Monday, 19 December 2016

Visiting Vincennes

This may be as good a time as any to officially announce that I have been nominated and accepted as the President Elect of STAGBI (The Standardbred and Trotting Association of Great Britain and Ireland).  It's semi-relevant to the trip to France, so bear with me on this.

Not something I was anticipating when I went to the AGM a couple of weekends ago, I must admit, but I am honoured to have been considered and ultimately elected.  When I rang my parents to tell them, my dad reminded me that only 13 years ago we as a family had no idea who or what STAGBI was.  When Smokey arrived at our home, all white with sweat and eyeballs out on stalks, and I wondered what my dad's motives were in bringing this lunatic home for his teenage daughter to ride, we hadn't set eyes on a STAGBI passport before.  It meant little to us.  It was only when Smokey was subsequently sent to the stallion that the stallion owner advised us that we should become STAGBI members.  Fast forward to 2016 and here I am, the President Elect (channelling Trump vibes, although the title is all we have in common).

Anyway, the reason this is relevant is because on the weekend of December 2nd-4th I travelled to Paris on behalf of STAGBI to attend an international weekend hosted by Le Trot (pronounced 'Le Tro'), the French governing body for trotting.  The purpose of the weekend was to celebrate the individual member countries' Trotteur Francais of the year, bring drivers from a number of the member countries together to compete against each other and to provide and receive feedback on the export and breeding programmes of Trotteur Francais within the various member countries.  Great Britain were represented by Dr Jack Dowie and Bill Green from TROTBritain, the committee who oversee the racing of Trotteur Francais in the UK, and myself from STAGBI, which is responsible for the registration and administration of all pacers and trotters in the UK.  John Foy, his wife Stacyann and son George attended to collect the TF of the Year award for Sulky Du Blequin, and John also participated in the Prix des Recontres Internationales on the Saturday afternoon.  Our nearest neighbours, Ireland, were represented by Mark Flanagan, James O'Sullivan and Nadina Ironia from the Irish Harness Racing Association ('IHRA') who are responsible for the breeding and racing elements of pacers and trotters in Ireland; Alan Richardson and Ricky Hanson attended to collect the TF of the Year award for Vichy Du Moem, and Sean Kane competed in the international race in Ireland's colours.

Firstly, I have never travelled abroad on my own before.  I've travelled the length and breadth of the UK by air, rail and road alone, but never abroad.  Secondly, my French is VERY limited.  French was one of two subjects in school that I didn't put much effort in to (along with Chemistry).  I didn't like the teachers, so at best I did the bare minimum; at worst I was a total distraction in the classroom (if I was even in the room to start with). I dropped French as soon as it stopped being a compulsory subject and focussed on German, which I enjoyed.  As a result, I headed to Paris with 'Bonjour' and 'Merci' in my tank.  It literally took me about four hours in France itself before I remembered what 'please' was in French.  I became that obnoxious British person who can't speak another language and just expects everyone to speak English all the time *cringe*.  I wish I'd at least brushed up on my German a bit, that would have been useful with the German, Austrian and Swiss delegates (whose English was superb, considering it was their second or third language.  At least I can hang on to the fact that my English is exceptional, imagine if Smarty had come with me? 'D'ya ken wit ah mean?'.  No John, nobody 'kens' what you mean.  Because 'ken' isn't a word.  It's a man's name.  Ken.  Or Kenneth.  Or Kendrick.).

So I managed to get myself from Edinburgh airport into Paris CDG via Airfrance (had to resist a Rachel from 'Friends' moment when the French air stewardess spoke to me in English with a French accent, it was all I could do not to say 'OHMYGOD I can understand you!'.  But already aware that I was going to be the obnoxious British person who couldn't speak any other language than English, I didn't want to make matters worse for myself).  From there I relied on the hotel address written on a piece of paper, which my taxi driver got me to in one piece.  He was wearing a suit, and we listened to classical music, and he didn't speak.  And there was wifi in the taxi.  I was impressed with France so far.

When I arrived at the hotel I was met by John Foy and family checking in at the same time.  They had driven across from Kent via the Eurostar; apparently it took less time to get to Joinville-le-Pont than it does to get to Tir Prince Raceway.  A friendly face upon arrival made me feel less daunted by the whole thing.

Later that evening we convened in the hotel lobby along with the delegates from all the other invited countries and were bussed to the racetrack at Vincennes for the awards dinner.  I was seated with Jack, Bill and Fraser Garrity, the Racecourse Manager at Chelmsford (which staged two televised trot races in November after a Thoroughbred meeting), as well as a group from Holland which included driver Rick Wester who was competing in the Prix de Recontres Internationales the following day, and his partner Wendy.  Wendy and I quickly struck up conversation and found out that we both liked to drink large amounts of wine.  Strong start.  I established that there are 4 main tracks in Holland, the biggest being Wolvega, which is just over an hour from the centre of Amsterdam.  This is when I realised that I could get Smarty on holiday to countries I wanted to visit in Europe if I could coincide them with racedays at harness racing tracks (like we did in Malta).

We were bussed back to the hotel at the end of the evening, which was located next to what we believed to be an Irish pub (seemed strange, in France, but I was happy to roll with it).  The sensible version of me (which doesn't exist) would have wished everyone 'good night' and headed for bed, as I had an early start the following day to sit in on the meeting between Le Trot and the member countries.  The not-so-sensible version of me (which is just me, all the time) decided to head to the Irish pub with Nadina [Ironia], Sean [Kane] and Sean's Spanish-Irish friend, Al (whose name I only found out when we were booted out of the pub at closing time).  Turns out the only Irish thing in the pub was the people I was there with.  Considering they're not always there, it's hardly an Irish pub, is it?!  Oh, but there was a Guinness sign outside.  And they served that inside.  But every pub I've ever been in in Wales serves Guinness so...yeah, a bit confused.

The next day those of us who were attending the meeting were taken back to the racetrack where we firstly watched a presentation by Le Trot on the number of TF exported to the various countries; the number of TF races staged in each country, and the number of TF bred in each country.  Interestingly, the highest number of exports in 2016 was to Malta, a country which breeds very few, if any, horses of its own due to the high population and small land area.  It surprised me though as during my visit three weeks prior to this one, I saw so many other European trotters at Marsa.  I don't know where they're hiding all of these horses!!  In 2016, Ireland staged the highest number of TF races, and is projected to stage the highest number in 2017 also.  This is mainly due to the fact that Ireland, and on a lesser scale Great Britain, have opted to import TF and move away from British-bred and other European trotters, therefore able to stage a large number of races restricted to TF (as these are essentially the only trotters in the country).

During a short break I introduced myself to the US delegate, Peter Venaglia, who was attending on behalf of Yonkers.  We spoke at length about the International Trot at Yonkers, and just before the meeting was reconvened I jokingly asked if he would consider extending an invitation to the UK in the future to compete in the race.  He didn't say 'no', and seemed quite receptive to the idea.  Obviously it's difficult to say no when somebody puts you on the spot but I'd like to think that the communication channels have been opened regarding this.  If anyone from the BHRC is reading this - I'm handing this over to you now!

The second half of the meeting featured segments from each of the countries represented in the meeting.  This was a fascinating insight into how the various TF programmes are working in different countries.  Some spoke about how money generated through racing shown on the PMU has been spent to improve infrastructure and facilities, some spoke about plans to stage meetings between neighbouring countries (Germany and Holland), and some spoke about plans going forward for increasing breeding numbers.  One country used the time to beg for a PMU day, which was a little uncomfortable to watch and perhaps not the best platform upon which to make the request, however I know from personal experience that if you can't get an answer down the correct route, sometimes you have to challenge people in an inappropriate place in order to get a response.

