Friday, 25 September 2015

An Ode to Merrington Missile

In October 2013, I decided I was going to buy a horse.  The entries for the Brightwells Standardbred Sale at Builth Wells had been received at STAGBI and as I was working through the list to ensure that they were DNA parentally verified, I came across the entries from the Laidler stables.  One horse jumped out at me: Merrington Missile.

I asked Smarty to tell me everything he knew of the horse, and his opinion as to whether it would be a suitable training project for my first summer in Scotland which was scheduled to be May 2014 onwards.  I knew the horse was broken to ride, which gave me the option of selling him on as a rider once I'd tried racing him.

I'd already seen him race during the 2013 season with Rocker and Alexis' son William driving him to victory in a C Class race.  If they were willing to put their teenage son on the horse, plus ride him in saddle races, then he seemed alright for a novice trainer like me.  The horse had won the Breeders Crown 3YO Colts & Geldings in 2012, as well as finishing second in a heat of the York 3YO Championship.  He had potential, and had won a number of other handicap races (many of which were penalty free), therefore would start the 2014 season as a Grade 1.  We agreed that we would check him out at the sale, and for the right price we would buy him for me to train.

John subsequently did some digging via a friend who was an owner in the stable and found out that there was a reserve of £1500 for him.  This was more than we were willing to pay for him so the decision was made to let him pass us by, and I could train one of the geldings the Smart's had in the field.  I didn't want to do that, as I wanted my own horse to train where I was answerable to nobody, but agreed that it was probably the best course of action.

On sale day, I was busy in the sales office (which had been moved away from the sale ring, unconveniently for me) with the Brightwells staff as it was my first year working alone without my supervisor who was unable to attend.  I was responsible for all transfer forms being completed and printed with the new owner's details, plus releasing passports for all horses, sold and unsold.  Alexis Laidler arrived after the sale had started and entered the office to hand in the necessary paperwork, and whilst there requested a change of reserve form from the Brightwells staff.  Being the nosey person that I am, as she was about to leave I asked her what the reserve on Merrington Missile was.  She told me that Rocker had said 'he had to go' so there was no longer a reserve on him.  That was all I needed to know.  I found Smarty in the sale ring, told him this and asked that he go to check the horse over for any obvious signs of wear and tear that would prevent him from being a sound purchase.  A buyer's number was subsequently obtained and he was left in charge with the sole instruction not to go over £800.  I memorised the buyer's number and waited.

A couple of times I ran across to the sale ring to listen to the lot number to see whether it was Missile's turn in the ring.  As buyers started to filter through to the office, I had to wait until there was a quiet moment to run back over to the sale ring.  As I entered the doors I heard my buyer's number being shouted out by the auctioneer - I knew that I'd bought the horse, but not for how much.  At this point I need to thank my mother, who paid for the horse on the day with her credit card as I had no means by which to pay!  I had purchased a 4yo gelding by Pierce Seelster out of Merrington Heights for the princely sum of £750, although Smarty later admitted to me that he would have kept going past my limit because he was having the horse.  I hope he would have at least paid the difference...

Smarty arranged for the O'Neils to transport him back to Ayr, where he would collect him during the week.  After all the paperwork in the office had been dealt with, I ran up to the stables to see my new purchase for the first time - what a disappointment that was.  He was that intent on eating his bedding that I couldn't get near him for fear of losing a limb.  That was when I found out that nobody interrupts Missile when he's eating.  Thankfully Ryan O'Neil was able to catch him and he went back up to Scotland, having raced up there the day before in a saddle race, where he finished third.  He had a busy couple of days that weekend with plenty of travelling.  The following day I must have rejected at least 3 separate offers from people who had either been at the sale and missed to buy him, or who didn't make it to the sale.  I thought long and hard about selling him on immediately for a small profit, but he had already gotten under my skin.  That was the beginning of our relationship; I felt I owed him something.

Enjoying a bath
When I moved up to Scotland in May 2014, Missile had already been in work for a couple of weeks with Smarty.  He had learnt to trot whilst being jogged instead of pace, and had slowed down his jogging speed due to the size of our track in comparison to the Laidlers.  For weeks I struggled to get along with him - he simply didn't like me.  He was grumpy to handle, but a gentleman to jog.  We finally found a routine that worked for both of us and as time passed, I think he grew to like me in some small way.  I began hacking him out around the village and found him to be a wonderful riding horse, with lovely paces and a great temperament regardless of whether we were in heavy traffic or open countryside, alone or in company.  This was despite him only having been ridden a handful of times and with the purpose of racing.  Hacking became something he enjoyed and was suitable for.

Jogging with Smarty
A view I got used to
At Aberystwyth at the beginning of July last year, John Howard had a bet with me that I wouldn't win a race with him; he, along with many others, felt that the horse had seen his best years of racing with the top stable in the country and was no longer competitive.  I was adamant that I would prove him, and them, wrong.  Less than a week later I took the horse to Haugh Field for his first start.  Due to being parked two wide the full way, he finished second by a short head in his heat which qualified him for the final.  In the final, the Jockey drove him with more conviction and he made all, winning the race and along with it putting £500 in my pocket, plus the tenner John Howard had bet me.  I still remember Hugh Menzies asking me what I'd given him as we waited for the official result on the track.  I never found out if he was joking or if he thought I had genuinely given my horse some sort of banned substance...

