“People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.” ― Carl Sagan
For the past week I have thought long and hard about this matter. Bearing in mind that my main goal is to 'sell' harness racing to the public as a great product, I have always shied away from highlighting some of the negative aspects of the sport. But it would be naïve of me to think that those who read my blog would believe all is rosy within the game - after all, nothing in this world is perfect.
I'm not going to discuss non-trying, 'doping' or underhand racing tactics, although these do exist in varying degrees throughout the sport (and in all other racing, all over the world), but something which rules, tests and stewards can never abolish - the people.
I have said, in print and verbally, that the best thing about harness racing is the people. Nowhere else will you find such a colourful array of people - farmers, travellers, tradesmen, vets, office-types, young, old, from all the corners of the UK and Ireland. Having expanded my network of acquaintances (and dare I say, friends?) at Aberystwyth, upon my return I was genuinely buoyed by the feeling of togetherness shared amongst racing people. At no point was I asked how much money I earned, or what type of house I grew up in, or what my parents did for a living. The only questions I was required to answer were 'What's your name?', 'Are you coming to Portmarnock?' and 'What would you like to drink?'. All questions I was more than happy to answer! Racing folk take people as they find them. By the time the weekend was over, I had two offers of lifts from the airport to the track in August, around 10 new friends on Facebook and several new numbers in my phone.
With this in mind, I bounced into Corbiewood, where I have always felt the same sense of camaraderie. Things unravelled very quickly after this point. Cracks had begun to appear in my positive outlook regarding Scotland and its racing fraternity long before it all fell apart. Following a decision by the SHRC committee to stage heats and a final at the opening meeting for Grades 2 up (in the same manner as we had done at Cilmery after Wellfield Earl won the £1000 final and went from a Grade 1 to a Grade 5, not winning a race for a season and a half after that victory), many licence holders were unhappy about this. One gentleman spoke very abuptly to me about it one morning whilst I was visiting friends at the track; I was a touch delicate from a wild one the night before and therefore not in the mood for an argument, but I explained as best I could the reasoning behind the decision. I was forced to explain, repeatedly, that the SHRC had NOT acted outside its jurisdiction in framing the races as we had, despite his claims that handicapping is a matter reserved for the BHRC. I tired of explaining that this was a framing matter, not a handicapping matter, and eventually gave up. He subsequently walked around making a fool of me in front of other people at the track. This was the last time we spoke. In hindsight, at least this person had the decency to approach me to my face and thrash it out. An attitude that is unfortunately not shared by many of the others I have come up against since.
Other licence holders held us to ransom - with the knowledge that we were struggling for entries (having failed to stage the first two meetings in the calendar due to a lack of entries), they openly refused to enter their Grade 1 horses as they felt aggrieved to be excluded from the opportunity to run in a final. The committee held a crisis meeting and eventually conceded to these demands. The main objective was to get the season started, which we achieved. However, I began to look around me at some of those taking part in the sport and wondering what planet they had come from. In Wales, we did not have the luxury of a fixed venue every week, and in particular our camp had to travel a minimum of an hour to attend a meeting (apart from Cilmery, which we started ourselves in 2010). We raced everywhere, sometimes with poor race framing, poor prize money and poor tracks, because WE SIMPLY WANTED TO RACE. This attitude does not extend to all participants in Scotland. It is a mindset I will never understand.
These were the cracks which were forming. I continued to try to see the best in everyone and everything, in the way that only a lifelong optimist can. I can assure you, what has happened in the last fortnight is enough to test anyone's resolve.
Firstly, having left my horse with a friend to train for a few weeks (for personal reasons), she was brought to the track to complete her second workout in 2.35. Smarty assured our friend that he was able to do this before the racing commenced on the Thursday evening; this was at 5pm. Our friend, foolishly put a number cloth on the horse which was intended for another horse that was due to run in a qualifier later in the evening. He did this because he thought you were not allowed on the track without a number cloth. I cannot stress enough here how innocent these MISTAKES were, on his part and mine. Star worked out, was washed down, and went home with my friend immediately after the other horse had run in its qualifier as he had received some bad news. I was subsequently, and I thought innocently, asked by a friend and fellow committee member, what Star's racing name was. I thought nothing more of it.
The following Monday, at the workout and qualifier night at the track, my friend was hauled in front of the stewards for breaking a club rule in working my horse out on a race night. The incident had been reported to the stewards on the Thursday. Smarty was incensed. This is a practice which happens all over the UK, and regularly at Corbiewood. The stewards dealt with me and my friend accordingly, and rest assured, we will not make the same mistake again. I left the track that night in the knowledge that somebody who I race alongside on a weekly basis, had grassed on us. I subsequently found out that a lot of people at the track had been asking what the name of my horse was - I was the subject of the track gossip - yet at no point had anybody spoken to me regarding the matter. I was very upset, trying to second guess all of the once-innocent questions my friends had asked about Star, and felt like I couldn't trust anybody.