After the meeting we were treated to lunch, before the afternoon's racing which featured Sean and John on behalf of Ireland and Great Britain.  During the earlier races I was shown around the paddock area by Mark [Flanagan] and James [O'Sullivan], and I cannot express in words how amazing a place it is.  When I visitied Pompano I was blown away by the paddock, which is a huge barn divided into open-fronted stalls grouped by race and numbered according to numbercloths.  However, Vincennes was more like a Thoroughbred racecourse in this regard.  I've only had hands-on experience of Ffos Las in terms of racecourse stabling, but from photos I've seen from friends working within the TB industry, the comparisons between their facilities and Vincennes are very close.  Each horse has a stable; there is a pre-parade ring of sorts, which really is used mostly to cool down horses after racing, so a post-race ring I suppose; wash bays for horses inside stables and outside wash bays for cleaning sulkies.  It was like a rabbit warren of stables, and I got myself a bit lost more than once trying to find my way back to the main grandstand.  The people who spend their racedays in the paddock also have a bar by the horse-entrance to the track, which was the kinda place I could definitely have spent more time across the course of the weekend!!

In the paddock
Even their track maintenance equipment is miles better than ours!

Rather than repeat myself re the Prix des Recontres Internationales, I'll just send you to the (very short) article I wrote for Harnesslink - here.  The article also features a link to the race on the Le Trot website, which makes for good viewing.  To summarise, Sean finished fifth on the betting favourite, with France, Hungary and Holland taking first, second and third respectively.  John's horse was disqualified rounding the final bend after it galloped (automatic and immediate disqualification in France, a rule I think should be brought in here in the UK), although he fared better than Switzerland (whose horse basically refused to start and was disqualified from the beginning when throwing a tantrum and galloping) and Belgium, whose horse broke early on also.  To make matters worse for Switzerland, after the race I saw the Swiss driver crossing the line with a smashed up wheel, doing all he could not to tip out of the sulky.  When I met with him and his wife that evening in the hotel, he explained that due to being disqualified, he followed the field around at a safe distance until the race was over.  The Belgian driver did the same, however as the pair rounded the final bend the Belgian driver lost concentration and whilst taking in the view of the crowd and grandstand, veered across into the Swiss driver and smashed his cart to bits.  The trainer of the Swiss driver's horse had two older carts of his own but had borrowed this newer cart from a friend, which was then being returned to him much worse for wear than the condition he lent it in.  Good luck explaining that one...

John Foy & Sean Kane head to the paddock after the group photo

After the race, I witnessed international relations at their best.  Mark Flanagan and the Polish delegate agreed to stage two meetings between Irish and Polish drivers: one to be held in Ireland and the other to be held in Poland.  To my knowledge, the two countries have no connection but one simple conversation could bring them together to celebrate a sport that is clearly loved in both.  The moment was tinged with sadness for me though in that the UK wasn't seizing similar opportunities to build relationships with other countries, as far as I was aware at least.  I don't know if that's down to the mindset that we should sort out our own house before inviting anyone in to it, but sometimes I think you just have to go for things.  Take chances.  Carpe Diem, as they say in Latin.  Seize the day.  It was my high school's motto, and something I try to live by each and every day.  Unfortunately I have no jurisdiction to be setting up such things.  I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing, because if it had been within my remit to set up international race days with other countries, we'd have had some sort of summer in 2017!  I'd be signing us up for everything.  Life is better lived saying 'oh well' rather than 'what if'.

Saturday night back at the hotel was 'free time', and I had planned to spend it chilling out in my room with my laptop so that I could catch up on all my outstanding writing projects.  Alas, I am weak-willed and instead found myself in the bar with Mark, James and John Foy, and later out for a meal which involved lots of wine.  I bowed out at midnight because everyone was back in the not-at-all-Irish pub, and I knew if I went there I would be there until I got chucked out at closing time again.  A rare glimpse of the sensible version of me!

On Sunday we returned to Vincennes at lunch time for a buffet lunch and a day of racing.  I went exploring the huge building which was staging an indoor festival with various regional food stands.  I also met a horse owned by Jack Dowie, and the couple who train for him.  I soaked up the atmosphere in the build up to the big race - the Grand National du Trot, which I'm told is only a fraction of the atmosphere generated for the Prix d'Amerique in January.  There were so many people there, waving French flags and cheering.  It was unlike anything I have ever seen before.  The French not only know how to stage race meetings, they also know how to enjoy them.

Grand National du Trot winner, Aubrion Du Gers

Emmanuelle Morvillers, who organises these international visits and hosts them so wonderfully, advised me that STAGBI will be invited back for the Prix d'Amerique; alas I think that trip will be taken by Gwenan [Thomas] and Ryan [O'Neil].  I had hoped to attend with Smarty, who I think would really enjoy the weekend of racing, but other commitments at home at that time of year mean that we'll have to give it a miss.  It's a shame, but I know we'll definitely go in the future so I can hold on to that thought.

I'm aware that this post has jumped about and not really delved into some of the meatier issues which underly trotting and its future in the UK.  I am conscious of the fact that I am primarily pacing-minded, and do not have the experience or background knowledge required to pass comment on how things are being done.  I am even more conscious of how that lack of experience and background knowledge make me appear to others far more knowledgable than I when I make any sort of constructive criticism.  It would be fair to say that when I have made any constructive criticism previously, I have been faced with such fierce defence of the programme that I am becoming increasingly reluctant to pass comment again.  But there is more than one way to skin a cat.  If I cannot make my case heard because I am deemed not to be knowledgable enough about the subject, then I must educate myself.  I have a history of being able to research subjects thoroughly and through various means; so this is what I will do.

Monté racing is as popular as sulky racing
What Le Trot are doing all across Europe and the wider world is genius.  It is something to be marvelled at when you look into the inner workings of it.  The French are not only consummate hosts, they are entrepeneurs.  They have dominated a market across the globe and their reach continues to grow.  Any reservations I previously had about having trotters were blown out of the water by the subliminal sales techniques that Le Trot employ.  I want to be a part of that.  Obviously, life isn't as simple as that and I can't just jump on the bandwagon and buy a Trotteur Francais.  That's not to say that I never will though.  It is at least encouraging to see the larger numbers of TF coming in to the UK, with the latest batch of two year olds arriving this weekend and heading to their new homes.  The excitement from horse owners is palpable.

Now all I need to do is to close the divides which are forming between trotting men and pacing men; between the governing body and the committee which promotes the TF programme with Le Trot.  Easier said than done.  But you should know by now that I'm not one to back down from a challenge...

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Malta Racing Club

A couple of months ago I was pestering Smarty for a holiday.  Work was taking its toll and I fancied a few days away to recharge my batteries.  My first choice of destination was Berlin, for a cultural weekend, but Smarty didn't like the sound of that.  Fearing that I may not get a weekend away at all at this rate, I offered him the choice of destination.  This is what he came up with:


It didn't take much investigating to establish that the weekend that I had highlighted as available was the weekend which featured one of the premier meetings in the Maltese racing calendar: the President's Cup Final Day.

The holiday was booked, and on November 13th we boarded a plane and headed for the sun for a four day break.  Our flight arrived in the sole airport on the island at 12:15pm, with the first race at the track scheduled for 1:15pm.  Rather than waste time trying to travel to the hotel and then back to the track, we were driven straight to Marsa Racetrack whilst our luggage was taken to the hotel.

Unbeknownst to us both, we had been dropped off at the 'back entrance'.  Not knowing any better, we wandered down the narrow street, dodging horses and sulkies walking to the track entrance, and were pointed in the direction of the entry gate by a gentleman sat in the street.  I genuinely didn't know what to expect as I handed over the €10 for us both to enter and we walked through the turnstiles.

What a beautiful track.