Winning the £500 final at Haugh Field

That would be the only race that we would win, although there were a handful of second and third places along the way in what turned out to be only 8 starts from July to the Murdock weekend in September.  He wasn't the sort of horse you could race week in week out, and I didn't want to sour him.  When the time came to advertise him for sale as a rider, which had been my plan all along, I didn't expect much interest straight away.  However, after advertising him on a Tuesday evening, a young girl came to try him on the Friday and he was sold there and then.  I requested permission to race him on the weekend before delivering him on the Monday, as Nicola McGregor and Lee Cattigan were down to drive him in the Ladies Race and C Class Race respectively.  He raced, finishing third with Lee and out of the placings with Nicola who gave him an easy drive knowing he was going away the following day, and his racing career was ended on a relatively high note.  He had won me £760, given two 18 year olds a bit of fun on the track and given me a summer of great fun, both on and off the track.  Without him, my adjustment to life in Scotland would have taken a lot longer; every day I had something to get out of my bed for.  Thanks to him I made friends in the village who I hacked out with, and friends at the track because I was there so often working him out or racing him.

Hacking up around The Pit
Proving himself to be quiet for a fully fit racehorse
On September 14th 2014 he was delivered to his new home in Hawick, Scottish Borders, and I thought that would be the making of him in a home where he would be ridden regularly by a girl who adored him and his quirky personality.  Unfortunately, that didn't work out.  The girl's personal circumstances changed dramatically in May 2015 and she was unable to keep him.  Rather than see him passed from pillar to post, or end up with people who didn't understand that his grumpiness was a part of who he is and not something that can be beaten out of him, I bought him back.  People said I was too sentimental, but I had grown fond of Missile and I wanted a good home for him; a home that I was able to check before he left me again.  When he came 'home', he wasn't in the same condition as that in which I had sold him.  I appreciate that he had gone through a winter and was entitled to lose condition and the shine he'd had during the summer, but with the benefit of hindsight I don't think the girl was prepared for looking after a horse of that size.  I knew I couldn't find a new home for him as he was, so turned him out for the summer, first with a herd of mares, then alone for a short spell, and then with Cassius Clay, our 4yo Hasty Hall gelding.

For four months all I saw of Missile was what I could see over the gate to the field.  He was left to be a horse, put some weight on, and enjoy what little of the summer we had.  On Tuesday September 15th, Smarty and me went to the field to bring him in, ready to prepare him for being sold.  He came to us immediately after spotting the feed we were carrying, and the trademark ears-back-teeth-out face appeared.  All we could do was laugh: Missile was feeling himself again.  We caught him, walked him through the village to the stables, groomed him and put him in his old stable for the night.  I advertised him that evening, not expecting too much interest too quickly.

Coming in after 4 months at the grass
That same night, I received an enthusiastic message from a lady who lived not too far from us, looking for a horse for her teenage daughter.  They were keen to come to see him and try him out, but I needed time to get his feet trimmed and tidy him up a bit.  I initially put them off to the Thursday evening, however on the Wednesday evening they contacted me asking to come and see him that night (less than 24 hours after he was advertised).  The Jockey had trimmed his feet for me and I took him for a quick spin around the track to make sure he remembered what being ridden was all about, which he did.  The lady and her daughter arrived, fed him some carrots, watched him being tacked up and then away the girl and Missile went.  For the best part of 45 minutes, she walked, trotted, paced and cantered around our track, laughing at his vocals and enjoying the feeling of discovering an extra gait.  She untacked him, fed him the remainder of the carrots and they agreed to contact me as soon as they were home to let me know what they wanted to do.

As soon as they'd left I knew he was for them.  It was the way the girl laughed at him when he pulled his faces, kept his attention by sharing carrots with him and persevered with getting him to canter despite him not knowing her signals.  For reasons unknown to me, Missile appeals to teenage girls, and he seems to actually like them in a way that he has never liked me.  Sure enough, the lady rang me when they got home and told me it was a resounding yes.

On Sunday, 20th September, we delivered Missile to their livery yard in Carronshore. I couldn't have hoped for a better home for him, with a young girl who had already made promises that this would be his final home.  There were invitations to visit, promises of photos and updates and even requests to her mother for a sulky after seeing our racing ones.  I even agreed to help source another pacer for the girl's mother who wanted to hack out with her daughter and Missile.

The day was one of mixed emotions for me.  I had found the home for Missile that I had dreamt of.  The kind of place every horse who retires from racing deserves, but that most don't find.  I knew he'd be alright because he'd struck up a bond with the girl almost immediately, and I could see she had the confidence to let him know that she was the boss.

The dream team!

Missile became a wonderful riding horse, even whilst racing
Things did not go smoothly however; that night, I received a call to say that the horse was lame and that he had to be returned.  I knew in my heart of hearts that the only cause for this must have been the set of shoes that the Jockey had put on that morning; whether it was a stray nail or the hoof had been cut back a bit tight.  But other people at the livery yard had spotted the white marks on his hind legs from when he had treatment for curbs on his hocks.  This is a standard procedure carried out by veterinary professionals and all will tell you that when done correctly, there are no further problems for the horse.  A pleasure horse can live with curbs, and I expect a racehorse can to a certain degree but it was a corrective procedure carried out on Missile that he arrived to my stable having had done, and it did not cause him any problems whilst racing.  This lack of knowledge on their part (after they also wrongly told the new owner that the marks were because the horse had been nerve-blocked in his hind legs) coupled with someone from the harness racing telling the livery yard owner that Missile had 'broken down' on the track, put an understandable fear into the new owners that I had mis-sold them an unsound horse and had not declared any of this.