Smarty knew that whoever had reported us would show their hand, and show their hand they did. The whole affair was brought out in the open at a committee meeting this week, when one of the committee members asked the rest of the group why the incident had been allowed to happen. This question immediately indicated which camp had reported me. Words were said, and it was made very clear to me that a group of people who were once friends of mine, whose houses I have sat in, whose tea and cakes I have been treated to, had taken issue with something I had innocently and mistakenly done, as they believed that I was doing as I pleased due to being the Vice Chairman. Being caught doing something wrong doesn't bother me - I endeavour to live my life following the rules, and on this occasion made an honest mistake. However, an unwritten rule was broken, and nobody had the decency to speak to me face to face about it.
Furthermore, the same person (on behalf of their camp) then criticised the framing of the races at Corbiewood which allowed a Grade 1 horse to win by 18L at the previous meeting (report on Harnesslink can be found at http://www.harnesslink.com/UK-Ireland/Fwd--Report2). Aside from the fact that the handicap system placed this horse in this grade, and occasionally horses that are much better than their handicap mark appear (Stoneriggs Mystery, FFAller and one of the greatest racehorses in British harness racing history won his maiden in 1.59 after all), rather than enjoy the spectacle and quietly hope that this horse could head onto the national platform and represent Scotland on the bigger stage (we take pride in having superstars - every time Rewrite History races we want him to win), certain people felt the need to run down the victory and declare it to be a 'poor spectacle' for the paying public. Considering the paying public at Corbiewood is primarily racing people, the whole outburst smacked of jealousy. I advised that the individual should avoid standing with such bitter company.
And therein lies the problem. Jealousy. It is inherent within the sport, and not only in Scotland (although probably moreso because we are the same people racing at the same venue on a weekly basis). As time passes, I see the different factions grating against each other, avoiding each other, whispering behind each other's backs. I thought I was exempt from it, but it transpires that I am not. It is the worst thing about the sport. And yet these people are the best thing about it. It is a concept I struggled with so intensely over the weekend that I decided I would stand down as the Vice Chairman at the next AGM, on the advice of my other half. He can see how hard I am trying to take things forward, and he knows how deeply I am affected by negativity. I couldn't come to terms with the brick walls that I have to face.
Then on Monday I had what I can only describe as an epiphany. The realisation that in standing down, 'they' would win. 'They' being any person who wants to see those who try, fail. I can't name names, not because I don't want to but because people don't speak out openly about how they feel, they don't openly admit to being the 'party-poopers'. But all the people who behind my back, behind the backs of the people who work hard to try to get this spectacle out there, wish defeat upon us, refuse to change their mindsets, cling on to the past and 'the way things have always been done'.
I have never given up on anything in my life. What I want, I get, because I put in the hard work to achieve it. And I am not alone. There are other people like me; people who I am fortunate enough to have alongside me on the committee, people on other committees, people at the BHRC. Unpaid, overworked, under-appreciated people who don't want thanks, but don't want criticism at every turn. We do this for the good of the sport we love, in the hope that one day we'll crack whatever it is that has held us back for so long.
I believe I will witness that day. If I stop believing it, then we may as well give up. If I remain the last optimistic person in the country, the dream lives on. Where there is a will, there definitely IS a way.
It has taken me a lot of time and effort to write this; as initially stated I do not want to broadcast the sport of harness racing as being afflicted with internal problems but the harsh reality is that it is. So is any other competitive sport. It is simply made harder to stomach for people like me, whose skins aren't yet thick enough, because we are so few in number and those who stand against you are often those you would call your friends.
The dream lives on. I continue to write for Harnesslink, and I cannot thank Steve Wolf for giving me the opportunity to do this. I look forward to meeting him at last during his working vacation to the UK and Ireland at the end of this month. He really has inspired me to pursue my love for writing. I have been able to add Corbiewood to the Visit Scotland website on their horse racing page (http://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities/horse-racing) and have received queries from members of the public with regard to the facilities and forthcoming fixtures. The SHRC Facebook page continues to grow, with nearly 700 'likes' since its creation a couple of months ago. Paul Moon, author of The Racing Horse blog, has featured some of my writing on his own blog, and I look forward to meeting him at Allensmore this coming weekend. And as a final note, I am organising a 'Racehorse to Riding Horse' parade at Corbiewood on Sunday 11th October, which I hope would not only become an annual event, but something that other tracks around the country might adopt. It combines my two goals - introducing riding people to racing, and proving to racing people that Standardbreds CAN go on to other careers when they finish racing (something I have championed since my early days with STAGBI).
I repeat my motto as a conclusion: where there is a will, there's a way. Don't you stop believin' it!
Over and out,
#1 Scottish groom, author, dogsbody & eternal optimist