The five eighths of a mile track was banked on the bends, with two long straights.  A grandstand topped with a bar sat to the left of the gate we'd walked through, with a large flat viewpoint from which I was able to get some good photos of the race finishes.  Six bookmakers were housed underneath the grandstand, facing the winner's circle.  The on-course 'tote' was located to the right, facing the winner's circle from another direction, and past this was a second, smaller grandstand.  Towards what we finally realised was the main entrance (near the Lidl in the photo) was the third and smallest open grandstand.  The stabling area and warm up track were furthest to the left, almost hidden from sight.

With less than half an hour before the first race, the place was almost empty.  I thought perhaps racing in Malta is similar to our experience in Florida; great racing and facilities, but no crowds (I assumed it was being televised on the PMU, but found out at a later date that only 2 days per racing calendar are shown on the PMU).  Before long, the place began to fill up, and during the course of the day more and more people arrived.  By the time the big race went off, the place was full.

There were 9 races, with 120 horses spread across them.  I was surprised when looking through the programme that so many of the horses racing weren't Trotteur Francais.  I had assumed that most, if not all, of Malta's racehorses were imported from France.  There were Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Danish, German and American trotters alongside the French trotters.  The largest field of trotters was 16; the smallest was 10, which was the feature race - the President's Cup Final.  Again, I was so busy taking everything in that I didn't consider that perhaps the Maltese President would attend.

I was busy taking photos of horses warming up on the track when the crowd began to part and the President passed through, waving at everyone.

President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca (and foreground: Edwin Borg, from the Malta Racing Club, who I met at a later date in Vincennes) 
Following a lengthy presentation whereby each of the ten drivers competing in the final was presented with a momento by the President, and the national anthem was sung, the President went around the outer rail of the winner's circle chatting to the public.  Smarty and I found ourselves in the right place at the right time, and ended up talking for a short while about our love of horses, and strangely, Scottish football fans (she had just returned from a working visit to the UK, and England had beaten Scotland in the football two days earlier which resulted in some Scottish football fans behaving badly in Trafalgar Square).  We weren't expecting that!!

We hadn't had much luck betting in the earlier races, opting to support the bookmakers rather than the tote (a relic of a close history with the United Kingdom).  I chatted to a few of the bookmakers, trying to get the inside scoop on some of the runners in the big race, but to little avail.  I backed a horse called 'Ouch', a 9-year-old Swedish trotter gelding who had won his last two starts with 1'15"8 and 1'16"8 km rates respectively.  I'm not going to pretend like it was a purely educated selection - I liked his name.  I'd only managed a second placed finish out of the first five races, so my ability to read the form guide was limited.  As the bookmakers said, all the horses in this race were good, so it was even harder to select the winner.

Clearly my knowledge of trotters is still in its early days, as the eventual winner wasn't even on my radar.  Uhal Berven, an 8-year-old French Trotter (by Corot, the sire of Three Pack who raced with success in the UK) led out and made all with Rodney Gatt at the reins.  Nico Oland sat in the pocket for much of the race and looked a danger throughout, but as the field turned for home the leader wasn't for stopping and romped home as the crowds cheered.  I had never experienced such celebrations, with connections of the horse and driver in the winner's circle crying, cheering and hugging each other.  It really was a sight to see.

Down the stretch
Uhal Berven striding for home
Winning driver Rodney Gatt during his post-race interview
Uhal Berven oblivious to all the fuss!
Winning horse and driver
Shortly after the race we headed off to meet our taxi, but not before nosing through some of the private stables which surround the track, often in converted garages under tall buildings. Malta as an island is densely populated, and where Marsa Racetrack is located is particularly urban.  Makes sense - race where the people are so that they can pay to come through the gate to watch.  The downside being that there are no grass paddocks to turn horses out.  As we saw on subsequent days when exploring the island, these racehorses are turned out anywhere and everywhere in order to stretch their legs on a sunny day, including in dirt paddocks built precariously on top of buildings!  You could also pass Marsa without noticing it, but once inside it is a beautiful purpose-built arena in which to view equine athletes at peak fitness.

Almondo Rich being prepped for his race
In many ways, racing at Marsa was similar to here in the UK.  The bookmakers working alongside the tote were a reminder of the shared history between Malta and the United Kingdom.  All of the races we saw used the starting car, although in Malta this was fitted with a digital clock display which counted down the minutes and seconds to post time.  Prize money was comparable, with 'Copper' class races for €225 to the winner; 'Bronze' class races for €315 to the winner; 'Silver' class races for €360 to the winner and 'Gold' class races for €495 to the winner.  The President's Cup Final, which I would equate to our Crock of Gold Final for FFA pacers, was worth €2025 to the winner, and was classed as a 'Premier' class race.  On the two days where races are shown on the PMU, the prize money is more than this, but these races are limited to Trotteur Francais which excludes a large number of horses.

As a direct comparison, Marsa racetrack is better than any of the tracks in the UK and Ireland in terms of size and quality.  The surrounding facilities are a little worn down, but the track has been kept immaculate.  The fields are up to 16 horses, whereas the maximum number of runners in a race in the UK is 12 (at Tir Prince, and the Thoroughbred racecourses).  I also noted the aged of some of the runners, with the oldest horse at 16 years of age.  Currently the BHRC upper age limit is 14 years of age; in France it is 10.  Some of these horses did not show their age at all, which is a testament to their owners, trainers and grooms.  It appears that juvenile racing in Malta is non-existent, which is another difference between our two countries as the profile of stakes races for 2, 3 and 4 year olds continues to rise in both the UK and Ireland.

However, what harness racing boils down to, regardless of where you are, is people's passion and love for it.  It is driven by the people within it, who often compete for no financial gain in the long run.  It is driven by the horses, who are trained and raced with so much care and dedication by their connections.  It is driven by spectators looking for the thrill of competitive racing at affordable prices.  Maltese racing, at its heart, is no different to British racing.  I cannot recommend visiting this beautiful part of the world highly enough.

All photos in this blog taken by yours truly :)
Over and out,

#1 Groom (on tour)

Friday, 25 November 2016

Visit to Ayr Standardbreds

On Saturday 29th October, Smarty and I called in at leading Scottish Standardbred stud, Ayr Standardbreds on our way home from working at Ayr Racecourse at a Thoroughbred race meeting.  We're not often in the area, but with the racing season now over here in the UK, it was a good opportunity to visit friends and meet the horses they don't bring to the races.

Ayr Standardbreds was founded by Hugh O'Neil Snr, and has continued to flourish with the assistance of Hugh's three sons, Hugh Jnr, Ryan and Tom; Hugh Jnr's wife, Elizabeth; their two sons, Hugh Jnr Jnr and Michael; and Hugh Jnr Jnr's fiancée, Kareen New.  They have previously stood the stallions: Squirter (Keystone Ore-Atomizer-Meadow Skipper), Magic Happens (Direct Scooter-Ladykin Hanover-Steady Star), Eye On America (Abercrombie-Malacca-Meadow Skipper), House Of Cards (Dragons Lair-Mystical Hanover-Albatross), Daylon Alert Camluck-Ara Newton-Big Towner), His Alibi (Abercrombie-Three Diamonds-Albatross) and most recently, Forafewdollarsmore (The Panderosa-Oh My Dear-Artsplace).  Work commitments with the family business (agricultural equipment) mean that the family are currently without a stallion, however they continue to breed their mares to various stallions around the UK and have recently purchased a new mare at Harrisburg (Diva Aliina, Western Ideal-Female Champs-Cams Card Shark, in foal to Sportswriter).

With the first crop of 'Dollar' foals on the ground, it was as good a time as any to pay a visit and meet the 2016 weanlings who had recently moved into the barn.

This year's crop at Ayr consist of four colts and two fillies, with them stabled in three pairs, facing SHRC Horse of the Month for October, Killarney Howard, in the establishment's training barn.