Naturally, I was upset.  I was upset that the horse was lame, however could account for this as he had not been lame when tried out or delivered, but more upset that somebody who I spend my weekends racing with would tell such a vicious lie which appeared to be sabotaging the horse's chance of a forever home, whilst also tarnishing my name.  If I owned a racehorse which broke down and could no longer have a racing career, nor could it go on to enjoy life as a riding horse, unless I was able to keep it as a companion (and it was able to live pain free without constant medication), I would have the horse put down.  That makes me sound like a monster, but I have seen neglected horses.  This country is full of them.  We don't eat horsemeat, and we don't export enough of it.  There is effectively no trade on horsemeat and no system by which to monitor it like there is with cattle and sheep, no matter how much DEFRA protest otherwise.  Putting a horse to sleep is an act of kindness; if I can't find a satisfactory home for my horses in those circumstances, or they are not suitable for such homes, then I would do the kindest thing.  You can rest assured that if Missile had indeed broken down, and that would jeopardise his ability to be an effective riding horse, and I was unable to let him live out his days with me, then he would have been put to sleep.  I would NEVER sell a horse that was not fit for purpose to anybody.

Missile had raced throughout 2012 as a three year old; throughout 2013 up until the day before I bought him at public auction, and throughout 2014 up until the day before he was sold as a riding horse.  His BHRC race record proves this; at no point is there an unexplained absence from racing which could be accounted for as him having broken down.  So the insinuation must then be that we would race a chronically lame horse.  The Smarts have been in racing a long, long time, and they may have been historically known for being non-triers (those days have long gone) but they sure as hell aren't known for running horses that aren't 100% right.  I wouldn't put a horse on the track knowing there was something wrong.  I can only wonder as to the motive behind this lie.  I know who the person is that told it as well - to you I say this: the new owners of Missile have taken professional advice from a farrier and a vet, who have both confirmed that upon inspection he does not display any signs of any significant injury to any of his legs.  There is no damage to his tendons, and the current lameness is as a result of over-zealous trimming which will be resolved in a week.

To those who share the livery yard with Missile: use this as a lesson.  Do not judge a horse, or its sellers, by the words of others.  Research before you make statements about things you do not understand or know about.  Do not allow your jealousy at someone purchasing a stunning animal cloud your judgment.  I look forward to visiting you all and being able to carry my head high knowing that I sold a good horse in good faith and with all relevant information disclosed.

I have had word from the new owners that Missile has settled in well.  He follows the girl around the field like a giant Labrador; when she lays on the grass to do her revision he wanders around her sniffing her boots and her hair;  he has followed her over small jumps in the arena when loose-schooling; and he stands in the evenings whilst she does carrot stretches with him.  As unfortunate as his temporary lameness may be, the two of them are building a bond that will carry them through to the end of Missile's life.

The photo that made me realise how handsome he really was
 The end of the Missile era for me is here.  The Missile has been launched for the final time.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A trip to the 'the dark side'

I hope firstly that my friends with Wales & Border Counties can take the title as it is intended - as a joke.  I'd like to think that the collective sense of humour within the 'breakaway' division of the sport remains, as the people are renowned for their light-heartedness and ability to have fun.

They say a change is as good as a rest, and in addition to a handful of other factors during the week, the visit to my first Wales & Border Counties race meeting of 2015 certainly cheered me up and having had so much fun, I felt compelled to return to writing.  This blog is something I enjoy after all, and it would be foolish of me to cut off my nose to spite my face.

Before I get to my analysis of the meeting at Beulah Show, I would like to mention a couple of people (and their horses) who have reminded me entirely why I love the sport of harness racing so much: Simon Clarke and Kirsty Legrice (and Sherwood Bluey & Cool Night Ayr).  Simon, apart from when he's driving in races, is the starter at York and Kirsty is his partner/groom/karaoke provider/biggest supporter.  The day that Sherwood Bluey won his maiden at York (1st August 2015) stood out for me as the owners of the horse that was beaten for second appeared to have pre-empted victory and been waiting near the winner's enclosure.  I spotted them walking back towards the paddock and the next thing I saw was Kirsty sprinting towards the winner's enclosure with her arms in the air looking as though she'd just won the Crock of Gold final.  Smarty and me burst out laughing at the time, because in reality it was 'just' a maiden race.  But money can't buy that feeling of winning, especially with a horse you train at home yourself.  Having gotten to know them both better at the two day meeting at York in August, I was again delighted for them when Bluey won last week at Tir Prince, and when word got to me that Cool Night Ayr had won heat and final at Longnor last Thursday I was over the moon.  I still think back to the day Bluey won his maiden when Kirsty bolted for the winner's enclosure and it makes me smile.  That's what this sport is all about, and people forget that.

So with that in mind, I flew down to Wales on Friday night to attend my local show, or what used to be my local show before my 330 mile relocation last year.  Beulah has always been, for reasons unknown to my family and I, one of the most competitive race meetings in the W&B calendar.  The prize money on offer is a fraction of that paid out at the major meetings such as Penybont and Caersws, however in the past I have witnessed driving finishes worthy of the Tregaron Classic Final, with three or four horses crossing the line together.  My dad is one of the judges, and with the trailer housing the judges, cameraman and commentator located on the outside of the track, and the crowd, bookies, bar and food on the inside of the track, I adopted a role of runner many years ago.

But before I delve into the racing, I'd like to tell you a bit about the rest of the day, as the harness racing is only the final event on a day full of activities which my family and I are deeply emersed in.

