Wednesday, 25 May 2016

2016 Season: Week 3

Now we're really getting into the swing of things!  Last weekend saw Smarty and I travel down to Haydock on Saturday for the first full flat meeting of the summer at the course.  As is always the case, we pick up 'return punters' who come back to bet with us race after race, and as we packed up during the penultimate race in order to get on the road for Tir Prince in plenty of time, I got chatting to one of these punters.  He started telling me about a friend of his who used to be a bookie (I thought, 'here we go') so I politely asked where his ex-bookie friend, who I'd never heard of, was from.


Not exactly a run-of-the-mill kinda name for a village.

And who do we know who lives in Barnoldswick?!

That's right folks:  the Haythornthwaites.

Not exactly a run-of-the-mill kinda name for a family.

I totally love creeping people out when I say 'oh right, so do you know X and Y?  They live in Z as well'.  Their faces when you actually name someone they know, even though you've just told them you live in central Scotland.  Especially as in this instance, the guy admitted Barnoldswick is about as big as the inside of the track at Haydock.

That led us nicely onto a conversation about how I was going to be seeing some of the Haythornthwaites at Tir Prince that evening because we were heading to a harness racing meeting there.  And they were hard to miss, considering they won 3 of the 6 races (Itsmycheck, Porcelain Seelster and Party At The Spa, and had an impressive third with Shades of Grey in the 1.5 mile FFA).

The second meeting at Tir Prince was slightly more enjoyable than the first, although the crowd was definitely reduced.  My highlights were Porcelain Seelster, the 3 year old grey filly of Shane and Claire Fletcher's, who won comfortably with James Haythornthwaite driving, and also Stoneriggs Mystery equalling the track record for the extended 1.5 mile distance after really having to work for it behind a rejuvenated Saunders Mach 3.  As much as the connections of Mystery would like an easy campaign this summer, and as great as it is to see a machine in action, there is a part of me that was desperately hoping for some stiff competition to make the races more exciting and Mach 3 appears to be the best chance of this.  I do also have to mention Miraculous, who proved that he has come on from his 2 year old season to beat seasoned handicap horses from a poor draw in two minutes.  VERY impressive and one to keep a close eye on this summer.  It was foolish of me not to pick him for my 10 to follow selection and with the loss of Robec from my team, I may struggle as the season continues.

Talking of which, my first article of 2016 was published last week on Harnesslink -

I'll admit, I'd have rathered not written it at all and been able to see the horse racing for another season at least but I suppose that's racing.  Robec was for many the horse that made them sit up and take trotting races seriously.  He was a delight to watch and I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I describe him as the trotting equivalent of Stoneriggs Mystery.  He was a real champion.  I wish him all the best in his retirement and a speedy recovery from his injury.

And so that leads us on to Sunday, which was spent at the Mecca of harness racing; the citadel, Corbiewood Stadium.  Smarty and I had spend the morning jogging Ace, mucking out, exercising the dogs, watching pigeons returning from a race (Smarty) and getting Stevie groomed and bandaged (me) for the trip to Bannockburn.  The Gaffer (Smarty's dad) also took his horse, Cassius Clay, to requalify, which he duly did in 2.12.3.  I didn't realise quite how big Cassius was until he was out on the track warming up and he simply towered over all the other horses...this one's definitely NOT 15.1hh.

Young Stephen (Stevie) was one of 7 Grade 1 horses to enter at Corbiewood on the weekend.  However, because Eastern Terrer was being driven by a Class C driver claiming 20 yards under the new handicap system, he was lifted from a Grade 3 to a Grade 1, which left 8 Grade 1s and only 4 Grade 2 - 4 horses.  Due to the club rule that no horse can go off the gate by itself, 2 horses from the Grade 1 band had to be moved up to the next race which gave a split of 6 and 6; due to the club rule whereby races would be split alphabetically if horses were on the same prize money within a grade (which all horses are as the new handicap system has moved horses to the bottom of their respective grade), Young Stephen was the genuine Grade 1 to be moved up alongside Eastern Terrer.  The plus side of this was that he was automatically drawn 1 on the gate, as the horse claiming 20 yards had to take the worst draw within his grade, which was 2 on the gate.