First up we met the two fillies; a Hasty Hall out of Ayr Queen (Albert Albert), a full sister to top class racehorse Ayr Regal and half sister to another top class racehorse, Ayr Majesty.  Her stablemate was by Forafewdollarsmore out of Ayr Wing (Village Jiffy), a half sister to solid and consistent performer, Makemeamillionayr.  The Queen filly took a bit of a shine to me, and me to her!!
My new friend, the filly out of Ayr Queen
Ayr Queen filly (left) & Ayr Wing filly (right)
Next up we met Michael's favourite, 'Jake', a Forafewdollarsmore colt out of JK Majorette, and another 'Dollar' colt out of Out In The Opan (Artsplace).  It's fair to say, Dollar throws them all shapes and sizes!  Having won the 3YO Grass Derby at Musselburgh, Dollar went on to win the Famous Musselburgh Pace Final and the coveted Crock of Gold Final in 2010 at Tir Prince.  Grass or hard track, he worked his way up from the bottom to the very top.

JK Majorette colt (left) and Out In The Opan colt (right)
Switching places!
Last but not least, we met 'Charlie', Kareen's favourite, a Hasty Hall out of Opan Ayr (The Panderosa), and the final Dollar colt out of Grinfromayrtoayr (Daylon Alert).  Hughie and Kareen arrived just as we were in with this pair, and Kareen showed off her foal-wrangling skills when catching Charlie for a stroke and a scratch.  She told us that she wants to call him Somewhayrnew (Some-where-new, playing on the Ayr prefix/suffix and her surname, New).  This foal belongs to Ryan, who may have other ideas, but I'll be trying my best in the STAGBI office to make sure Kareen's name choice takes precedence (Ryan is a fellow STAGBI director, so may still have the power of veto!).
Grinfromayrtoayr colt
Opan Ayr colt
Michael & Charlie (he is NOT beating him up, which is what he says looks like what's happening!)
Kareen & Charlie
This time of year, for many people, is the most boring time.  With the racing not due to start until May, most horses are turned out for the remainder of this year and people look to other pursuits and hobbies to get their kicks.  Some people enjoy the break from the horses, and who can blame them?!  There's only so much (horse) sh*t you can take!

But for me, and indeed others who breed horses, this can be one of the best times of the year.  Weaning foals is a scary time for the youngsters, but it is also the time when they are at their most impressionable.  I love gaining their trust and teaching them manners.  Before long they will be big enough and strong enough to do serious damage, so it's important to ensure that they are well mannered and respectful.  It's also a time to help them develop their personalities and bring out their character.  I think my dream job would be working with foals and yearlings.

I was previously offered the chance to work with the Rhyds yearlings in their sale preparation a number of years ago, which I unfortunately had to decline due to work commitments.  I was then offered (perhaps jokingly) the chance to assist during the foaling season at Talgrwn, the leading Standardbred AI and foaling centre.  Again, work commitments forced me to decline (although again, the offer may not have been a serious one!).  I would genuinely love the opportunity to do this at some point, if nothing more but to gain experience to help me with my own mares (that said, we've delivered 7 live and healthy foals so far at Crosshill, so I'm getting plenty of hands on experience!).

I wish the clan at Ayr Standardbreds all the best with their young horses as they help them on their journey to become future racehorses.  I have to concentrate on my two colts at home now!!

Over and out,

#Groom & Foal Fan

Thursday, 17 November 2016

2016 Season: Highlights, Lowlights & Awards

Twenty-five weeks.
Eighty-four days of racing.
Hundreds of winners, and even more losers.

The 2016 season is officially OVER, following the final meeting at Chelsmford City Racecourse which hosted two trot races on its Thoroughbred card on Thursday 10th November.

Every year at this time I consider the season to have been long, tiring and full of disappointments, but I'm going to be positive about it on the whole this year, as despite a few mishaps, the 2016 season has been one of the best yet.  On a personal level it maybe hasn't been our stables' most successful season, however since I moved to Scotland in May 2014, every horse we have raced has won on at least one occasion.  So that's something I guess?

Crosshill Stables in 2016

This year it was Crosshill Ace, Young Stephen and Cassius Clay's turn to get trained.  Young Stephen, ('Stevie') was a third season horse, having won at Appleby in 2014 and at several meetings in Wales in 2015.  A very up-and-down horse, he kicked things off with an 'up' when winning his first start of the season on May 22nd in 2.03.63, a season track best until August 6th when the Free For Allers finally bettered the time. He disappointed us at Musselburgh when only managing a third in his heat and missing out on the final, and again when running in the Battle of the Big Guns at Corbiewood and a heat at Bells Field when galloping on both occasions.  Things turned around at Brough in August; having galloped at the start in his heat and effectively putting himself out of the race, he came back from the tail end of the field to be beaten by a nose, qualifying for the final.  Driver Andrew Cairns, who had never sat behind him before, said he had 'some engine'.  Luck wasn't on our side though with Stevie in the final as the race was stopped with just over a lap to go and Stevie cruising along in front with a comfortable 4 length lead.  In the re-run he'd used all his fuel and was caught coming home by a backmarker who was a worthy winner at both Brough that day and Kilnsey the following day (3 wins in 2 days is quite an achievement by anyone's standards).  We had planned to take him to Musselburgh for the televised races staged before the Thoroughbred meeting, however 3 days before the fixture he fell out with a fence and the fence won.  With his leg in a pretty bad way, we were forced to cut his season short and focus on his recovery (you'll be pleased to know that he has made a full recovery, and as always has been the most wonderful patient).  The frustrating thing about Young Stephen is knowing that he's good, but also knowing that it's difficult to get him to show it all the time.  Still we'll give it one more go next year and see how we fare.

Young Stephen (Daylon Alert-Dark Velvet-Raque Bogart)
Young Stephen winning at Corbiewood - video

Cassius Clay, no matter what we breed in the future, will be the biggest horse ever to set foot in our yard.  The Gaffer was finally forced to face the fact that not all of his horses are 15.1hh and fit in 5'9'' rugs (possibly not the worst thing that I accidentally purchased a 6'9'' and a 7'0'' stable rug at an auction a couple of weeks ago).  Cassius began his season at the Appleby New Fair in a maiden, where he finished fifth.  After that he headed to Musselburgh where he was beaten by the impressive Tom Wood, however as a 10/1 outsider he returned a nice lump of money for finishing second in the betting without market at 5/1.  Six days later he headed to Corbiewood for his first run on a hard track since requalifying at the start of the season, where he ran out a worthy winner of his maiden in 2.07.77.  Unfortunately this was the last time that he would race for the year, as having picked up a cold which had also delayed the training of our two-year-old, Cassius was turned out for the summer when failing to 'get over it' after 3 weeks off.  It is planned for him to return to racing in 2018, allowing us the time to train his half-sister Eternal Flame next season.

Cassius Clay (Hasty Hall-Mattys Romance-Hopping High)
Cassius Clay winning at Corbiewood - video

And then there was Crosshill Ace, aka 'Acey Baby'.  As the season went on and she was beaten by bad draws and better competition, I began to wonder if she would win as a two-year-old.  Her dam, Vain in Spain, was yet to produce a 2YO winner, with full sister Alexas Hope only getting off the mark at 3 (with 16 lifetime wins to date), and half sister That Girl Of Mine also not scoring until 3.  Don't get me wrong, we crossed so many hurdles to even get her to the races, as we watched plenty fall by the wayside for one reason or another.  And to be able to compete in all of the top juvenile races was fantastic, with Ace taking us to Tir Prince on two occasions (Breeders Crown, where she finished 2nd, and BHRC National Pacing Futurity, where she finished 3rd) and Portmarnock (Vincent Delaney Memorial, 3rd in her heat and 5th in the final), as well as three runs on the track where she was trained in the early part of the season by Marky and Karen Kennedy: Corbiewood.  Her first two runs there were in maidens to give her experience, with her finishing a respectable second on her second run to a lovely 3YO, Dynamic Ace.  Must be something about the name!  On her final run of the season, the SHRC 2YO Futurity, she was finally granted a good draw, landing pole position on the rail.  William Greenhorn, who had stepped in for us in Ireland at the last minute, took the drive, after asking Smarty if he could 'redeem himself' after the VDM Final.  He didn't need to redeem himself, but he was granted another chance at driving her nonetheless.  I was delighted to see her win, not just because it made her the first 2YO winner that 'Rita' has produced, but also because it was another victory to add to William's tally on his quest to become Champion Driver for the first time.

