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

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