Stevie bolted in.  He led out, settled after an eighth of a mile, went through the quarter in 30.4, through the half in 1.02.1 (at which point my friend Scott who was stood next to me said 'I think he's gone too fast') and came home in 2.03.63.  Despite Smarty's assurances that the horse could do a 2.04, I was still surprised at the time.  The two subsequent races for Grades 5,6,7,8 and 9 both went 2.04, which meant Stevie posted the fastest time of the day, and even though I am biased, in the most impressive fashion.
One of Karen Kennedy's lovely creations - and it's mine!
Stevie and the Jockey
Stevie leading the field - from start to finish

So all in all, a great start to the season for Team Smart (Team Crosshill really only applies to Smarty & I, whereas Team Smart includes his old man and his horses too).

Here's a link to the write up of the meeting by yours truly -

From here we head to Appleby on Sunday and Monday after a day in Haydock on the Saturday.  The next outing for the horses will be Stevie on Friday 3rd June at Corbiewood;  to anyone reading this who might be in the area that night and looking for something to do, come along and meet my boy.  We don't have the biggest supporter's club (although I may convince the Smart clan to come in full on that Friday night for a swally!) so the more the merrier.

On Sunday night, Smarty headed down to Carlisle to take Saunders Beachgirl and her foal, Cliff, to their new home.  Beachgirl has been sold to our good friend Sam Harrison, who also bought a Hasty Hall yearling colt off us last summer (Crosshill Aurora), and he will be looking after Cliff until he is ready to be weaned and returned to us.  The reason she had to go Sunday night was because she was back in season this week and Sam has also purchased himself a stallion so was keen to get her down to his place.  As if Smarty hadn't done enough miles over the weekend...

And there you have it.  Our weekend packed full of racing, and when not racing, just horses in general.  Before I sign off, back to my new feature about my poor goat which has once again been gotten.

Things that have got my goat this week:

- The ever-increasing craze sweeping social media whereby stallion owners post photos and videos of their stallions serving mares.  It started out on sites such as Dragon Driving when advertising a stallion for stud; then it migrated onto Facebook and expanded to include owners of coloured Standardbred stallions, usually in Ireland (these are generally the majority of what I have unfortunately seen).  It appears now to have spread to the owners of bay Standardbred stallions, albeit serving coloured mares.  Is it just me who finds this weird and a tad unsavoury?  I had news this week that my Artsplace mare has been served by Hasty Hall and scanned in foal.  I didn't need John and Grethe Wright to send me photos of the deed being done; nor did I need to have it plastered all over social media.  We get it - you own a stallion.  Whoop-dee-doo.  Although I wouldn't get too excited about some of them when you consider the way they're bred...

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Photo courtesy of Bill Cardno

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

2016 Season: Week 2

The train keeps on rolling and this weekend saw us down in deepest west Wales for the rearranged season 'opener' at Tregaron.

Tregaron Trotting Club Chairman Huw Evans and his team made the right decision to move the fixture as the new date attracted additional entries which saw the original card of 10 races increase to 12, and the weather couldn't have been better for the time of year.  The sun shone down all day on Dolyrychain Farm, Pontrhydfendigaid, however the hard work of the committee wasn't repaid by the crowd who were definitely below expected numbers considering the glorious weather and quality horses on show.

My day started badly when having my finger shut in the back of a horsebox ramp whilst trying to help a friend load a horse (door latch didn't line up with the hole, I moved it across just as he slammed his hand into the ramp to force it onto the latch = my finger got stuck somewhere in between ramp and box = lots of blood and a large hole in my finger).  I'm a brave soul though, and didn't even require alcohol for medicinal numbing of the pain!

Highlights on the day for me were seeing Ffaro and Mattriarch winning for Dylan Lloyd Jones (both listed as horses to follow in my last post), and also Llwyns Delight with Lee Price.  As long as amateur (i.e. not professional/public) trainers are still winning races, then the real essence of our sport survives.  That said, they only took 3 of the 12 races on the day.

