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

1 comment:

  1. Plenty fun on the run last week its what we all live for , It,s a hard life but don,t weaken.

    A great bedtime read for all

    Thanks for reliving all your memories of the events of a great weeks racing and trotalong to Corbie on Sunday and keep the show on the road with the team