather a lot of preparatory work, investigation or research which I will spend as much of my free time as possible completing.

Now to the real sticking point that has kept my mind ticking over since returning home. I am 25 years old; much like the rest of my age group within racing, I enjoy racing primarily because it is fun. There is a tremendous social element throughout the whole of the UK and Ireland. Racing horses, whether it be as an owner, trainer or driver, although fiercely competitive, is fun. Only a handful of people in the country truly make a living from the sport; the remainder of us take part because we love it, and because we all hope that one day we'll come across a horse that exceeds our expectations and puts us on the map, if only briefly (although I have noticed that if you are lucky enough to have a superstar at least once in your life, it isn't easily forgotten by anybody - the collective memory of true harness racing fans spans absolute decades). I am young, I don't really want to spend my weekends attending meetings, especially when I know I'm missing out on social events with my racing friends. But I feel obliged to do something.

Without the input of individuals before, during and after these meetings, there wouldn't be a sport for us to enjoy. For the sport to grow, the increased workload at this level needs to be shared between more people - many hands make light work after all. Young people may be put off by the idea of attending 'boring' meetings, or it may be that they feel their opinions and ideas won't be respected by those older and more experienced than them, but the reality is that one day when those before us have gone, there will be nobody to fill their roles. I believe more can be done by these organisations to engage with the younger participants within the sport, but more should be made of the fact that without contributing at these types of meetings, there will be no sport for the next generation. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our sport to do as much as we can. No amount of input will ever be deemed too small.

I suppose I should be making a call for anybody, regardless of age, to contribute in any way they can. A sport enjoyed by so many should not be left to so few to try to maintain and develop. However I have noticed the lack of representation from my own age group, and I feel now that the invisible barriers that may have been in place under the old administration have been removed. This is the time for the younger people within British harness racing to step up and take responsibility for the sport they love.

If one person reading this makes the decision to contribute, even if it's just volunteering for a role at their local track or meeting, then it's a step in the right direction. Come on guys, we're all in this together.