Crosshill Ace (Cams Card Shark-Vain In Spain-Artsplace)
Crosshill Ace winning at Corbiewood - video

Before the season had even started, we were also joined by another two faces in 'Team Crosshill'.  Crosshill Costa, aka Cliff, was born at 7.15am on Sunday, 3rd April, after Saunders Beachgirl had kept me up almost constantly since Friday evening threatening to evacuate him at any moment.  Seemingly she wanted to wait until I wasn't there, as when Smarty went over on Sunday morning she was foaling, and by the time I'd pulled my wellies on with my pyjamas, Cliff was already in the world.  He was the first Eagle Luck foal to be born in the UK; no matter what happens, he'll always be the first as well!  Eight days later we woke to find Crosshill Cadillac, aka Phil, in the field behind the house.  Smarty had assured me the night before that Coalford Tracey was at least a couple of days away from foaling.  It's not the first time she's caught us out.  From now on, at 11 months and 2 weeks onwards I am going to watch her like a hawk!!

I was delighted to have received what I'd ordered.  Two, healthy, live colts.

Crosshill Costa, aka Cliff, at just a few hours old
Cliff proving to be the quietest foal so far out of Saunders Beachgirl
Visiting Cliff & Beachgirl in Skipton during the summer
It wasn't all plain sailing though, as we nearly lost Phil at 4 weeks.  The night that I was due to fly to Wales to stay with my parents before the rescheduled meeting at Tregaron, we went to check the mares and foals before heading to the airport.  Standing by the gate I could see Beachgirl and Cliff, and then Tracey, heading towards us because they knew we had food.  There was no sign of Phil.  I always get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when one horse in a herd doesn't appear at the first sign of action by the gate.  Into the field we went, and as Smarty fed the mares I went looking for Phil.  As I came over the brow of a small hill, I saw him lying flat out with a crow stood ominously next to him.  Having lost a mare to colic, a gelding in a freak accident in the field and an older foal to an organ rupture the year before, I wasn't up for losing another horse.  As I neared him he sat up, so I knew he was alive.  But when I was stood next to him, he wouldn't get up.  We lifted him to his feet and it was clear that he was weak.  Working back on the dates, I realised Tracey was in season as it was 28 days since Phil had been born, and he was scouring badly.  He was severely dehydrated; he must have stopped drinking his mother's milk as it was making him unwell.  We went back to the stables to fetch a headcollar and rope, a plastic syringe and a bottle of water, and returned to the field.  We didn't really need the rope, as Phil had slowly wandered over to where his mother was and wasn't difficult to catch in the slightest.  We syringed the best part of the whole 1L bottle of water into him, which he seemed to appreciate.  After Smarty had dropped me at the airport, he returned to the field to repeat the process.  He remained with Phil until sundown, and then returned the next morning at sunrise to carry on.  All day Saturday he repeated it, over and over, making sure Phil had sufficient fluid intake.  On Sunday he travelled down to Tregaron, a six hour drive, off the back of not much sleep.  We returned Sunday night to find Phil definitely more alert.  Over the course of the next few days Smarty began reintroducing Phil back to Tracey's milk, at first with a lamb's milk replacement powder mixed with water, and eventually he returned to his mother.  Thankfully he has never looked back, and is now in the stable having been weaned, along with Cliff who spent his summer in Skipton, North Yorkshire.

Crosshill Cadillac, aka Phil, at just a few hours old
Phil enjoying the summer sun, after giving us a scare!
Phil playing peek-a-boo!
The 2016 pre-season also saw the emotional return of my first ever Standardbred, Runnis Smokey.  Having been sold by my father in 2006 after several failed attempts to get her in foal (and having 3 other broodmares at the farm), I'd lost track of where she was.  When the man who had bought her from the trekking centre that we had sold her to eventually sorted his paperwork out and sent it to STAGBI, I contacted him immediately and tried to buy her back.  He wanted to continue breeding from her, having had 6 foals already (that's the difference between running a stallion with a mare and serving a mare in hand, I suppose).  He contacted me in March of this year saying that if Smokey wasn't in foal when he got her scanned, that I could have her back.  She turned out to subsequently not be in foal, and long story short (because George Carson is still getting over the journey to collect her and Valentine Camden) she returned to me at the end of April.  Now 22 years of age, and much smaller than I ever remember, she is living out her days with me where I can keep an eye on her.  She's my little lady, as sweet and docile as she always was, and never one to cause trouble in the herd (unlike my other obnoxious, enormous, ungrateful mare).

Smokey showing off her ability to roll all the way over at the ripe old age of 22!
Harness Racing in Scotland in 2016

The season kicked off on 22nd May and ran through until the 23rd October this year, with 22 days of racing held.  The seasonal highlights in terms of fixtures were the Golden Anniversary two-day meeting in August, celebrating Corbiewood's 50th consecutive year of racing (making it the longest-running track in the whole of the UK), and the two-day Murdock Weekend in September, which was celebrating its 10th year.

Notwithstanding that, there were still various highlights throughout the season at some of the 'bread-and-butter' meetings.  One particularly enjoyable race was the 'Veteran's Derby', for horses aged 10 years and over.  It was fantastic to see 8 seasoned campaigners lining up against each other, with
the combined number of lifetime starts of the eight runners at 723, and a combined number of lifetime wins of 117. Three horses aged 10, three horses aged 11, and two horses aged 13 faced the starter, and it was old favourite Bestinthewest who came out on top in a thrilling finish where the field finished within 1.2 seconds of each other.

Corbiewood also staged three STAGBI Future Broodmares races, with the first won by ATM for Hamish Muirhead, the second won by Sureamsomething for Alex Hay, and the third won again by Sureamsomething for new owner Jackie Campbell.

The Vincent Delaney Memorial Prep Race at the track allowed us all to witness the eventual Final winner, Tyrion Hanover, storming to victory unchallenged after a hook up on the final bend; however, the result was never in doubt both on that day, and again in Portmarnock (at least not from my perspective).

Some seasonal highlights from the track include seeing 13-year-old Ladyford Lad back to his former glory when winning 3 races with SHRC Young Driver of the Year, Lauren Moran at the reins and a fourth with contortionist blacksmith Jackie 'John' Campbell; Ayr Escape's first visit to the winner's circle in 5 seasons and 63 starts; and Killarney Howard making it four on the run in Bannockburn to secure Horse of the Month for October.

Ayr Escape (Artsicape-Unforgotten-No Nukes)
Outwith Corbiewood, there was also the major fixture at Musselburgh, where 16-year-old John Henry Nicholson gave one of the coolest drives I have ever witnessed to guide home Cochise in the Hurricane Pace Final in a popular victory which had bettors ripping up their betting slips and cheering him home as their horses failed to make up the distance to catch the youngster.  Team Haythornthwaite recorded a fantastic weekend with stellar performances from exceptional mare, Shades Of Grey (heat winner and runner up in the FFA, both mixed sex races), Brywinsmagicpotion (FFA winner) and Sports Trick (heat and final winner of the Famous Musselburgh Pace).

Haugh Field also sticks in my mind as a highlight, as Valentine Camden, Smokey's travel partner on the now legendary 25-hour round trip, won the low grade heat and final in less-than-ideal conditions.  Formerly owned by my very good friend, Emma Langford, and now owned by my very good friend George Carson, Val looked to be improving all the time after his win at Bells Field a couple of weeks before.