Meadowbranch Josh showed some hint of last season's form after a poor first show last week at Tir Prince to take the FFA in the hands of 'Super-Sub' Willie Greenhorn, one of Scotland's great drivers.  David Bevan played the ultimate 'dash for the finish' in the second heat of the handicap when jacking the pace for seven furlongs and then forcing the field to sprint home, just holding on with Beacon Spellbound from Sarah Allen and Wellfield Earl.  David was praised for his tactics, not often seen in Wales as there is an abundance of front-running drivers who like to duel early (often at the expense of being able to finish), however those same tactics can be seen at Corbiewood on a weekly basis and many spectators will vilify drivers who employ such measures.  Our own driver is renowned for it, and also unpopular with many for it.  One of many differences in the sport from one end of the country to the other.

A driver who caught my eye was young Jeremiah Connors who had a provisional drive in the qualifier on Evenwood Tinkerman.  He's one to keep an eye on in the future, as the Connors family are capable of appearing anywhere in the country to race and with success.

But for me the day belonged to one horse:  Alexander Camden.  On the day of the 2012 sale at York, I visited the field where Alexander was still with his dam as a foal because my friend, Emma, wanted to see her favourite mare (Penn Kinki Touch).  It was there she fell in love with a foal with a heart-shaped white marking on his face, who subsequently became Valentine Camden and who she went on to buy the following year at the 2013 sale (the horse has recently come to Scotland where it is owned and trained by my good friend George Carson).  It was there that I fell in love with a foal who had presence, who didn't run to his mother's side when two strange girls wandered through the field, who let me stroke his face and neck and back, and let me pick up his feet, and who subsequently followed me around when I went to locate Penn Kinki Touch with Emma.  At the time I had no idea who he was, only that he was a colt and a lovely one at that.  When the registrations came in to STAGBI, I studied each pack to find the white markings that matched the foal I'd seen.  I'd fallen in love with a Cambest out of an Artsplace mare, whose brothers had gone 1.49 and 1.48 in America already.  That was the moment I realised I wasn't going to be able to afford him at the sale as a yearling.

Alexander Camden at 6 months old
And I was right.  He set a new record at the time, selling for £38,000 to David Morton, Falkirk.  From that moment he had a lot to prove, and sadly this is a common thing in our sport:  people wanted to see him fail.  Whether this is because they are jealous that they can't afford to spend such money on horses, or because they're scared the sport will one day end up only being affordable to those with lots of money, or because they simply thought it was silly to spend so much to be able to win such little in prize money...who knows.  Of all the two year old colts to emerge the following summer, he probably attracted the least support from the crowds.  Not me.  As much as I love an underdog, and as much as I was quite frankly amazed at the achievements of the ill-fated Titanium, Alexander was always my favourite.  He missed his three year old season, when Titanium dominated early doors, then Rewrite History mid-season, and then Coalford Tetrick towards the end of the summer.  With Sportstrick winning the Senior Welsh Dragon on Sunday in style, you can't deny there is as strong a crop of four year old colts in the UK as there has ever been.

So from here we look forward to Tir Prince and Corbiewood this coming weekend.  If Corbiewood gets enough entries to stage a meeting then we will have Cassius Clay in a qualifier to requalify (missed last season) and Young Stephen in a Grade 1 race.  Fingers crossed, as I'm looking forward to getting these nags out on the track and hopefully doing us proud.

On a sidenote, following a proposal from Smarty at the most recent SHRC club meeting to create a new track rule that any horse that gallops in two consecutive starts at Corbiewood will be made to requalify before it can race again, the members voted to approve this.  This essentially echoes rule N15 (remember that post?!) and it is hoped that other tracks in the UK may follow suit in the future.  Connor Camden caused a false start at Tir Prince by breaking last week; was moved to the outside on the gate and also broke in the re-run.  He did the same at Tregaron on Sunday.  I have been informed, albeit informally, that he is being made to requalify.  Safety MUST come first.

Before I sign off, I just want to have a small vent.  This may have to become a weekly 'feature'.  Think of it as a 'things that get my goat'.

