Friday, 25 March 2016

Florida: Part 2 - Pompano Park

Welcome back for Part 2!

Day 3 - continued...

On the Wednesday evening we headed back to the track for our second night of racing.  Steve Wolf had arranged for us to have a ride in the start car, a Hummer which he had designed whilst working for the track some years before.  We headed to the winner's circle after the second race to be picked up by the start car driver and the starter and waited while the horses paraded on the track.  As the car began to roll quietly around to the start, Wally [Hennessy] appeared in the 4-hole to shout to us in the back that we should be dropped off by the paddock and he would take us for a tour after the race.

I don't know where to begin describing the experience of actually being in the start car.  Back when I was in Wales I started a couple of qualifiers and also stood alongside the starter at the beginning of a few races at Amman Valley so I've been faced with 5 horses travelling at 30mph before.  This was different.  It was dark and we were under floodlights; there were 8 horses on the gate and I'm confident we were going a lot faster than 30mph!  As I was seated inside the vehicle, I was literally eyeballing 8 racehorses who I don't think could see me for all the adrenaline coursing through their veins.  As we accelerated to pull away, we got to see up close the momentary chaos that ensues until drivers slip into their positions and the race settles.  Smarty and I both thought we would pull up in the vehicle like the start car does in the UK, but we drove around the outside of the track, parallel to the horses, for the full mile.

IT WAS AMAZING.  You're watching the race from probably the second best seat in the house (the first being in the sulky).  You're watching every move, every challenge, every flick of the whip up close.  You're actually travelling with them.  I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone who visits the track...and the best part is it's free!

Chatting away to Wally as the car began to roll.

After the race we were dropped off at the paddock entrance onto the track, where Wally met us to begin our tour.  He took us to meet Greg DeFrank, the Race Secretary at the track who much like our very own Karen Kennedy, is the main cog in the machine that keeps harness racing going on a weekly basis.  From there, we had to wait while Wally dashed out onto the track for a drive in the fourth, which he subsequently won, then brought his horse back via the paddock entrance to tell us to jump on the golf buggy and head down to the winner's circle for a photo.

View from the paddock bend
Colours in the Race Secretary's office
At this point I should probably mention, if I haven't made reference or suggestion to it already, that Wally Hennessy is like a whirlwhind.  He seems to be constantly fizzing with energy and I can only assume that his enthusiasm for his track, its facilities and the horses that race there during the winter, must be because he is immensely proud of them.  So he should be.  What a man!  His attitude is completely infectious and half the time I spent with him I was trying not to burst out laughing at the way in which he totally went off on a tangent trying to show me something else new and exciting.

Anyway, due to the fact that he essentially had a drive in every race thereafter, Wally left us to our own devices in the paddock.  It was here that I began my search for Jamie Macomber, in order to fulfil the promise that we would return to see her and Ricky.  My efforts went unrewarded, as the only person I could find with her horse, Deuces For Charity, was the groom.  Smarty bumped into Scott, the caretake for Boston Red Rocks, Doo Wop Hanover and Katch Kanna, and whilst I was busy taking photos of the horses in their stalls, I was distracted by a gentleman telling me it's unlucky to photograph a horse before a race because then it won't win.  This is the American equivalent of our 'if you win Best Turned Out you won't win the race', a theory I took great pleasure in disproving at many an Allensmore meeting with Dark Fox and Loden Scoot.  The same gentleman also went on to explain that the filly he was racing that night had recovered from an injury which had required numerous pins and plates in her leg, and showed me the x-ray photos on his phone.  Possibly the most forward and chatty person I'd met bar Wally, but more about this random stranger later (we did meet again).

Back to the paddock.  It's an enormous barn, filled with four rows of stalls, each of which is grouped by race (with a number hanging from the ceiling midway along the stalls to denote the race number), and then numerically by cloth number.  It was like being in one of the sheds at the Brightwells Sale, but knowing exactly where you would find each horse on the card simply from its race and cloth number (which is also its post position).  I never thought I'd get 'shed envy', but I did.