Valentine Camden (Pro Bono Best-Lets All Boogie-Artiscape)
Unfortunately, where there are highs, there are almost always lows.  In 2016 we lost three horses at the track within a short space of time; super Welsh FFA horse Meadowbranch Josh and consistent race mare Hawthorns Maggie both suffered similar injuries at the Murdock Weekend just one day apart.  Seasoned campaigner Kasbest later suffered an injury after being interfered with by another horse/driver during a race and was subsequently PTS also.  My thoughts still remain with those connected to the three unfortunate horses.

There was also much talk in the early part of the season about the newly-introduced rule about serial breakers being made to requalify, thus removing the stewards' discretionary element of the existing rule.  It was not popular with some involved in the sport, despite being a long-standing rule in other countries.  I personally took a lot of criticism for my part in its introduction, but stand by the suggestion which was formally adopted by the members of the club.  Thankfully, most people don't hold grudges, and for those who do - I don't care.  It's one step closer to reducing the risk caused by problematic horses.  The next step is to try to reduce the risk from problematic drivers...

Harness Racing in the UK and Ireland in 2016

As will probably be quite evident by now, my involvement in harness racing is not just restricted to the Scottish racing scene.  We are one big travelling circus, and some of us even travel to the smaller, more obscure meetings across the country as well as the bigger festivals.  This year I have taken in 53 individual days of racing at 15 different venues across Scotland (Corbiewood, Haugh Field, Bells Field, Musselburgh), England (Appleby, Binchester, Newcastle, York, Kilnsey, Hellifield), Ireland (Portmarnock) and Wales (Aberystwyth, Cilmery, Tir Prince, Tregaron).  I missed to visit the new venue at Monmouth, or the two day fixture at Wolverhampton.  I didn't make Allensmore due to a family wedding in Scotland, or Wolsingham due to various factors like racing my horse elsewhere.  I still haven't visited Dundalk or Annaghmore.  There is still so much to see!

Whilst on these travels I managed to make some new friends.  Smarty and I made good use of a 4+ hour journey from Edinburgh to Tir Prince one day when chauffeuring Dexter Dunn and his cousin, Tom Bagrie to the racing.  Not only did I manage to get an interview for this here blog of mine (which you can read here), we also quizzed the brains out of the two of them about racing in the Southern HemisphereWe have inquiring minds.

We met up with the gruesome twosome again in Dublin a week later, where they also introduced me to top North American driver, Aaron Merriman.  He drunkenly agreed to an interview (which you can read here), however looked slightly less enthusiastic about it the following day when faced with a girl in a dress and stable boots.  Only slightly, though.

Aaron, in turn, introduced me to the wonderful Heather Vitale, who is like a whirlwind.  I've never met someone with so much energy and excitement, even after 12+ hours of being at a race track (alcohol and dancing does help though).  You can't read my interview with Heather anywhere because I haven't done one. Yet.  Watch this space...

Not only was I busy forging friendships with international stars, I was also embracing a friendship with someone closer to home.  Young Michael O'Neil, off of Ayr Standardbreds, and I have become very good friends this summer, having attended most major race meetings (and been at Corbiewood, a lot).  We're like a comedy double act that only we find funny.  But that's all that counts, right?!  Our travels were documented on social media under the hashtag #BigBurdandBootsontour.  It hasn't taken off as we'd hoped.  Neither of us know why.


I've mentioned several times throughout the summer how wonderful it has been to see amateur-trained horses winning big races.  These included Sunglasses Ron (owned/trained by Joe & Kim Alman) winning the Aberystwyth Saturday final, Tyrion Hanover (owned/trained by John & Samboy Howard) winning the Vincent Delaney Memorial Final, and Elysium Thunder (owned/trained by Richard & Sarah Allen - who couldn't drive the horse herself as she was pregnant!) winning the Strata Florida Final at Tregaron.

I've also mentioned the name 'Wellfield' a few times.  As a long-standing friend of former groom, Rachel Sydenham, even in her absence this summer I have still supported and followed the Wellfield horses.  The standout moment for me was Wellfield Ghost storming to victory for the second year in a row in the Grey FFA race at Tir Prince, this time more convincing than the last.  Driver Patrick Kane Jnr's comment after the race to owner/trainer Roy Sheedy of "You didn't tell me he had that much gate speed!" had me in stitches, as it's Ghost's signature move (and has been for several seasons - lead out and make all!).  I also posted about the achievements of Wellfield Earl, qualifying for the finals at all 4 major grass track festivals this summer, as well as two second-tier finals at slightly smaller events.  I don't know of any other horse who has done that.  It's remarkable; he just keeps grinding them down and getting in the mix.

The Sarah Thomas 'You Were Great!' Awards

Whilst we're on this high, I'd like to share with you my own annual awards (wholly separate to the BHRC Awards, or any other committee/club).  I'd like to recognise the achievements of some of my personal favourites, whether they be horses, people, or moments, from the 2016 season.

(Note to all award winners: I do not have trophies to give you).

2YO Colt of the Year - For me it has to be Tyrion Hanover.  He has endless stamina.  He's not so hot at the starts (or perhaps, too hot at the starts), so imagine what he would be like if he had the full mile bang on? It's something else to see.

2YO Filly of the Year - Rhyds Mystique.  I don't know what to say other than 8 wins from 9 starts.  And the competition has been good.  That's impressive.

3YO Colt of the Year - Miraculous. Echoing above.  He's been out of this world this year.  He's dominated his age category but also beaten older horses in a handicap.  People are already talking about him becoming the next FFA star.  Watch this space.

3YO Filly of the Year - Jessies Conquest.  Jeez, we really have been spoilt this year for standout horses.  This filly never fails to impress.  And I've told owners Marc and Jenny Jones how impressed I am by her on about 27 different occasions.  Make this 28.

Mare of the Year - Shades Of Grey.  Aforementioned performances at Musselburgh alone are enough to consider her the best mare in the country, but she also added another STAGBI Broodmares race to her collection at Tir Prince.  What makes me laugh, particularly at Tir Prince, is the number of holidaymakers who back her because of her name, like it's some 50 Shades of Grey reference.  I'm still fairly confident she was born before 'author' E. L. James decided to rip off the storyline from Pretty Woman and add in some bondage.

Pacer of the Year - Another from the Fletcher/Haythornthwaite establishment: Sports Trick.  His wins at Tregaron (Senior Welsh Dragon) and finals at Appleby and Musselburgh were more than impressive.

Trotter of the Year - Tenor Meslois repaid owner Gwenan Thomas' faith in the Le Trot/TROTBritain scheme when winning at various distances on various different surfaces/tracks.  This was a tough category, as Sacha Of Carless was equally as impressive when winning on three different surfaces in the space of a week (Tir Prince, Newcastle & Musselburgh), but I'm Welsh, and Tenor is French-Welsh so I'm waving the leek proudly at that one.

Overseas Horse of the Year - Kickass Katie may seem like a strange choice but this goes back to my long-winded and confusing post about a horse's nationality.  I'm sticking with Irish owned, Irish trained, Irish driven, just to be 100% sure.  I know the BHRC came out with criteria following an email from me, which should clear things up for clubs voting on the forthcoming national awards.  But my award goes to this mare, who was more than impressive when winning the Sire Stakes 4YO Mares race at Tir Prince.

Young Driver of the Year - John Henry Nicholson.  Young Mr Nicholson is already aware of my high opinion of him following his Hurricane Pace Final win.  Both he and his father thanked me for the Harnesslink report I wrote which mentioned the fact he was 16 about 16 times.  I felt it was a fact that could not go unreported.  As cool as a cucumber, this boy has 'it', whatever 'it' is that makes drivers great.  Smarty always says drivers don't improve with age; they're good from the start.  My research for a World Trotting Conference piece which required some in-depth digging on Steve Lees, Mick Lord and Alan Haythornthwaite would bolster this theory.