My goat was gotten this week by the following:

- The BHRC's decision to publish a string of emails between themselves and TrotBritain arguing over the structure of harness racing in the UK, the status of trotting versus pacing, potential UET membership...or at least that's what I think it's about.  Seemingly the BHRC have tried to call TrotBritain's bluff by threatening to make the emails public, TB have advised them that that's a good idea and lo and behold they are on the governing body's website for the world to see.  1)  Publishing the emails was NOT a good idea; 2) the BHRC has a media advisor, who either isn't aware of this farce being made public or who has given bad advice in telling the BHRC to 'go public'; and 3) the BHRC wants to threaten licence holders not to speak negatively of the governing body on social media in case it paints a bad image of the sport...I don't think I need to point out the obvious here.

- Fake profiles on social media where people hide begind a ridiculous name just so they can peddle the same things that people with real names have already said.  Have balls; don't hide behind a false name.

Just as I was about to go to post, I looked over at Smarty, who is researching French Trotters, and he is imitating different blinker/bluff positions on his eyes using his hands.

That's mad.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Monday, 9 May 2016

2016 Season: Week 1

Although the season is yet to get underway in Scotland, with the first meeting of the year scheduled for Sunday 15th May (also the new date for the postponed fixture at Tregaron), harness racing has finally managed to get out of the starting blocks with the first meeting staged at Tir Prince, north Wales, on Saturday night.

Smarty and I left home on Saturday morning at 09:00 to work our first shift at Haydock Park Racecourse for a mixed card of jumps and flat racing.  There was a bumper turnout courtesy of the favourable change in weather conditions and although the results didn't go our way, Smarty bookied well and we enjoyed ourselves.  I enjoy working the front of the joint as I'm a naturally more gregarious and interactive person; plus it allows Smarty to focus on making a book and controlling the prices.  The only place where we switch roles is at the harness racing, as regular punters look to bet with Smarty, not his (glamorous!) assistant.  Plus at busy meetings where Smarty and A N Other are doubled up taking bets, I'm faster on the computer to respond (although this only really happens at Tir Prince).

Speaking of which, Tir Prince was actually the venue for our second shift of the day, having left Haydock after the penultimate race (much to the dismay of some of our regular punters) to make it there before the first race in time to set up.

We needn't have worried, as true to 2015 form, the races were late going off.  I don't know why this happens but it confuses the holidaymakers who have never been before as around the time of the first race there is usually a qualifier going on - I have in the past had to explain to a punter that the horse they'd bet which they thought had won, had in fact only finished in front in a qualifer and wasn't the horse they had bet for the first race.  When they see the boards light up and horses on the track with numbercloths on, they want to bet.  If we don't put the prices up until after the qualifiers (our new tactic), we get pestered to death by people wanting to bet on what they believe to be the first race.  Perhaps the racecards could feature more of an explanation as to the format of the evening, as the holidaymakers do sit and read their racecards from cover to cover.

On the night there were 7 races, starting with the maidens and culminating in the feature event, the Anthony Russell Memorial FFA where last year's heavyweight FFA horse Stoneriggs Mystery was being taken on by other top FFAllers, Foolaround, Brywinsmagicpotion, Meadowbranch Josh, Ayr Majesty and Wellfield Official.

The evening was one of ups and downs for us as bookmakers, but we ended up on top.  The crowd was below what I had expected with it being the first meeting of the season, and there wasn't as much money around as anticipated either.  On social media the FFA had been pegged as something of a match race between Mystery and Josh, who has moved to the Laidler barn.  The Josh fans did not materialise on the night and the money all came for Mystery, which was as sensible a place as any to put it.  The horse is simply a machine.  He gives me goosebumps to watch; when he races he carries his head low and stretched out as if chasing the finishing line.  When he kicked on from the pack, he wasn't for being caught.

The weather had deteriorated rapidly during the latter races which drove the crowd inside and forced the FFA race to go without the start car for safety reasons.  Tir Prince may be the flagship track, but the rain waits for no man.

Horses which caught my eye on the night were Ffaro (Dylan Lloyd-Jones), Showtime Big Cigar (Ian Pimlott), Mattriarch (Dylan Lloyd-Jones), Indie Hanover (Richard Haythornthwaite), Alexander Camden (Mick Lord), Ayr Majesty (Patrick Kane Jr) and of course Stoneriggs Mystery (Mick Lord) who I anticipate will dominate the FFA ranks this summer.  Keep an eye on them every time they run.

