From Corbiewood to Kilnsey was a post I wrote last year about what felt like our busiest few days (click here to read) of the 2015 season, where we took in four different tracks across six days.
Well, this year we did it all over again.
After a slightly lacklustre 'Week 16' (difficult for anything to compare to Week 15's visit to Ireland and all that entailed), I had just about recovered enough for the six-day marathon of racing in Scotland, then Wales and then England. Fear not dear readers, you haven't missed one of my posts (re Week 16 - Tir Prince and Bells Field). There isn't one. Time restraints, memory failure and (honestly?) no desire to write about it. I was so exhausted across the course of the two days that I didn't really enjoy the racing. All I could think about was sleep, which still to this day evades me.
Therefore we find ourselves at Week 17.
The Thursday night at Corbiewood before Tregaron saw the first three races go to Corbiewood-based trainers; Stuart 'The Yank' Mackenzie notched up a driving double in the first two events, on the Mark Kennedy-trained Styx Locomotive followed swiftly by the David 'Buster' Moncrieff-trained DKs Happy Dream. The third race went the way of Bono, trained by Alex 'Big Eck' Taylor and driven by Grant Cullen. The fourth went to one of the contenders for SHRC Horse of the Year, Vyrnwy Smoke, on this occasion partnered by ex-professional footballer Sean Kilgannon. Race five was won by old favourite Diamond O'Neil, owned by my friend Rachael Ayres and trained by John Kemp of Musselburgh. The final event was won by Corbiewood front-end specialist Stoneriggs Banner, owned and trained by William Moore. Willie was someone I 'knew' before I'd met him, as many years ago he sold my former boss, Colin Bevan, a horse by the name of Free Contender. Jock, as we knew him, was a real character who eventually went to Merthyr, and the last I heard he was terrorising the residents by escaping amongst the houses near his field. Not a surprise, seeing as he used to stage Houdini-esque stunts at the yard before letting other horses out and having a good snoop around their stables (and feed bowls!).
I must admit, I missed the last three races as I was in the car park chatting to Nicola Mackenzie and her daughter Caragh about a forthcoming horse show in October. A lady by the name of Laura, from Highfield at Howe (www.highfieldathowe.co.uk), contacted STAGBI a number of weeks ago and was directed to me by administrator Gwenan Thomas due to the facts that firstly, I live in Scotland, and secondly that I have made efforts since before becoming a STAGBI director to promote Standardbreds once they have finished their racing careers (note, not as an alternative career to racing. I know as well as any person that they are bred for a primary purporse, and that is racing). Highfield Equatrian at Howe is an equestrian centre in Giffordtown, Fife. On the weekend of Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October the centre will play host to a major showing event; the event is to include ridden and in-hand showing classes for Standardbreds. Naturally I have gotten involved in this, providing rosettes on behalf of STAGBI and also personally sponsoring the trophy for the champion. The reason I spoke to Nicola and Caragh about the event is because a couple of weeks ago they purchased Jasper Hill from Savannah Nicholson (of the Musselburgh-winning Cochise and Nicholson family fame). Caragh and Jasper are currently sitting their saddle test together to prove to the stewards that they are competent and able to compete in the saddle race at York Harness Raceway on 8th October. Alongisde racing, Jasper has also been learning to jump and has also taken part in a couple of showing classes already. He is becoming quite the all-rounder! One of the best parts of their story is that Caragh is only 14 years old. She is so enthusiastic about everything her and Jasper do together and I wanted them to know about the Standardbred classes at Highfield. They have confirmed that they will be attending, as will jockey/driver Lauren Moran who is considering taking the afore-mentioned Vyrnwy Smoke just to support the event!
On Friday morning we were up before sunrise to get ourselves ready to head to Tregaron for their revised-format two day fixture (down from three days previously). Due to horrendous traffic from Warrington all the way down to Llangurig, we rolled into the field 15 minutes before the first race. We were able to pitch up before the first race however we then encountered a tech problem with the computer which can only be fixed by our good friends at RDT (Racecourse Data Technologies Ltd). Tregaron is notorious for no phone signal (or so I thought) so we ended up borrowing some equipment off some friends who weren't standing. We finally got the show on the road just before the second race!
So the biggest highlight for me from the Friday at Tregaron was completely unrelated to racing. My friend from school, her husband and her nine-month-old son who I haven't seen since Christmas were at the meeting. Gone are the days when I arrive at a race track and head straight for the beer tent; for a large chunk of the afternoon I was camped out on the hill with Becca, Dale and baby Albie, who was doing his best to pick winners everytime his dad held the race card in front of him and told him to choose a horse to back! The weather was lovely and it was nice to be able to catch up with my friends whilst watching the racing together. Unfortunately we didn't think to take any photos, which is a shame as I'm not sure when I'll see them all again (hopefully Christmas this year!).