Best Drive of the Year - She jumps off a plane from Magaluf, puts her colours on, goes out on the track and casually wins.  Annette Wilson & Dreamfair Dancer.  She drove the perfect race, opting for the pocket trip after the rail horse pushed the pace in the early stages of the race.  Coming home the crowd at Corbiewood were all cheering them on as they eased past the long time leader to an emphatic victory.

Astounding Top Supporter Award - This award stems from Astounding's victory in the York leg of the Inter Dominion Qualifying Series last season.  Caretaker Ron Caddies provided the day's best entertainment when screaming for most of the race at his charge, then almost dropping his mobile phone as he told me to ring his wife (who had no idea who I was), and then almost dropping his phone again when taking it back off me to tell his wife that Astounding had won.  I've never seen a man shake so uncontrollably when his horse has won a race.  This award went to Kirsty Legrice for her reaction when Sherwood Bluey won at York last year, as it was sheer delight and lovely to see.

The award is about the unbridled joy when your horse wins.  All expectations aside, it's that uncontrollable wave of emotion which envelops you when the horse that you care for shows everybody else what it is capable of.  Therefore my winner this year is Michael O'Neil when Ayr Escape won after five seasons out of the winner's circle and 63 luckless runs; Michael cried, quite a lot, when Escape won.  That made me nearly cry too.

Anyway, I've rambled ENOUGH.  This post is far too long.  Hopefully you took a break halfway through.  I've taken up enough of your time now, so I'll visit the actual award winners in a separate post, another time.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Friday, 28 October 2016

2016 Season: Week 25 - Brightwells Sale

The final weekend of the 2016 racing season in the UK came upon us suddenly, and yet at long last.  The previous weekend was always going to be mine and Smarty's last weekend of racing due to us travelling down to Wales for the annual Brightwells Standardbred Sale on the Monday.  Due to its close proximity to my parents' farm, we always make the 330-mile journey the day before so that we can spend what little free time we have with them.  Therefore for us, and many others, the season was already over.

Nonetheless, the show went on without us at the season finale at Corbiewood, where William Greenhorn was confirmed as both Scottish Harness Racing Club and British Harness Racing Club leading driver for 2016 for the first time in his career.  The owner and trainer titles were fought out at the last meeting, with Claire Fletcher securing the leading owner title as Indie Hanover and Porcelain Seelster scored in their respective races.  William 'Rocker' Laidler took the trainer's title in the absence of his wife, Alexis, the reigning champion, who was serving a ban for much of the season but who is now back to the day job having 'done the time'.

Killarney Howard made it four on the run in Bannockburn for the O'Neil family and young driver Hugh O'Neil Jnr Jnr, who missed out on SHRC Young Driver of the Year due to confusion over the age limit.  The title passes to Lauren Moran, who had a fantastic season with both Laydford Lad and Vyrnwy Smoke and is most deserving of the title.  Sunnyside Clinton picked a good time to record his first win off the back of his second-placed finish the week before, as owner Bill Howard and family had made the long journey from Lancashire (England) to Scotland to see the horse race.

In Wales, after a quick snoop around the barns at the Royal Welsh Showground where some of the horses were arriving in the dark for the sale the following day, I headed into town to meet with some of my fellow STAGBI directors for an impromptu meeting (seeing as we were all in the same place).  Smarty headed home with my parents and I can only imagine the conversations he must have had with my dad about his picks for the following day.  It was apparent that my dad was a man on a mission! (That must be where I get it from...)

On Monday morning I headed to the Showground for 09:00 to meet with STAGBI Administrator and fellow director Gwenan Thomas so that we could microchip scan all of the lots which had arrived prior to the sale starting.  This is a procedure which STAGBI introduced in 2015 following an incident at York Harness Raceway earlier in the 2015 season.  A two year old filly had qualified and following the race the stewards had located a microchip which did not match the microchip number on the horse's passport.  I stepped in to assist and subsequently attempted to identify the horse using the mark up drawing in the passport.  Unfortunately the horse did not match its drawing.  It transpired that when the filly was sold privately, the wrong horse was given with the right passport (the buyer wanted the horse which should have matched the passport, but she had been mixed up with another filly in the field).  This situation could not have been avoided by STAGBI introducing the chip scanning at the two Standardbred sales (York and Brightwells) as it was a private sale and the chip was scanned at the earliest possible date when the horse ran in its first qualifier.  Nonetheless, we decided that in order to reduce the risk of this happening at the sales at least, we would introduce microchip scanning as a matter of course.  Interestingly, at the time Brightwells advised that they did not scan for microchips across any of their equine sales.

All lots presented on the day were scanned with the correct chips present, meaning that every horse was what it should be (according to the entry form received and its accompanying passport).  I was finished up scanning at 10:45, so headed to the trade stands to stock up on rugs for the winter.  Smarty and I ended up with three turnout rugs (for Rita, Tracey and my little old lady, Smokey) and three stable rugs (for Stevie, Ace and Amy).  Stevie and Ace will be trained next year and had both managed to destroy their stable rugs this summer, and Amy is currently over at Corbiewood being broken in by Mark and Karen Kennedy and was delivered with an ill-fitting sweat rug because Smarty doesn't really get the difference between rugs (they're either water proof, or they're not) or their sizes (him and his father still firmly believe all of our horses are 15.1hh and will fit into 5'9'' rugs.  Not the case.).

I settled down in my usual spot to watch the sale, which is at the far end of the ring facing the auctioneer.  From here I was able to see most of the crowd and would hopefully be able to spot the bidders, having made a mental note of who was sat behind me in case they got stuck in as well.  It was also a good spot from which to take photos of the horses in the ring, although as the day went on I got distracted and stopped taking photos unfortunately.

The first lot my dad had his eye on was Frisco Frisk (f, 2012, Rogue Hall-Life Isjusta Dream-Life Sign), a mare who has raced at 2, 3 and 4 at the highest level, with 7 lifetime wins including the Little Welsh Dragoness 3YO at Tregaron and a heat of the Barney Joyce 3YO at Portmarnock in 2015.  I had told him to go for this one with the intention to put her to the stallion next year.  With her being by Rogue Hall, sire of Littlemill Rogue (25-9-10-5 at 2, 3 & 4), Coalford Silk (winner at Musselburgh this year and runner up in The Famous Musselburgh Pace) and Coalford Tetrick (champion 2YO, 3YO and 4YO track record holder at Portmarnock this season), and out of Life Isjusta Dream, dam of Frisco Havago (21-11-5-2 at 2 & 3), Frisco Dancer (2YO & 3YO Breeders Crown Champion), Frisco Fiddler (winner of the VDM 2012 & BHRC National Pacing Futurity) and Frisco Blue Moon (York 2YO Futurity Gold Division & York Rising Starzzz 2YO winner), she really wasn't a mare to let pass by with her breeding potential.  My old man didn't disappoint me!  He went for her, and he got her.
Frisco Frisk winning at Tir Prince in 2016
After the initial excitement had worn off, I sat and waited to see if my dad would buy a yearling filly, as was the plan.  He disappeared once again to stand in his 'bidding spot', leaving my mother and I sat wondering during the course of the bidding as to whether or not he was still 'in'.  The filly he'd picked out as his favourite was Rhyds Sapphire (f, 2015, Hasty Hall-CPR-Life Sign), the fourteenth foal from superstar broodmare CPR, dam of Rhyds Destiny, Rhyds Desire, Rhyds Design and Rhyds Topaz, as well as CPs Village Jigsaw, dam herself of Rhyds Ponder, Rhyds Solution and Rhyds Mystique.
Rhyds Sapphire at the sale
My dad has wanted a Rhyds filly for quite some time, and looking back I wish at times he'd gone further on some of the ones he had bid on (including but not restricted to Rhyds Topaz).  This time he meant business and as the hammer fell, we weren't sure if he was the buyer.  Until Mrs Wright turned around and gave him a hug (knowing how long he has admired her horses).  It was at this point that I abandoned marking my catalogue and taking photos to go and confirm the second purchase.  I actually shook my dad's hand.  He went into the sale knowing what he wanted, and he got exactly that.  Proud daughter moment!