Everything for the Thomas family kicks off at 10am with the showjumping.  This year there was a team of 6 of us attempting to coordinate over 20 horses across five classes: my mother, Shaz (she HATES me calling her that, but she doesn't read this so I'm getting away with it), our neighbour Jen, our other neighbour Tracey, Emma Phillips (the partner of Titanium and Miraculous' breeder, Gareth Price), her dad John 'Bish' Phillips and myself.  I was responsible for taking entries and payment, filling in the score sheets with rider and horse details and ensuring riders were ready to enter the ring.  I love doing this job because I get to chat to the riders and spend time with the ponies, many of whom have been coming to Beulah for years and also many of whom Star and I hunted alongside over the last two seasons that I was in Wales (shout out for Dinky, Katie & Aero in particular).
Some of the prize winners at Beulah in the SJ: (L-R) Elin & Dinky, Katie & Spice, Olivia & Smartie, Chloe & Frenchy and Cerys & Annie
After 4 hours of the jumping, I moved over to help my dad run the gymkhana games, which are four classes for the under-13 category (Minimus) and then 4 classes for the over-13s (Open).  Every year we get a good turnout for this with 7 or 8 in each class, which requires us to split them into two heats and a final for most events.  Because most of the children have been competing in the SJ, I've been able to gauge their riding ability and confidence levels in order to split them fairly.  Every year we manage to get different winners in each class, so that almost everybody goes home with a rosette of some description.  The children love it, and this year was no different as four separate families came to thank us afterwards for making the day so much fun.  The highlight of both age groups is the apple bobbing, which was as hilarious this year as it's ever been with two girls fighting it out for third place in a record-breaking length of time!

Just to make things totally unfair on all of those who get soaked in that event (apart from the winner of the Open, who quite frankly barely broke the surface of the water to get her apple out), we then hold the final event of the horse riding which is the jewel in the crown and combines both the jumping and the gymkhana - Chase Me Charlie.  Bish, despite having finished up on the jumping some time before, stuck around to help out with this and give the youngsters the same encouragement he'd been giving whilst working in the SJ events.  We started with six competitors, each taking a turn at going over a fence which increased in height with every round.  If one person knocked the fence down, they would be eliminated from the next round.  On this occasion, and I am pleased to be saying this, the winner was Sabrina Stephens, a young lady whose mother is the secretary for Penybont harness races and who has in the past ridden and driven in harness races.  What's more, is that the horse that she won the competition on was a Standardbred, by the name of Village Joe, aka Joey.  Joey is a 10 year old son of Village Marquis and Sunset Valley (Single Ideal), bred by Bob Howard Jnr of Morecambe, Lancashire.  Joey raced a handful of times with Wales & Borders before moving onto this secondary career.

Village Joe aka Joey winning the Chase Me Charlie at 1.05m with Sabrina Stephens
There are very few things I love more than when Standardbreds prove to the world that they are capable of doing anything they turn their hoof to.  Joey was relaxed during the showjumping earlier in the day and picked up a few rosettes, however in the Chase Me Charlie he was pretty worked up having taken part in some of the gymkhana classes and as a result, paced into every fence (despite being able to canter on command).  Despite this, he still managed to clear every fence and was declared the winner at 1.05m.  In 2013 the competition was won by another Standardbred, Bon Hasty, who jumped 1.20m and then went on to race later that same day.  They are such great animals.

After we'd packed up all of the equipment, I headed to the paddock to see Bon Hasty and his owner Liz who is infamous now across the country for the stunt she pulled off at last year's Brightwells Standardbred Sale at the Royal Welsh Showground.  Liz was desperate to purchase a yearling, as Bon Hasty is getting on in years and she wanted something to race in the future.  However, as a primary school teacher, she was unable to get the day off work to attend the sale (which is held on the third Monday in October each year).  She could have entrusted a number of people to bid on a horse for her, but she wanted to pick out the horse herself, check it over, and make sure what she was buying was what she wanted.  So, with two fingers to numerous health and safety regulations (but with the consent of the headteacher and the parents), she brought her class of nearly 30 children to the sale.  The trip was painted as an educational one, and I have no doubt the children had a wonderful time looking around the stables and sat around the ring, chatting to various harness racing people.  Liz also managed to buy herself a Doonbeg filly out of Bon Sian, the mother of Bon Jasper who has had a prolific career both with British Harness and later with Wales & Borders (he continues to race this season as a 12 year old).

There was only really one horse I was interested in seeing racing at Beulah and that was For One Night Only, the 4 year old half-brother to Star.  For One Night Only, or Jimmy as I christened him as a foal, won five races last season and going into his heat at Beulah had notched up 9 wins this season.  His dam, Newtown Playmate, having been sold to England by my father when he decided to give up on breeding, had been bought by a friend of mine near Builth and returned to Wales last week on the basis of Jimmy's success over the last two seasons.

It was great to see the horse, as I haven't seen him since the day he was sold as a yearling at Builth.  He's over 16hh and is a much more athletic type than Star; long legs and light in the body.  He has what my father would describe as a 'plain' head but I thought he was rather handsome.  I'm biased though, having loved Playmate from the moment she arrived and every foal out of her just as much (apart from the first one, Freddie aka Sable Mate, he was parrot-mouthed and weedy and I didn't take to him at all).  Naturally I loved Star the most, but then she was the first foal that we ever kept, and her and I have developed a relationship which works for us...I feed her regularly, she occasionally does what I ask of her!

Jimmy was best price evens in his heat, which in hindsight were good odds considering he burst late from the pack under a cool drive from his owner/trainer/driver, Rhun Wilson.  In the final he was odds-on favourite and went off 10 yards in a field of 7, finding himself parked early.  Rhun chose to sit mid-field until they headed down the back straight for the final time, where he burst from the pack to chase down the leader, Bon Hasty, who was being driven by Liz's boyfriend as she has a broken collarbone (sustained in a riding accident whilst riding her retired racehorse, Vintage Lobell).  Due to the layout of the track and show, there is an enormous marquee which blocks part of the view of the track, and until I spoke to Liz after the race I didn't realise that Bon Hasty had broken stride around the 'Beulah turn'; as they re-emerged back into sight Jimmy was lengths clear of the field and once again came home unchallenged, pretty much jogging over the line with my dad, Rebecca (Rhun's girlfriend) and me all shouting 'Go on Jimmy!' the full length of the home straight.