I must admit, we both left the track on Saturday night a bit...deflated.  The first meeting of the season should be full of anticipation and excitement.  Perhaps it was because we'd both had a long day?  I'm not convinced.  It just felt a bit flat.  The weather certainly didn't help, but the crowd wasn't as good as I had expected and somehow the night seemed to drag on.  The drive home is a killer and it's taken me until today to recover, and even now I'm not convinced I'm 100% there!

Thankfully yesterday was a day off, spent jogging horses and playing with foals.  There was a race meeting at Amman Valley, south Wales, at which there were no bookmakers.  I fear this will have irreparable damage to the track going forward.  Had we not got so much work at home to be done, Smarty said we would have been there.  Logistically it was possible to head from Tir Prince to my parents', then down to AV the following morning.  However, bearing in mind I have a day job to go back to on a Monday morning at 08:00, the journey home after the meeting would have been horrendous.  I'm glad we came home.

All in all, not much to report from the first weekend of racing.  Tregaron on Sunday may provide the boost I need.

What racing isn't doing for me right now, thankfully my own band of merry men are.  Here's some  photos from yesterday:  Smarty and Cliff (Eagle Luck-Saunders Beachgirl-Beach Towel) playing in the field.

Over and out,

#1 Bookmaker's Assistant

Thursday, 5 May 2016

And they're....NOT off and pacing.

For the first time since I began going harness racing 'full time' in 2008, the first meeting of the season at Tregaron has been cancelled.  On Sunday 1st May I should have been stood in a field in west Wales, probably in waterproofs, enjoying a 10-race card.  Celebrating 8 years since my first race meeting working as a groom.  Celebrating 2 years since I left Wales for bonny Scotland.  The weather forecast was not deterring us from the near 700-mile round trip;  I've stood in worse this winter at point-to-points, which I don't enjoy half as much as a trot.  Instead I was pottering around at my stables, recovering from a desperate day at a point in Skipton the day before (we won't be back there next year).  Adverse weather forecasted for the Sunday coupled with preceeding days of heavy rainfall forced the committee to cancel and look to postpone to a later date (the meeting has been rescheduled for Sunday May 15th).

Not quite as surprising was the cancellation of the Bank Holiday meeting at Amman Valley the following day.  The meeting hasn't actually been staged in all the years I've been involved in the sport.  Even with the absence of York (due to stage NO fixtures in 2016), AV were unable to attract enough entries to secure a card.  No wonder, when you consider the pool of horses available at the beginning of May in Wales, and the close proximity of Tregaron and Amman Valley.

Harness racing has returned however, in the form of the Wales & Border Counties meeting at Amman Valley on Saturday 30th April.  The main reason they have been able to get up and started is because their Association stages one fixture per weekend and has a pool of approximately 100 horses, most of whom will race on a weekly basis.  There is no competition from tracks to draw a sufficient number of horses away from another in order to be able to stage a meeting.  Wales & Borders meetings don't get cancelled due to lack of entries.

I don't know about anyone else, but right now I'm needing that first fix of racing to make me fall back in love with the game.  It's a long six months from the end of one season to the start of the next, and as is the case every year, the politics of the sport take over and you begin to wonder if it's all worth it.

I can't remember if I made you aware at the time or not, but I stood down as the SHRC Vice Chairman around August time last year.  At a members meeting where my decision was conveyed, I gave the reason that it was for 'personal' reasons.  The job was probably more hassle than it was worth, as with the absence of a Chairman (who resigned 5 days after the AGM where he'd put himself forward for the position) the blame for things seemed to always lie at my door.  The real reason I stood down though was because on the preceding weekend I was called into the stewards' room after racing, where I was faced with six stewards.  Amazing firstly that there were six stewards at a meeting, but also slightly alarming that it takes six full grown men to speak to me.  I was told that I was not allowed to make criticising comments publicly about the quality of stewarding at the track because I was the Vice Chairman of the club.  I should direct my concerns to the appropriate people (already tried that - to no avail).  So I figured if I couldn't make public criticism of stewards because I was the VC, then I would stop being the VC.  Then I could make comments criticising them.  I'll not have my Article 10 Freedom of Expression right, enshrined in European law and protected to the highest level by all the courts in the land, curtailed by six men in a shed on stilts.  And I will not be intimidated either.