A couple of weeks ago we had discussed over the phone what rugs I had left behind when Star and I moved to Scotland.  My dad's previous filly, Fresh Ayr, was only a little thing and had a 5'6'' turnout rug and a 5'6'' stable rug which were still intact and washed, ready to go.  These will probably fit Sapphire, or 'Saffie', but Frisk was far, far bigger so I had to return to the trade stands to purchase some more rugs (after confirming with her trainer, Alan Haythornthwaite, roughly what size she was).

I missed the tail end of the sale because I'd headed back up to the barns to fit the rugs on Frisk and check out the two new additions to the family.  Frisk tolerated the rug-fittings but subsequently put her bum against the stall door and made faces at everyone who dared look in at her.  I guess it was a long day of people poking and prodding and studying her, off the back of a fairly long and tough season (she went 1.59 on her last start of the season when beaten by Coalford Chief by the smallest of margins at Tir Prince).  Saffie on the other hand had calmed down considerably from her antics the evening before and was quite enjoying the attention she was getting from both my mum and me.  My mum, although not overly-horsey, likes to pet horses and Saffie was more than obliging.  Long may it continue.

Thankfully Gwenan sent me the full sales results on our journey back home, as well as publishing them on the STAGBI Facebook page.  For those interested in seeing them, here they are:

Lot HORSE Amount (£) Purchaser (n/s = not sold; n/f = not forward)
12 ART CONNECTION (USA) 800 Highbrooks Stud
13 DUCKWORK (USA) n/f n/f
15 ARTRIBUTE (USA) n/s n/s
17 AYR TYCOON n/s n/s
18 IMADREAMER n/s n/s
19 LANESIDE LACEY 400 J Manning
20 LANESIDE LOTUS 1600 S Lloyd
21 HASTY CHARM 1000 D Blease
22 HOLMES WILDFIRE 320 S Harbour
23 RHYDS JIFFY 1500 D McKenzie
24 RHYDS DILEMMA n/f n/f
26 BRYWINS ONE OFF 220 M Goggin
28 R U SERIOUS n/f n/s
31 AYR FELLA 700 R Lloyd & L Samuels
32 GOLD NESS 950 N Pryce
33 FRISCO FRISK 14000 R Thomas
35 CHINATOWN SAMUEL 2000 J A Moorhouse
36 AYR JUBILEE 950 G Dowse
46 BLACKFIELD LANDA 1200 L Cassells
47 CAENWOOD UNIQUE 2000 J Connors
48 RHYDS ROCK N ROLL 7700 R Cooper
50 OAKWOOD PLAYBOY 30000 Wye Stud
52 AYR MAJORETTE 12500 J Foody
53 GO COMPAYR 1400 M Wadhams
54 MATTICULOUS 32000 BKB Syndicate
55 CRACK A SMILE 21000 C Fletcher
56 RHYDS SHOOFLY 19000 Meadowbranch Stud
57 RHYDS RUMMY 14000 V Elvin
58 RHYDS SAPPHIRE 14000 R Thomas
59 BRYWINS MOCHA 1000 A Bryson
62 CHINATOWN KIKI 3700 V Elvin
63 CHINATOWN FURY 1000 G Evans
65 OAKWOOD IDEAL n/s n/s
66 OAKWOOD SPUR 3600 G Allan
67 OAKWOOD DELIGHT 4300 M Wadhams
69 RHYDS PRO AFFAIR 9500 N Stafford
71 NO LIMITS II 6500 N Stafford
72 MANHATTAN SWEETART 1250 S Collinson
73 BRYWINS BEACHVAMP 1600 K Ellis & P Bradder
77 MAHOGANY ELSA 650 Wellfield Stud
81 CAENWOOD EVE n/s n/s
82 BRYWINS DUCKDOWN 800 D Hitchcock

And now for the statistics nerds, here goes:

There were 59 horses entered for the sale; of these 51 were forward on the day of the sale.  Of these 51, 44 were sold through the ring (86% sale rate).

The total sale value was £254,490, a record amount.  The average sale value was £5,783.86 (£254,490/44).

The total yearling sale value was £226,250 for 33 lots sold.  The average sale value was £7,541.67 (£226,250/33).  This is a marked increase on the 2015 sale, which is in line with the increased yearling average at York sale three weeks ago.  This follows on from an increase from 2014 to 2015, which I believe once again is due to the raised profile of the juvenile and stakes races in the UK and Ireland, with the VDM prize money increasing in 2017 to €15,000.  The status of the BHRC Sire Stakes, British & Irish Breeders Crown, Irish Sire Stakes and North Wales stakes races at Tir Prince, along with the individual track stakes races and Dragon Series at Tregaron all plays a part as well.

Times are changing.  Smarty and I noted after York sale that the 'working man', the type of owner/trainer/driver who in the past could buy a chancy yearling at the lower end of the price range but still decently bred, is now pushed out of the market as the lower end increases in line with the middle and top end.  The sale at York was only an indicator of what was to come at Builth.  The alternative, if the market has become unaffordable, is to breed.  However, this isn't always an option either.  Well bred mares can be, and are, still expensive.  Stud fees, keep, scanning costs etc. are all additional costs.  Then there's the initial wait.  Once a mare is breeding regularly year on year though you can create a conveyor belt of horses to train for the future.  Some people don't like breeding and rearing horses; some don't have suitable facilities for this.  Another alternative to this is the formation of syndicates; pooling money to purchase better quality stock.  This works for some, but not others.  Particularly if one or more of the syndicate wishes to train the horse themselves.  Very muddy waters and not for everyone.

Prize money for stakes races is increasing; this is bringing new buyers into the sport and driving the cost of well bred horses up.  The kind of money changing hands in the last couple of years is enough to make many people's eyes water.  Smarty and I both know we cannot compete financially in this type of market - we have other commitments at this stage in our lives and we couldn't justify it.  Fortunately, we identified this upturn in the market before it took off too much, and invested in quality American and British broodmares in order to try to produce our own champions.  We both come from backgrounds of breeding horses before we met, and personally I favour the time from foaling to breaking over actually racing (although only just, as I love racing my own horses).  Having our first homebred filly racing at the highest level this year in the 2YO fillies races was a real thrill, and although her dam was our most expensive purchase (coming directly from Harrisburg), she is nonetheless an investment who could produce us a few more winners in the future.

We both left the sale to make the 6 hour journey back to Scotland feeling strangely upbeat.  It was encouraging to see a healthy market.  It was nice to see breeders receiving good prices for well bred, exceptionally turned out stock.  It was also nice to see people we know and call friends buying quality horses with hopes to race them next year.  There is a real buzz around now.  Things are on the up.

Over and out,

#1 Groom (with her hands firmly stuck in her pockets on sale day)

P.S. hello to all my American readers.  Thanks to Heather [Vitale] and Allan [Schott] both plugging my blog on their respective sites, my US views have rocketed and now massively outstrip my British views (obviously the ratio of people in both countries is very different).  Notwithstanding that, I'm glad you guys are giving this blog a go and (hopefully) enjoying it.  It's a long winter ahead over here in the UK before racing commences again in April 2017, so I'll be trying my best to keep things interesting.  If there's anything you would like to read, or find out, about racing over here (and/or the people involved in the sport) then feel free to comment and let me know!  I'm always open to new ideas!!