For One Night Only winning his heat
My dad, Jimmy's breeder, and Rhun Wilson his owner/trainer/driver
Jimmy parading for the final
Coming home clear of the field
Reunited at last!
The other highlight from the racing was Meadowland Hasty winning the saddle race in style with Emma Layton on board.  She was wearing a Go Pro-style camera on her helmet and I am looking to at least see, if not get hold of, the footage from that race (although she was in front for most of it) purely because I think that's brilliant.  I'm surprised more drivers/riders haven't considered doing it.  It may even be something for the BHRC to think about in terms of viewing things from in a race.

Meadowland Hasty and Emma Layton winning the saddle event
The atmosphere throughout the meeting was relaxed and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Nobody was complaining about how the races were framed or about the prize money or arguing with each other.  Everyone just gets on with it because they know that there's always another meeting next week.  That's my attitude to it as well.  Maybe I'm in the wrong division after all.

Over and out,

#1 travelling groom

Monday, 7 September 2015

A visit to Arlary House

With Tregaron's main fixture reduced from three days to two, Smarty and I found ourselves with no work commitments on Sunday and decided that we would use our 'day off' to attend an open day at Lucinda Russell's National Hunt training facility at Arlary House, Milnathort, Kinross.  The event was in aid of the British Horse Society Scotland and the Injured Jockeys Fund, which is a charity that I donate to on an annual basis and have done so for a number of years. 

Lucinda Russell is currently the top National Hunt trainer in Scotland and has enjoyed success with a number of high profile horses over the past few years.  Her current stable star is Lie Forrit, who has  most recently tasted victory at Haydock on Valentine's Day this year.  I first came across her as a trainer when I saw a gorgeous grey, trained by her, by the name of Silver By Nature finish second in the 2009 Welsh National behind Dream Alliance.  Everyone raved about the winner but what I saw was a horse going three for one to hunt down the leader, and the line came too soon.  I knew then that that was a future Grand National winner, provided the conditions were right.  Silver loved the muck; the softer the ground, the more he was able to plod on.  He also seemed to thrive on distance.  Unfortunately, those optimum conditions never came (I must have been the only person wanting to see similar conditions to the 2001 Grand National when the going was soft, heavy in places).  I was lucky enough to see him in the flesh at Newbury when Smarty and I attended the Hennessy Gold Cup meeting in 2010, however he didn't repay me my loyalty by finishing in the placings (I'd bet him each way).  I still remember the exact moment when Smarty text me to let me know the terrible news that Silver By Nature had sustained a fatal injury at home on the gallops - I was out hunting on Star in Wales, sat during a quiet spell passing a hipflask with port around and when I read the message, I actually cried.  For me he remains the greatest stayer never to win the National.

Silver's death wasn't the only tragedy to hit Lucinda's yard in recent years; Cheltenham Festival winner Brindisi Breeze died in a freak accident in 2012 after jumping out of his paddock in the early hours of the morning and was subsequently struck by a tanker, and by a bizarre and deeply upsetting coincidence, the young jockey that rode him to that victory (and every other victory the horse had achieved) Campbell Gillies died the following month in an accident whilst on holiday.

Despite these tragedies, Lucinda and her staff appeared to have dusted themselves down and carried on.  It's interesting to note though that Campbell Gillies remains in their minds, as on the yard's website is featured a quote from Campbell on the homepage, describing the ethos of the workforce: (Scroll to the bottom)

Upon arrival we were given booklets containing the details of the horses currently residing at Arlary House with the suggestion that we pick a couple of horses to follow in the future.  With over 50 horses in residency at the yard, and more at Lucinda and Peter Scudamore's slightly smaller yard down the road, that seemed like a daunting task.  But we both have an eye for a horse, and we thought it would be a fun challenge to pick a handful to follow during the winter.  The first horse that caught my eye was a 4yo gelding by the name of Rising Tide, owned by Ronnie Bartlett.  Standing comfortably over 17hh, it was his height that drew me closer to his stable door.  I much prefer fences to hurdles, and always think a good chaser should have plenty of scope, which this youngster certainly did.  He was leggy, and needing time to mature, but there was something about him.  According to the notes in the booklet, he 'works well at home and has shown ability in his bumper'.  When we moved to the field to watch an in-hand parade, it was him and Lie Forrit who entered the ring last, and stayed the longest, while Lucinda sang their praises.  He was the first on my list to follow.

RISING TIDE - 2011 bay gelding - Dubai Destination x Erins Love
Rising Tide
Rising Tide
Next to the yard (which had 2 horse walkers) was a circular sand gallops where Lucinda does most of her conditioning work.  She talked about the basics of training racehorses, which is that the work on those gallops, i.e. conditioning work, would not get a horse fit.  Speed work is the only way to get a horse fit enough to race, but in order to start speed work, the horses must be conditioned correctly.  Once a week, every week, the horses use those 'conditioning' gallops.  The principle is exactly the same as how we train - we do hundreds, if not thousands, of conditioning miles at home from March through to the end of the season, but in order to get race fit, we have to do speed work, gradually increasing in speed until the horses are ready to race.  Obviously, Standardbreds tend to race on a weekly basis, unlike Thoroughbreds who might not race more than a handful of times during their season.

THE COBBLER SWAYNE - 2009 bay gelding - Milan x Turtle Lamp

The Cobbler Swayne

The Cobbler Swayne

In the 'lot' of eight that went out on the gallops, we spotted another few horses that we thought we would follow.  The first of these was The Cobbler Swayne, a 6yo gelding whose notes state that he has 'shown ability when placed over hurdles and will go chasing this year'.  A little on the stocky side, but well-conditioned and he was certainly keen on the gallops.  There was another 6yo gelding by Milan that I liked, by the name of One For Arthur. A 'very scopey gelding who was a star last season winning three times'. Lucinda said that she 'cannot wait to go chasing with him'.  He did look more like your typical chaser, and certainly carried presence.