The Paddock

From here I bumped into Mike and Barbara Murphy, a couple we'd met the day before who had introduced us to their horses, including stable favourite Four Socks.  Tonight they were racing a mare called Lickcreek Francis, who Barbara told me didn't have the biggest chance from the 7-hole for the second week in a row.  I said it was 'lucky 7', gave the horse a pat on the nose and wished them all the best.  Francis went on to deadheat in the race, and Mike & Barb insisted I jump on the golf buggy and head for the photo in the winner's circle...again.

Lickcreek Francis & Barb Murphy after her dead heat victory
Day 4

On the Thursday we once again headed for the back stretch, which was quickly becoming our favourite place in the entire world.  Dan Hennessy was there to meet us, as yet again Wally was out on the track jogging horses.  Dan asked if I wanted to take a horse out, to which I obviously said 'yes', and the next thing I knew I was about to sit behind my first trotter.  Wally came back off the track, jumped from one to another and off we went to jog horses together.  The horse that I was lucky enough to drive was an aged trotter by the name of Super Duke, who aside from being a little strong was otherwise a delight to jog.  Now I've only ever jogged horses around Colin Bevan's track and our little track at home, both of which are only wide enough for one horse at a time.  Not only was the jog track at Pompano wide enough for 8 horses with around 15 horses jogging at the time, but I also had to avoid a tractor coming towards me in various parts of the track each lap.  Despite all this, I loved every second of it.  I wish I'd been able to take a full stable of horses around there!

Super Duke & me getting ready to head out
Giving Wally the 'where it all began story' including Runnis Smokey, my first Standardbred!
Super Duke, who was super to jog!
Wally left me for a couple of extra laps to whizz around by myself, and each person I trotted up alongside was happy to have a brief chat.  When I came off the track, I spoke at length with Wally's groom, a Swedish lady who has been living and working in Florida for 30 years.  She's had the right idea all along.

Wally had to shoot off to play golf (what a lifestyle eh?!) so we bade the team farewell and began wandering again.  We'd only made it past one row of stables when Chris Oakes came by on a golf buggy, instructed the guy driving to slow down and shouted to us that he'd meet us at his stables.  So off to his stables we went.

Chris started at one end of his barn and introduced us to each horse in turn, talking us through their sale value, their earnings and/or their claiming price.  We got about half way up the line when he stopped to introduce us to a two year old filly called Blue Beach, by Somebeachsomewhere out of Rainbow Blue...a full sister to Somewherovrarainbow (p,4,1:48f $1,341,348).  She cost $270,000 as a yearling and is evidently from a supreme family...and then Chris Oakes said to Smarty, "do you wanna jog her?".  He didn't need asked twice.

Ten minutes later I was sat watching Smarty jogging the filly around the actual track at Pompano Park alongside two other two year olds.  He is the jammiest git in existence.

Smarty jogging Blue Beach

That's what top trainers get their youngsters looking like...
Once we'd headed back to the track and I'd gotten over my minor fit of jealousy, Chris introduced us to Luck Be Withyou, somewhat his 'stable star' alongside so many youngsters.  All in all we must have spent over an hour with Chris, who talked us through his operation at Wilkes Barre, near to Pocono Downs, as well as the remainder of his Florida season.  That morning he'd never spoken to Smarty before; by the time we'd left he'd let him sit behind the most expensive yearling to come out of Harrisburg in 2015!

From Chris' stable we carried on wandering around, which is when we came across the gentleman from the night before who had shown me the x-ray photos of the mare with pins in her foreleg.  And so began our friendship with Mr Scott Schwartz.  He introduced us to his stable star, stable favourite, and guaranteed winner come Sunday night, Cadillac Phil, as well as Classic Carpet and De Vins Girl (the mare with the cracked cannon bone). Smarty made himself at home, sitting on Scott's tack box and quizzing him on everything from state official visits, to vets bills, to training methods.  Scott gave the frankest and most open account of racing in Florida, not the all-singing, all-dancing account that every well-trained PR person would do, for which Smarty and I were very grateful.  Everybody had been talking about the potential decoupling of the casino and the racetrack, but nobody had given us the warts-and-all version of racing on a daily basis.  Turns out it's not so dissimilar from racing in the UK and Ireland after all.