I further ingratiated myself with certain people by taking a stand at the penultimate meeting of the season at Corbie when wading into Mayhem-gate (Brywins Mayhem not allowed to race as at the time of entry was not in the care of the person claiming to be the trainer; upon investigation, another 5 horses entered to race were of the same status, and despite intervention in one case by the BHRC Vice Chairman following notification by myself, other horses were allowed to run.  It was an example of victimisation at its worst).  It was due to this debacle that the Regional Steward position became vacant, and also due to this and the stand I took that I decided to apply for the position.  A background in law, coupled with an ingrained sense of fairness, meant I thought I was a suitable candidate; furthermore, at the time nobody else wished to do the job.  It later transpired that Craig Stevenson, an active member of the MFDA committe and also one of the handicapping panel, had also applied.  I offered to withdraw my application as in all honesty I don't need the extra work but was told to wait and see who the SHRC would support (having been told they could assist the BHRC in the application process, something Smarty and I fought for at BHRC committee meetings).

Despite my credentials, and the glaring fact that the BHRC needs to encourage young people to take up the 'boring' roles within the sport and shake off its image of being the 'old boys' brigade', my application was ripped to shreds at a Council meeting.  An attack was made upon my character so harsh and unfair that upon learning about what had happened, I was brought to tears.  I am quite frankly ashamed and embarassed that I could allow myself to get so upset over the words of someone who barely knows me, but I was not offered an opportunity to defend myself.  Instead, my publicly written criticisms and comments were provided as evidence of my incapacity to fulfil the role as a Regional Steward.  My application was going to be rejected on the grounds that I put my money where my mouth is and stood up and criticised where criticism is due.

However, the BHRC were not aware that I was aware of this.  So after making my fellow SHRC committe members aware of my decision, and the reasons why, I withdrew my application from the BHRC.  They had the offer of my help; they chose not only to not take it, but to undermine my character.  Behind my back.  This then paved the way for Craig to seemingly cross the t's and dot the i's by going through the mandatory interview, and the role was his.

Apparently not.  The BHRC appointed an existing BHRC steward (and subsequently new SHRC Chairman, and starter), Fred Hay.  No interview, no consultation with the old (or new) SHRC committee.  You've gotta love democracy.

My time with the SHRC also came to an abrupt end when the committee were unceremoniously booted out the door for blowing nearly eight grand last season, leaving the club with not a huge amount of dosh to play with for 2016.  We had identified ideas for fundraising, and also areas where we had got it wrong in 2015, but a coup had been arranged behind closed doors and out we went in favour of the original committee who the members had wanted rid of in 2014/15.  Short memories.

I was asked to rejoin the 'new' committee by the new Chair and Vice Chair; I declined.  I'm not designed for politics.  Firstly, I'm clearly too critical.  Secondly, I'm too honest.  Thirdly, I live with a bookmaker, who IS actually only involved in the sport to make loads of money and give nothing back, and whose ideas for the sport are only designed to assist him in this aim (I don't know if you can see the sarcasm dripping from the statement through your computer screen).

And that's just the crap that's been going on that I'm directly involved with.  I've not even mentioned half of the other stuff going on which has made this winter one of the longest I've endured.  I've not even got a horse to train this summer; I don't intend on having one either.  I'm reluctant to keep paying my licence fees to a governing body so insistent to remain on its crash course.  Blatent disregard for those who fund the sport out of their own pockets is the dish of the week, and I'm tired of being served it.

Watch this space, but right now Florida is looking like a far better option.

Tir Prince kicks off the season on Saturday 7th May, and I'll be there with my fingers crossed that the sight of Stoneriggs Mystery hopefully bagging his first FFA of the season will be enough to remind me why I fell in love with this great sport in the first place.

Over and out,

#1 Groom