ONE FOR ARTHUR - 2009 bay gelding - Milan x Nonnetia
One For Arthur
 Then came the obvious choice for me, as a lifelong fan of greys (One Man, Teeton Mill, Suny Bay, Senor El Betrutti, Or Royal, Grand Crus), Simarthur. A brother to Simonsig, this racy grey has already won a bumper and over hurdles, and Lucinda thinks he will win over fences.  He is currently for lease, which was tempting (until I remembered that I have no money) but Scu owns him and is so fond of him that they thought they would keep him and race him themselves.

SIMARTHUR - 2007 grey gelding - Erhaab x Dusty Too
The final horse in our 'five to follow' was another gelding by Milan, Big River. Smarty was very keen on this 5yo having seen him paraded in hand.  He will be campaigned over hurdles this coming season having won and finished second in his bumpers.

BIG RIVER - 2010 bay gelding - Milan x Call Kate

Big River

After the display of six laps in both directions, the horses were washed down and put on the walker.  We then went around the blocks of stables that we hadn't had a chance to visit beforehand, and spotted a couple of other horses that we liked for 'non-racing' reasons.  Smarty took a shine to a horse called Egret, a 5yo gelding who has tasted success in point-to-points.  The reason he liked him is because the horse was the most laid-back of every horse we saw.  We stood and stroked him for quite some time and he drifted off.  Then there was Degas Art, a bit of a star back in his heyday.  He was clearly gelded late, as he was built like a tank (reminded me a LOT of the trotter Darley Iron) and had stallion-like tendencies (biting), as one man who hovered around his stable felt the need to tell me.  He never bit me, although he did bite the man who warned me about the biting...

DEGAS ART aka the 'biter'
For a small donation to two worthwhile charities, it was definitely a good day out.  The staff were all turned out immaculately, the yard was spotless and the horses were in good condition.  There was a horse scales there, and Scu informed me that every horse gets weighed once a week, plus we had a nose around their feed barn and Smarty got stuck in about their haystore.  I spotted a couple of your stereotypical nervous looking Thoroughbreds, who due to their temperament I wasn't particularly keen on, but the majority of the horses were relaxed and appeared to be enjoying the attention from the large number of people milling around and taking photos.

The yard staff

Lucinda getting her hands dirty!

It is clear in the way that Lucinda talks about her charges that she loves what she does, and from her results she is obviously very good at it.  The facilities aren't of the same calibre as those I saw when visiting Lambourne a good few years ago, but in any sphere, if you have all the gear and no idea then you won't succeed.  I really look forward to watching those five horses through the winter months, particularly if they race at tracks that we are standing at (Haydock, Musselburgh, Ayr), and I sincerely hope that at least one turns out to be a star in the making.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 3 September 2015

From Corbiewood to Kilnsey

Via Tregaron and Appleby, with a quick visit to Milnathort, Kinross, to break it up.

There is little point in giving a blow-by-blow account of the individual meetings that I have attended since Thursday because most people who read this were either there or have seen results on Facebook or watched the racing live on Rasus.

That's right, for one weekend only our little sport was televised for the masses. Ok, so it was a Welsh-language programme, but there was English commentary available and subtitles do still exist. Televising racing is a sore subject strangely, despite on the surface seeming like a shop window for harness racing. Some people argue that by putting racing on the telly, it discourages people from jumping in their cars and attending a meeting, therefore affecting the turnover at the gate, bar and bookmakers. As the sport is funded through attendance and sponsorship, I can appreciate that by encouraging people to stay at home and watch it on the telly it will have a negative impact on the sport in some way. There are pros and cons and no doubt they will be discussed in the future.  The biggest con is that my face appeared on the TV screens of unsuspecting viewers far too many times across the two days...but that's a risk I run when I go to so many race meetings I suppose.

Anyway, the week of racing started on Thursday night at Corbiewood, and was on the face of it a disappointing night for Team Smart. With the absence of our stable jockey, Scott Murray was called up to drive two of the easiest horses to drive that we have ever had between us. By easy I mean no special instructions were required, as neither of them are prone to erratic behaviour.  Both were odds on favourites and entitled to be, however things didn't go our way and Star finished third, with Wild Bill second in his race. As always, the armchair critics of Corbiewood have tossed in their fiver's worth as to where it all went wrong but the one reason they haven't given me is this: that's racing. You'll not see any tantrums or toys being thrown out of the pram when things don't go our way. As long as we turn up at the races with our horses in the best condition and fitness that we can get them, the rest is down to somebody else, and usually moreso luck. Besides, there is always next week. And the week after. Our season doesn't end until nearly November after all. I'm still having fun, and that's the main thing.

Next came two soggy days at Tregaron. I appear to have brought home half of the field on my boots, kind of as a souvenir to remind me of some of the feats of greatness I witnessed.  The main event, the Welsh Classic Final, has to be one of, if not THE, best finals ever witnessed in this country.

The drivers of the Welsh Classic Final 2015. Photo courtesy of Irfon Bennett.
Despite trailers of 30 and 60 yards (Stamp Hill went off at least 80 yards though), as they passed the half the field was bunched together with some drivers opting to keep on the drier ground out wide (Richard Haythornthwaite kept Imjustalittleguy on the drier ground, as he had done with my favourite horse Colonel Mustard in his heat) whereas others took the shorter route through the worst of the muck (Rocker and Stamp Hill had so much to make up that the shortest route had to be the most sensible - although having seen Graham Rees' action photo from the heat, I have never seen a horse give so much clearance with all four feet, so perhaps the horse wasn't so fazed by the uneven conditions).