As with nearly every other person we spoke to, Scott was amazed that we had harness racing in the UK.  It was a joy to describe our sport to other enthusiasts, and slightly embarassing to admit that I have to work a 45-hour 'day job' to be able to afford to own and train horses.  I was painfully reminded of how much the sport is a hobby for me whereas for them it is a way of life that, even for the small man, appears to pay.  It was whilst stood chewing the fat with Scott that I was able to admit for the first time since my arrival in America that things in our sport aren't as rosy as we would all paint to anybody looking in from the outside.  He laughed at my description of 'The Bench' at Corbiewood, and how every man in Scottish racing comes out of the womb with a stopwatch in his hand.  Little did he know I wasn't joking...

That evening, Smarty and I donned our gladrags for an evening out with Scott & Stephanie Wolf, and Nanna.  Steve showed me the new venture he was working on (10wins10) before we headed out for a lovely meal at Rock N Roll Ribs, owned by Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain.  In fact lovely just doesn't cover it, it was AMAZING.  American food rocks.  We then headed back to Chez Wolf and chatted all things racing, from the Vincent Delaney (and proposed American guests) to the complete lack of information in British and Irish racecards.  Steve is right, our cards look pathetic in comparison to those in America.  I kept all of my programmes from Pompano so next time I see Roy Sheedy (BHRC Chairman) I'll let him have a good look at them.  That is what we should be aspiring to.  We seem to pick and choose which bits of foreign systems we adopt in the UK, and unfortunately it always seems to be the worst parts and never the parts that would actually work and have a positive effect on the sport.  But what do I know, I'm only of any use when I'm doing some donkey work!

Anyway, back to the blog and away from any bold political statements that may be printed off and used against me at a future date, taken out of context and to tarnish my otherwise good name within the sport (stop it Sarah), it was genuinely great to catch up with Steve and actually spend some more time with Stephanie (who I met briefly at the Vincent Delaney last year, but I imagine she was overwhelmed with all the people Steve was introducing her to).  THANK YOU both for your great hospitality and for putting aside some time for us, you are wonderful people and you have a lovely home.  And to Nanna, who provided the quote of the holiday: "Home, James!".

The third and final instalment will cover qualifiers like you've never seen qualifiers before, searching out some British connections, meeting a familiar face, my first attempts at betting the American way and victory for some new friends...

Hope you've enjoyed the read!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

This one's for N Luv Blue Chip.  Run free young man.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Florida: Part 1 - Pompano Park & South Florida Training Center

About time I wrote up the highlights of our holiday to Florida (and New York, although that was purely for sight-seeing).

Day 1 & 2

We arrived in Florida (more specifically Miami) on the evening of Monday 8th February after a day's worth of travel from Glasgow via New York.  An hour drive north took us to Fort Lauderdale, where we settled for the week.  Our sole point of contact in Florida was Steve Wolf, the editor I deal with when submitting my articles to Harnesslink, and Chairman of the Board for the United States Harnes Writers Association of which I am now a sponsored member (thanks to Steve!).

Steve had arranged for Smarty and I to meet Wally Hennessy, Pompano Park's leading driver, at the area of the track known as 'the back stretch' the following day, in order for us to explore the side of the venue that most racegoers don't even know exists.  We were to have security page him upon our arrival; however, Wally was out on the jog track at the time so after much brain-racking, Smarty plucked Kevin Wallis' name from the atmosphere after recalling his connections with Watson Harrop, a friend of ours.  We didn't see much of Kevin for the remainder of the week but if you're reading this Kevin, THANK YOU for signing us in on that first day when we didn't know our way around or who anybody was!

We started at the most logical point which was the row of stables furthest from the jog track; here we met a lady by the name of Cindy Rapson who was more than happy to chat with us whilst letting Back To Peace have a graze.  It turned out that Cindy knew the O'Neils (Elizabeth, Michael & Hugh), Caroline Kennedy and George Carson, all of whom are friends of ours from Scotland, from a previous trip to Canada.  She couldn't speak highly enough of them all which was great to hear, and she particularly commended George on his work ethic whilst visiting, as he was volunteering himself repeatedly for jogging duties (even in the worst of weather).  This I can believe; but I'll save a profile post about George for another time as I can't sing his praises highly enough!

