That's right, Wild Bill Hickok made it three wins from four starts on Thursday night! This week he actually saw the gate for the first time since Aberystwyth, although it was on the wide outside. The Jockey didn't let that deter him and the little horse bolted out of the gate, heading into the first turn at breakneck speed. He managed to settle and came back to the field when he was first challenged by Mid Day Scot, holding him off easily. Next came Daytona, and again Wild Bill held off the challenge and went clear of the field again. He came home relatively unchallenged to finish, and we were delighted.
However, the stewards immediately called The Jockey into the stewards' room and I was left to walk Wild Bill up and down the track waiting on the official result being given. I had Star in the next race and when the horses in her race started coming on to the track to warm up, I had to take him off the track to get her ready. I need to thank Michael and Hugh O'Neil for helping me get the cart off and for lending me a lead rope when the tractor and grader came around because I was stranded half way between the paddock gate and the winner's circle waiting to find out if we could get our winner's photo (we didn't). As I got back to the box the result was announced as 'all clear'. I then had to wait even longer for my driver to be released from the stewards' room, which meant Star had much less time to warm up as the other horses as the car began to roll almost immediately after she'd paraded and gone down the back straight. I didn't realise how long all of this went on until Smarty told me that night that it was 35 minutes in total. Thirty five minutes, for the result to stand.
Even better than that, The Jockey was up at the stables on Saturday morning when I was jogging Star and Smarty asked him what exactly happened. The horse had veered in slightly as the gate began to pull away and it was the starter who had instigated the enquiry. However, the stewards did not show The Jockey a replay of the video, so the length of time spent in the stewards room was simply them arguing over whether the horse veering in had been hampered.
Some people might say that The Jockey should have requested to see the video, and that the stewards are not at liberty to show a replay without a request. However, for a driver who hasn't frequented the stewards room very often in his driving career, despite his slightly advanced years, and also a person who, it is fair to say, is on the shy and reserved side, I don't think his first thought would have been to request to see the video. He was immediately asked to justify his actions. Not everybody has the benefit of having a relative who claims to be from a legal background instructing them to 'say nothing until they've shown you the video' - although I AM from a legal background and in hindsight I SHOULD have asked to go into the stewards with him. Unfortunately on the only other occasion where he was called in (last season, for alleged non-trying), the attitude of one of the stewards after the racing towards me caused me to lose my cool and then I'm of no use to anybody.
Anyway, what's done is done. The Jockey isn't one of the drivers who is unfairly picked on repeatedly at Corbiewood, and he can fight his own battles. Star didn't have a chance of winning her race what with Master Plan being in beside her so the reduced warm up time wasn't a major issue, although I didn't want my horse coming off the track injured because she wasn't sufficiently warmed up. For the first time this season, she did not lead out from the gate and found a space on the rail in fifth (which is what I requested). The race went 1.01.1 to the half and Master Plan came home in 2.02.15, which is the fastest time of the season so far at Corbiewood; Star finished fourth and posted a new PB of 2.06.16, which is a second and a half improvement from her run the week before. I was pretty pleased if I'm honest. My horse is definitely making leaps and bounds towards a run that will see her win.
On Saturday we travelled down to Tir Prince for the Crock of Gold Final meeting. I must admit, it wasn't the best card I've ever seen at Tir Prince and I did expect to see better considering the nature of the event. The Crock of Gold Final itself was full to the brim with the top FFA horses in the country and couldn't be faulted. The rain tried its best to dampen spirits but by the time the CoG went to post it had dried up, and as things on the book quietened down I took up my spot by the rail to watch the parade and the race. Stoneriggs Mystery was the favourite and rightly so, and despite his starting position drawn 7, he was still the horse I thought they all had to beat. Despite the early pacesetters being in themselves strong contenders, Mystery did what Mystery does best - he put his ears back, his head forward and he paced as fast as his legs could move. He is the type of horse that would run through a brick wall for you if you asked him to. In the final quarter he wasn't even racing anybody; he was that much clear that I'd have been surprised if he could hear the field behind him fighting it out for the placings. He's a horse who doesn't need another horse beside him to keep him rolling, once he's hit top gear he just keeps going and you can almost see the determination in him. He knows what winning feels like and he wants to keep doing it.
When you look back at his career, as a British-bred horse who started from the bottom, it really is phenomenal. Many people recall him winning his maiden impressively and knowing that he was going to go far; I wonder how many times that is said before a horse fails to reach the level expected of it or disappears into the wilderness? But Mystery kept rising and kept winning. At the beginning of this season, it was almost a case of 'make or break' for the horse; on past form he was a stronger horse at the beginning of a season, however in 2015 his first couple of runs were more than lacklustre (he broke on his first start at Appleby, and then was 7th at Wolverhampton). Smarty and I spend a lot of time travelling around the country and therefore a lot of time talking about horses and racing, and the subject of Mystery's retirement did come up in conversation on more than one occasion.
On our drive to Tir Prince on 20th June, Smarty told me it was 'now or never' for the horse. If he was ever going to get himself back in form, tonight was the night.
That night really was the night.
Despite finding himself parked two wide for nearly the whole race, Stoneriggs Mystery romped home in 1.56.5. From there, he went to Aberystwyth where he claimed the FFA, then back to Tir Prince for another victory, this time in 1.58.6. At Portmarnock he tasted defeat but only by a nose from Bath Lane in a track record time of 1.55, and upon his return to the UK the following week he won the Daniel Welling FFA at York. His last five victories have earned him the best part of £9,000, and his victory in the Crock of Gold Final on Saturday night put him in the record books as the first horse to regain his title after winning it the first time around in 2012. He is the Kauto Star of harness racing; the people's champion and the horse that never gives up.
From 57 starts he has recorded 33 victories, with a PB of 1.55.7 and earnings of £38,800. That in itself is outstanding, but when you take into consideration the route by which he climbed to the top - the horse was not a 2, 3 or 4 year old champion. He did not amass his pot of gold through the lucrative juvenile races. His first start was a Grade 0 and 1 pace, and he now finds himself at the top of the tree as a Grade 12.
David Morton, the man who bought Mystery off his breeder after his first three starts (and wins) in 2009, has since bought and bred a number of other horses, all in the pursuit of his next FFA star. I spoke to him after the racing and told him I didn't think he would ever find another horse like Stoneriggs Mystery, and he agreed with me. To win one Crock of Gold is hard; to win two is even harder, but to win the second three years after the first, with the rise of younger FFA horses, off the back of a difficult 2014 season and two bad runs at the beginning of this season....that is what champions are made of.
Once again, I was glad to have witnessed it. There are things I've seen in my short time in the sport that I will never forget, and Saturday night was one of them.
Over and out,