Stamp Hill winning his heat - photo courtesy of Graham Rees
 It was the finish though that will go down in history. Although Porterstown Road was the clear winner, it was a blanket finish and had the track been wide enough to accommodate six then there would have been six horses across that track. Stamp Hill overcame his colossal trail to be an unlucky sixth but he had a wall in front of him. Ayr Hero and Ffynnon were two performers who ran out of their skins to win their heats and finish in the placings in the final.

There were many notable performances from horses, whether it be running into form or improving in new hands or simply managing the going better than others. There were also drivers who attained the high expectations already held of them (John Richardson) or who exceeded expectations and going forward will always be on my radar (Joss Edwards). However, the meeting belonged to one man, and one man only:

Steve Lees.

In sport, you often hear about legends from before your time, and although the stories of their success are great, due to the fact you weren't physically there they don't mean as much as they should. For example, Lester Piggott was before my time. I cannot take away his achievements, but I never saw his greatness in real time. I did however live through the A P McCoy era, although when I have children and I tell them about the great A P, they will feel the same as I do about Lester Piggott.

Steve Lees was before my time. His return to British harness racing in recent years heralded some success, both as a trainer and a driver. But somehow I couldn't quite marry up the man I was seeing with the man people spoke about from 'before'. 'Before' he was one of the greatest horsemen ever to sit behind a horse; upon his return I saw a good driver and evidently a good trainer but I didn't see any flashes of brilliance to make me appreciate his greatness.

And then there was Tregaron. Don't get me wrong, the way he drove Coalford Tetrick at York to beat Rewrite History (and also in the heat where he was just beaten) did not go unnoticed. Across the course of the 2 days he drove 5 winners; having been Top Driver the year I was born (1989) and probably numerous times since (there have been no official records kept of this title, so I suppose I'll be hitting the record books shortly to compile a list), in 2015 he once again became Top Driver for the meeting. But I have never been as interested in number of wins as I have been in the manner of them. Results show half a picture. The stand out drive for me, not just from Stevie's drives but from all drives across the two days, came on a catch drive he had on Caenwood Dafydd.

2015 Top Driver, Steve Lees, presented with his award by bookmaker, Dan Carlin. Photo courtesy of Irfon Bennett.
I have always tried to be honest but not to the point where I offend anyone, but to put this into context I will have to be brutal. When Darren Owen read out the driver changes for the fourth race as the draw was being made and he announced that Steve Lees would drive Caenwood Dafydd, I actually turned to my parents and said 'he might be good, but he's not a miracle worker'. I simply didn't fancy the horse and I couldn't see how even putting someone as good as Stevie behind it would make a real difference.

I was more than happy to be proved wrong. As Caenwood Dafydd crossed the line in front, I turned to the person next to me and said 'well he is a miracle worker'. They had no idea what I was talking about having missed the earlier comment. Getting a horse that maybe isn't the best in a race to win is one thing, but what really impressed me was the fact that Stevie won the race on a horse that didn't want to. It hit the front and it idled, it decided it had done enough. Standing head on I could see it; as they passed Smarty he could see it. Stevie looked to his inside to see a challenger and knew his horse was stopping out of choice, so gave the horse four quick strikes in four different spots within 50 yards and the horse's mind was made up for him - he was to keep going. It was the way that Stevie said to the horse through a whip 'we're not done yet pal', not through sheer brute force but through clear instruction. He spoke clearly without shouting.

It was brilliant. Any other tactic and the horse would have caved in on him. What's more is that Stevie didn't know for certain that the horse would do what it did as it doesn't carry a reputation, so his actions were spur of the moment. He has the instinct to know what to do and when. I have raved about this since Friday to anyone that will listen. I will never forget that race. I feel like I've finally caught up with everyone who said the man is a master. Better late than never I suppose.  Then again, I'm one of those people that needs to see things to truly believe them, as humans have an inherent tendency to exaggerate.

We left after the racing on the Saturday and made it home for 3:30am.  The next day we took it easy and attended an open day at Lucinda Russell's National Hunt yard at Arlary House, Milnathort.  That's a whole post in itself really, but in short it was interesting to hear a Thoroughbred trainer describe the basics of training horses and realising that the same principles apply no matter what animal you train, whether it's a horse or a greyhound, a Thoroughbred or a Standardbred.

Monday then saw us back on the road for the Brough meeting at Appleby.  I must admit, by this point my enthusiasm levels had dropped off and I would have been quite content to sit in the car and watch the racing on my own.  However, walking around with a face like a slapped backside draws attention and before long I'd been escorted to the bar for a pick-me-up and from there on in things improved!

Over the weekend, my previous post regarding rule N15 and the requalifying of unruly horses was a bit of a talking point and unfortunately I was heading to Appleby in the knowledge that a particular horse was going to make an example of this.  All I could hope for was that nobody was hurt in the process.  In this particular race, there were three Scottish entries; one galloped as the gate was rolling and was left lengths and lengths behind, completing the mile but some time and distance behind the remainder of the field. Another galloped on the bends whilst challenging the eventual winner and did well despite this to finish second.  The third was the horse that I was concerned about, and I believe it to have broken stride four or even perhaps five times throughout the race, including the whole length of the home straight to cross the finish line.  I am unsure if the stewards were aware that it was to be watched following its questionable seventh-time-lucky qualifier.  To be honest I'm unsure what happens when a horse qualifies in one part of the country having not demonstrated the requisite manners behind a start car and then subsequently races elsewhere in the country as the stewards perhaps do not have much contact with each other without BHRC involvement.  Will the stewards in the north east contact the Scottish stewards to advise? My concerns are maintained with regard to this horse and others who have demonstrated similar behaviour - I don't put myself in danger by competing in the races, but I do send my boyfriend's uncle and far too many of my friends onto race tracks with a smile and a 'good luck' for things like this to sit comfortably with me.