As luck would have it, Wally and his brother, Dan, were stabled in the bottom half of the first row.  I have to say that from the moment we met them both, they could not have been more friendly, helpful or accommodating.  Dan answered every question Smarty threw at him, and Wally assured us that we would get a chance to see and do everything that was worth seeing and doing at Pompano Park; all we had to do was 'leave it with him'.  Wally had previously visited Ireland to drive at the Vincent Delaney Memorial Weekend in 2014, so had a better understanding than most of the people we met as to the sport in the UK and Ireland.  He is a real character, that's for sure, and I tried my best to convince him to come back over this year!  He spoke very highly of the hospitality he received in Ireland (although he admitted the time passed rather quickly in a blur of alcohol and partying alongside the racing), which is something I have to commend Derek & James Delaney for.  When you experience the hospitality offered by the Americans when you visit them, you can begin to understand what it is they appreciate most when visiting the UK and Ireland.  A little bit of hospitality goes a long way.

We watched Wally jog a couple of horses out on the half mile jog track, which quite frankly was as good as (if not better) than the best half mile race track we have in the UK.

Wally Hennessy jogging & leading around Pompano's 1/2 mile jog track
We spotted someone leading a horse in hand from the stables, onto the track through one entrance, along a short stretch of the track and then off again at the other entrance.  Shortly afterwards the person leading the horse jumped on the back of a golf buggy to lead the horse in trot which is when the following fireworks happened.

Doo Wop Hanover & Scott
Doo Wop feeling a bit fresh!
Whilst standing by the track we also spotted a trainer bringing a horse out onto the track and walking a lap before starting jog work.  This caught Smarty's eye, so when the horse left the track, we followed it back to its stable block.  Here we met Jamie Macomber, trainer and wife of driver Ricky Macomber Jr.  We were introduced to some of her charges: Bluehourpower, Sumthintallnstrong, Sandysgoldenhour and Deuces For Charity.  She was a fan of Sand Shooter, a stallion that perhaps not many back in the UK will have heard of, but one who has much success in Jamie's home state of Indianna.  She told us that during the summer months, she heads back to Indianna where she trains two-year-olds for Ron Burke, and went on to answer Smarty's questions about her weekly training regime for both youngsters and aged racehorses.  I really enjoyed my time chatting to her and meeting her two young children, and she asked us to come back and visit the stables when her husband Ricky was about.

Jamie Macomber in the foreground jogging a 10-year-old trotter

From there we wandered to the end of the double block (two rows of stables facing each other) and met Scott, caretaker for trainer Peter Blood.  He had been the person leading the buckaroo from the back of the golf buggy, who turned out to be Doo Wop Hanover (Rocknroll Hanover-Deer Valley Miss-Artsplace), one of the four horses under his direct care within the stables.  He also introduced us to Boston Red Rocks (Rocknroll Hanover-McGibson-McArdle) and a stunning trotter by the name of Katch Kanna (Lucky Chucky-Oleodre-Lindy Lane) who went on to win 5 days later during our visit.
Boston Red Rocks
Katch Kanna
Katch Kanna & Molly (I *think* that was her name!!

That night we headed to Pompano Park track itself for our first experience of racing in Florida.  The first big difference I noted was that entry was free.  The racecard cost $2 and contained all the information you could possibly wish to know about the runners.  Ours look decidely amateur in comparison (something I discussed with Steve later in the week).

The facilities are out of this world and yet the 'old' grandstand is no longer in use.  There were barely more people there watching the racing than at Corbiewood on a Thursday night.  Yet indoors, the casino was full of people playing poker, eating, drinking and playing on the slot machines.  I lasted all of five minutes inside before the lights and noise got to me and I returned to my spot outside by the bar to watch the racing.  No jokes please, these were some of the best seats in the house!  And not because I enjoy the occasional tipple...

