Sure is a long road home from Aber. I'm talking physically as well as metaphorically; we rolled into our bed on Sunday night (Monday morning) at 02:00. A weekend consisting of five hours sleep across two days might have been slightly easier to recover from had we come home victorious, but alas it was not to be for the Smart stables this time.
The weekend started well for the Scottish invaders though. At a meeting that is notoriously dominated by the Irish visitors, we held our own on day one. The first race of the weekend belonged to Y Not Wait N C, the Cullen owned, trained and driven maiden who romped home by 12 lengths virtually unchallenged during the entire race. After a rather late night in the Pier, this was the boost quite a few of us needed to get into the swing of things! We were waiting a while for winner number two, but it eventually came in race 10 in the form of the Gilvear owned, trained and driven Master Plan who won by an impressive margin of 15L in what turned out to subsequently be the fastest time of the day. Impressive for a Grade 1, whichever way you look at it.
After that the wins came in quick succession; the very next race was dominated by the French trotter Quarillon D'Or and Gregor Menzies who led from start to finish and refused to let the competition grind him down up the home straight. The horse, affectionately known as Fred by those of us who have spent time with the Menzies stable, was a popular winner amongst the trotting fraternity and provided Gregor and family with the justification for persevering with trotters in a pacing-dominated sport.
Just two races later and it was winner number four for Scotland on the day - the mighty Rewrite History who was 7 wins from 8 starts (his only defeat coming by way of a second place to Titanium in the 3YO York Championship final which set a new British 3YO record). What made the result of the race even sweeter was that the only other Scottish runner, Hamish Muirhead's filly ATM, finished a worthy second place, so it was an impressive Scottish 1-2 in the event. Needless to say I was in every single winner's photo...the Irish do it so why can't I as an honorary Scot?!
At the end of day 1, Gordon Gilvear was top driver on points, John Gilvear was top trainer on points and Master Plan had achieved the fastest time of the day. Our long journey had been worthwhile.
Alas, day 2 wasn't able to match the first day's heights of success. After torrential downpours throughout much of the late morning, the track had become more than a little slippery and, in places, was cutting up badly. Wild Bill Hickok drew 5 of 5 on the gate in race 2, with Young Stephen landing the normally plum draw of 1 in race 3. However, the inside of the track didn't take long to cut up and we knew that this wasn't the optimum position to be in before racing had even started.
Wild Bill and the Jockey gunned it out of the gate; he broke momentarily on the bend but managed to get back down as he led down the back straight for the first time. We knew that the horse was perhaps a run away from 100% ready and in all honesty he had made the journey more as a travel companion for Stevie, and as they headed up the home straight for the finish he looked to be finishing third, however rallied against the second placed horse and managed to hang on for the blue rosette. We thought this was a promising start, with our fancied charge in the next race.
Unfortunately, things went downhill, and quickly. Stevie was really unsettled on his first long distance journey from home, despite having settled in the stables we'd rented. He bolted out of the gate, somewhat uncontrollable, and although looked to have a comfortable 3L lead heading into the back straight first time around, was there through no choice of his driver. He subsequently galloped, and finding himself mid-field at the half, went on to gallop again badly around the paddock bend on the second lap. He was an Also Ran at the conclusion of the race - this in itself was disappointing, but what was more disappointing was that at no stage in this horse's career has he ever threatened to gallop. We work our horses on a grass track and he has been 100% sound and level. The Jockey simply came off the track and said the horse was all over the place, refusing to settle and essentially out of control.
This is the most important thing I will ever say - we accepted all of the above. We packed our horses up, drove them home, and are trying again. Yes, we travelled a long way to race, at quite some expense, but we are not complaining. The horses came home in one piece, as did our driver, and that is all that matters. In the days since Aber there has been a lot of activity on social media and forums with regard to the cost of going there to race versus the prize money paid out - my answer to this is 'if you don't want to pay the costs, don't go'. By now, if people think there's real money to be made in this game (unless you are a top professional trainer), then they're dafter than I thought. Having had the benefit of working on two separate committees, one which staged a one off annual meeting and one which stages in excess of 20 meetings a season, I am in awe of the people who raise the money to stage a race meeting. It is hard work. Those who moan about the poor prize money and the cost of racing have never once helped stage a meeting. Racing isn't compulsory; it is a hobby that we CHOOSE to participate in. Keeping horses has cost me more in my life than I would dare to quantify, and will continue to be a drain on my purse for the rest of my life.
Why do I keep horses then?
Because without horses, and without racing, my life would be a shell of the life I lead right now.
On a final note, I would like to congratulate all of the winning connections of the horses that showed great skill, strength, speed and stamina to win over the weekend. My highlight, and I am biased because he's a very good friend of mine, was Richard Haythornthwaite and Imjustalittleguy in the Saturday final. Trained by an 'amateur', a man who looks after his horse by himself, takes it to meetings and has some fun with it, Richard Walker not only took home a substantial amount of prize money, but he also cleaned up at the bookies as they foolishly sent his horse off at around 18-1. He also beat the top professional Irish stables, experts at clearing up at these festivals. His driver could not have been calmer when the three fancied Irish horses went clear with a quarter to go, but before the last eighth I could see the foot on the gas and the enormous run coming from the little horse. It was a truly remarkable race to witness.
Before I sign off, my thanks must go to all of my friends for making the social side of the meeting one to remember. Also to the new friends I made, who won't be forgotten and who I will hopefully be reunited with when I travel to Portmarnock for the Vincent Delaney Memorial in August. This truly is the best sport in the world!
Over and out,