No doubt in my pursuit of eliminating excessive and needless danger, I will reduce my number of friends and increase the number of people who would like to see me get what I'm due.  So I have to decide if my popularity is worth more than reducing the risk to ALL horses and drivers who compete...that's a no brainer.  I have to stand up for what I believe in, that's how I was raised.  And I'm not the only one who believes that rules need to be enforced more regularly.  Those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter, or so the saying goes...

Anyway, the main highlight from Appleby was seeing a favourite horse of mine, and a favourite family of mine, enjoy success.  Caraghs Hall has been competitive ever since the O'Neils purchased her a couple of months ago, and Monday was her day.  I was on a call to Wales immediately prior to the race as Young Stephen was racing at Amman Valley, otherwise I would have had a cheeky bet, and when I got off the phone and stood to watch the race I could see Hughie and Caragh were under pressure down the back straight from Country Major (trained by my very good friend, George Carson).  In the grand scheme of things it wouldn't have mattered which of the two won but I wanted Hughie to win because winning drives for him have been a bit...thin on the ground in recent times and I knew it would give him a confidence boost.  As he led off the final bend up that looooong home straight, Vicky Gill and Eli Camden had him under pressure on his outside as Country Major had faded, and I found myself shouting 'give her a crack Hughie' because he looked to be tap, tap, tapping her. Next thing, the guy next to me is shouting 'get stuck into her Hughie' and I realised that there were quite a few people who really wanted to see him win.  I hope he reads this and knows that.  The mare pulled clear and won in the fastest time for maidens and novices on the day.  I threw everything I had on me at Billy (Smarty's clerk) and bolted to find Michael, Hughie's brother, who nearly got knocked over when I threw myself at him (sorry pal).  Hughie's mum, Elizabeth, who is the videographer extraordinaire wherever she attends, thought she was dreaming.  Best feeling ever seeing people you have a lot of time for winning races.
Caraghs Hall's 'Fastest Maiden & Novice Division' trophy & rosette

Caraghs Hall with the O'Neil family

Which is a feeling that was repeated the following day at my absolute favourite meeting in the calendar, Kilnsey Show.  A man I privately (and now publicly) regard to be my training mentor, John Howard, had told me he was aiming his most recent acquisition, Wearvalley Mattie, at the handicap final at Kilnsey which despite the fact it is an obscure little meeting with about 6 laps for a mile and a quarter has a final worth £900.  Kilnsey had luckily missed all of the torrential downpours that we had managed to drive through on the way to the track, and I started strong as I backed Crackaway Jack in the first heat. Wearvalley Mattie gave me 2 from 2 in the second, and I joined the Howard family in the middle of the track for the winner's photo, only to find that there was no photographer.  So out came my phone and I took the photo for them.  Things went downhill from there for me on the betting front, and then to make matters worse, the rain came in.  Not just a shower, but a prolonged rainstorm with accompanying wind, dark grey skies and sideways rain.  I invested in some waterproof trousers a couple of weeks ago and my waterproof coat was in the car, so I was dressed for the occasion.  As the crowd parted faster than the Red Sea to take cover in their cars, I found myself stood on a bale of straw by the finish line, getting pelted with rain, watching the racing.  For only a split second did I wonder what I was doing there; but what else would I do on a Tuesday afternoon?  At least I was dressed for the weather!  I once again backed Wearvalley Mattie in the final, despite the fact that the track really didn't suit him (think rule N15(d), several breaks in one race) and the horse did everything it could not to win.  It galloped on every lap, on the bends, and it was in fact Brooklyn Howard (owned by John Howard's father, Bob) with Andrew Cairns who made most of the running and looked to be the likely winner.  However, the leader made a mistake coming off the final bend which allowed Richard Haythornthwaite to finally hit the front and win, and once again my photography skills were required.  If we include Cullingworth, that makes 4 'major' handicap final wins this season for Richard.  I am however reluctant to include Cullingworth, but more than happy to include Kilnsey!

Wearvalley Mattie after his heat victory

Wearvalley Mattie after his final victory

And that was that.  Five meetings in six days.  Approximately 1200+ miles travelled, three countries visited, nearly all of my friends seen.  During the first race at Kilnsey, a guy turned to his friend as the field passed for the third or fourth lap in Indian file with nobody wanting to make the first move, and said, "Shetland racing would be better than this".  I felt sorry for him, for that one glimpse of harness racing was all that he had seen.  It is probably all that he will ever see.  He's missing out, so much more than he could ever imagine.  The travelling circus only has a handful of meetings left where people will attend from all four corners of the country, the next being Tir Prince on Tuesday 8th September.  The feature event is the FFA where Stoneriggs Mystery will try to lay the ghost of the defeat to Bath Lane at Portmarnock to rest, as this time it's the youngster who heads over the Irish Sea to challenge the UK's top FFA horse on home soil.

I'll be there.  I'm missing Wolsingham on Saturday in favour of a night out with 'the girls', aka Ayr Confusion, Catchmeifyoucam & KK, aka Nicola McGregor (driver), Lisa Farrelly (camerawoman) and Karen Kennedy (race secretary).  Corbiewood girls on Bannockburn.  Then it's back to the citadel on Sunday for more fun and games with heats and a final plus an OPH race for the highest 8 handicap horses.  Wild Bill is in a grade 1 heat, Star is simply going for a workout as she hasn't been 100% this past week.

I hope you've made it to the end in one piece.  This took nearly 3 days to write, but rest assured there'll not be another one as long as this...until the same week next year!

Over and out,

Exhausted #1 Groom