After the third race I spotted Chris Oakes, trainer of a number of top racehorses including Luck Be Withyou (Western Ideal-Trim Hanover-Camluck), sat behind us at the bar.  With a bit of Dutch courage (not that I've ever needed that in order to speak to strangers), I approached him to talk about securing a job next winter for my friend, George (previously mentioned above).  I must admit, Chris handled the situation very well considering he was being accosted by a British woman, and a stranger at that, about taking on someone he'd never met before.  He told me that seeing as I was able to vouch for George's attitude, commitment and knowledge, that he should get in touch with Chris via Facebook to discuss a position at his stable next winter.  I left it at that, knowing I was going to need to get George's rear end in gear to get him over to Florida for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (one day that boy will realise all that Smarty and I do for him to make sure he gets where he's meant to go in life).

Our delightful host Wally left it until the last race to notch up a winner, at which point Dan Hennessy escorted me to the winner's circle to get in the photo.  Again, no jokes please, I didn't actively photobomb this time.  Had I tried to get out of it I suspect Dan, and his friends from Canada who were visiting to play golf in the sun, would have carried me there.  For their sakes, I went willingly.

It was at this point that I met Skip [Smith], official photographer at Pompano Park and someone who received numerous requests for photos from me during the remainder of the week as I ended up in several other winning photos.

 Day 3

On the Wednesday we headed to South Florida Training Center after contacting Ann-Mari Daly, the manager, about visiting their set up.  Here the likes of Casie Coleman and Ross Croghan stable their horses, in a sprawling farm-like establishment out in the country.  The first thing we noticed was the more relaxed vibe of the place, which although is located next to a major highway, feels very secluded once you enter through the electronic gates.

Not knowing who Ann-Mari was, or where we would find her, we headed for the first person we saw, who happened to be with a horse using what appeared to be a treadmill submerged in water.  Curiosity always wins out in both our cases so we headed over to watch the horse, who was called Henry (Blessed Victory) who turned out to be a total poser at the sight of my camera when he emerged from the water.

Blessed Victory, aka Henry, exercising under water
Henry, one of those horses who just loves the camera
We were pointed in the direction of the maintenance barn so headed alongside the track to find Ann-Mari, who appeared with camera in hand (if you check out the South Florida Training Center Facebook page, you'll see the fruits of her labours with that camera).  As she was busy, she introduced us to someone I think she hoped would keep us entertained for some, or most, of our visit: Jeff Fout. It was an inspired introduction, and if I could dedicate a whole post to this man then I would gladly.  Quite possibly THE most interesting individual I have ever met in my life, and I am absolutely gutted that I only spent all of many 45 minutes chatting to him.  I have attempted, without much luck so far, to get in touch with him and/or his wife since I returned to the UK because I want to hear every story he has to tell, and I want to visit Winbak Farm, Maryland, the next time I'm in the USA.

Smarty & I with the enigmatic Jeff Fout

I can't even begin to cover the things we talked about because we went from him working at Winbak Farm to his driving career, to stories of training a Thoroughbred that people had written off as useless, to comparing racing in the UK and Ireland to America and Canada...Jeff told us (and I believe jokingly, although with a sense of humour as dry and wicked as his I'm not 100% sure) that the day before he'd told his wife that he was leaving the house in Maryland to go to the shop...and ended up in Florida.  Allegedly, she had no idea he was there, so when I was to send her a friend request on Facebook with a message explaining that I wasn't a crazy person, I wasn't to mention where or when I'd met Jeff.  It made things difficult, which is why I left sending the message until a week or so after my return (by which point, if his story was true, he would have surely told her where the hell he was).

As we walked and talked he asked us whether we kept horses ourselves;  I explained about the 11, consisting of a few broodmares, at which point he asked what sort of stock we had.  I told him about Rita (Vain In Spain) who we had imported from Harrisburg in 2013, and as soon as I mentioned her sire, Artsplace, his face lit up.  He told me that was as good a starting place as any, and gave me the one quote that for me blitzes every other piece of information available about that horse; if you trawl the internet you can find out Artsplace's earnings, his record, his career wins, information about his offspring, about individual victories...anything and everything you'd think you would want to know.  Jeff was able to tell me something I didn't even think I wanted, or needed, to know.  He told me that he'd driven Artsplace, and that he was "the singlemost intelligent horse that I ever came across".  He explained that when people look at a horse they stand next to it, look it up and down, check its legs and conformation and height, give it a thorough looking over as if it is essentially an object.  Artsplace did the same to the people he met.  He regarded people with the same curiosity that they regarded him with.  He was a thinker.

For someone so guilty of anthropomorphism as I, this snippet of information filled me with delight.  I often fear that some of my fellow horsemen regard me with mild disdain as despite my best efforts to hide it, I often let this trait spill out publicly.  Studies can suggest otherwise, but there will always be a large part of me that believes that horses think not too dissimilarly to humans.

I went on to talk about Nala, Rita's 2015 foal who had unfortunately passed away last summer, who was by Mypanmar; Jeff smiled and said 'I drove him too'.  His description of Mypanmar matched entirely the opinion I have formed of the horse having met him at Sue & John Thompson's.  He described him as aggressive on the racetrack, which fits with the nickname Smarty's uncle has given him of 'the Lion'.  He is a horse that carries presence.  Jeff and I had found common ground very quickly.  Unfortunately, he had to get on with his work and we had the rest of the complex to explore but before we parted ways he insisted that we visit the farm in Maryland, where we would be taken on a tour of all of the youngstock, broodmares and stallions, before being able to jog some of the horses trained there.  His last words to me were "and if you wanna go fast, we can go fast!".  I really do hope we get a chance to make it to Maryland some day, sooner rather than later.

We watched a few more horses jogging on the track before saying our farewell to Ann-Mari and heading back to the car via Casie Coleman and Ross Croghan's barns.  We had a brief chat with Ross who said London has to be one of the coldest places he's ever been (I would have agreed with him at that point, mainly due to the fact I don't think he knows where Slamannan is, although New York may well beat London for the cold in the time I was subsequently there).  Casie was still on vacation but we had a chance to meet some of the horses in her barn, including Betting Line (Bettors Delight-Heathers Western-Western Hanover).  In Ross' barn we came across a gorgeous chestnut by the name of Totally Rusty and a mare whose name reminded me of my mare Star (Shes Some Deal), Shezarealdeal (Western Ideal-Shezarealcaesar-Real Artist), a winner of $300,000 as a 2yo last year.

Betting Line
Not quite Shes Some Deal, but Shezarealdeal!
From South Florida Training Center we headed to Palm Beach Greyhound Track for lunch and an afternoon of Smarty's other love, greyhound racing.  It was in fact my first time at the dogs, although I am lined up for Shawfield Stadium, Glasgow, in the coming weeks for the semis and final of the Scottish Greyhound Derby, and also a visit to Shelbourne Park, Dublin in the summer.  This is because since our return from America, we have acquired a greyhound bitch by the name of Swabys Princess, who is by Westmead Hawk (the only animal to feature in Madame Tussauds in London).  Princess has subsequently dropped a litter of Tyrur Big Mike pups so my education is advancing rapidly.  One day I'll look back and say it all started at Palm Beach in the gorgeous mid-February Florida sunshine!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our trip, which will feature our second night of racing at Pompano Park, a ride in the start car, gatecrashing the paddock, jogging horses in the sun, bumping into a familiar face and an evening in good company talking racing, dangerous and exotic animals and everyone's favourite 'Nanna'!

Over and out,

#1 Groom on tour

Writer's note:  Since I began writing this particular post, South Florida Training Center suffered every horseman's worst nightmare when a fire broke out in one of the barns last week, killing 12 horses and injuring a further 11.  Having only visited for the shortest of times, and not having met those directly affected, I was still deeply upset by the news and my thoughts and prayers have been with the surviving horses and all of the connections affected at this difficult time.  Wishing the lucky ones a speedy and full recovery.  RIP to those who did not survive.