In terms of my racing highlights, three races stood out particularly for me. The final three races on the card, the Junior Welsh Dragon 2YO Colts, the Standardbred Sales Co Battle of the Big Guns and the Strata Florida Handicap Final were a fantastic culmination of an exciting day's racing. Johnny Camden, fresh off the back of his Breeders Crown success in the hands of Dexter Dunn, was a worthy winner this time piloted by Steve Lees, the 2015 Tregaron Leading Driver. Trainer Dave Taff had the colt looking phenomenal and he was every inch the champion. Lyons Comet was a notable third on his racing debut, trained and also driven by none other than Mr Taff himself.
|Johnny Camden (Pro Bono Best-Pans Culottes-The Panderosa) (Graham Rees photo)|
In the re-run of the Battle of the Big Guns, it was Ayr Majesty who came out on top in a thrilling finish with Richard Haythornthwaite taking the drive as Patrick Kane Jnr took stablemate, and half-brother, Ayr Regal's reins in the race. Majesty hadn't won since June 2015, however has competed credibly in all the major Free For All's and high grade handicap races between now and then, picking up plenty of prize money along the way. It was nice to see him winning.
|Ayr Majesty (Daylon Alert-Ayr Queen-Albert Albert) (Graham Rees photo)|
|Richard Haythornthwaite (Irfon Bennett photo)|
Richard's luck didn't take as dramatic a turn as Stevie's had taken and he was able to follow up his FFA success with a popular victory in the Strata Florida Final on board Richard & Sarah Allen's Elysium Thunder. I can't recall if I've mentioned it before, but Sarah Allen is currently on a sabbatical from driving due to expecting her second child. Elysium Thunder had finished second in the first heat behind the Irish filly Meadowbranch Milli, one of three horses qualified by John Richardson. In the final she was partnered by Richard's brother, James, while JR took the drive on Kickass Katie. The two brothers went head to head towards the finish, with JR in third behind them and Alan Haythornthwaite (father of Richard and James) chasing them down in fourth on Itsmycheck. In the end the judge had to split them, with Elysium Thunder overturning the result in the heat to win by a short head. A fantastic victory for a family steeped in racing, training a homebred horse (and we all know how much I love things like that!).
You know, it's only now as I write this that I realise how close Alan, James and Richard came to repeating the feat achieved by Nathan, Jed and Bret Strickland a few weeks back at Allensmore. They became the first father and two sons to finish 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the same race. Imagine if that had been the case in a major handicap final?!
|L-R Kickass Katie & John Richardson (3rd), Itsmycheck & Alan Haythornthwaite (4th), Meadowbranch Milli & James Haythornthwaite (2nd), Elysium Thunder & Richard Haythornwaite (1st) (Irfon Bennett photo)|
|Elysium Thunder (Southwest Art-Prus Petite-Hopping High) (Graham Rees photo)|
|Sarah Allen, Richard [Haythornthwaite], Poppy & Ruby Cairns and Emelia Allen (centre) (Irfon Bennett photo)|
|Owner/trainer Richard Allen & Elysium Thunder (Irfon Bennett photo)|
On to day two of the festival.
There were two main highlights for me on the second day, one of which is probably only the highlight of one other person's weekend. But before that (because I will ramble on), I was particularly pleased to see Arts Pace Hill winning the Little Welsh Dragon 3YO Colts. With the absence of superstar Miraculous, the race was more open that it would have been with his inclusion. Some punters favoured the Haythornthwaite stables' Partyatthespa, a horse who beat Miraculous as a 2YO and had already notched up a win in the Ceredigion 3YO Colts division. Others fancied Arts Pace Hill, who had perhaps disappointed slightly when third behind Miraculous and Newtown Rock at Portmarnock on VDM weekend, but for those of us who had seen him win at the new 5/8 track at Binchester, we couldn't discount him at all. I told as many people as would listen to me that Arts Pace Hill (owned & trained by Jody Foody) was as impressive horse on the grass as I've seen; most chose not to listen, but I spotted Danielle Mather going to collect after the race as I headed back to the bookies to pick up my winnings as well. There's a lady who 'knows'. She knows I don't drag myself up and down the country not to spot things like APH going two minutes on a grass track...
|Arts Pace Hill (Art Colony-Bad Jeans-Royal Mattjesty) (Graham Rees photo)|
Introducing Wellfield Earl.
I hear you muttering to yourselves, 'what has Wellfield Earl ever done to be someone's seasonal highlight?'.
What hasn't Wellfield Earl done is what you should be asking!
The 8 year old gelding by Village Connection out of Wellfield Ellie (Master Scoot) first came onto my radar back in 2013. On my annual visit to Wellfield Stud to stay with the then-groom, Rachel Sydenham, we took Wellfield Earl and Wellfield Official out on a hack. Earl, aka Early Bird or Early Wurly, decided at one point to try to ditch me on the road, so didn't do much to ingratiate himself with me. However, later that season he went on to win the final at Cilmery, the fixture for which I was a committee member and promoter. Back then the handicap system was such that he jumped from a Grade 1 to a Grade 5, and arguably he was going to find it very difficult to compete at that level. Nevetheless, he went on to win three races in 2015, proving that he had raced himself up to the standard to still be competitive.
|Wellfield Earl and me out hacking in 2013|
As soon as I realised that he had qualified for the final in the fourth heat of the day on Saturday, I knew that history had been made. Wellfield Earl became the only horse in 2016, and possibly in recent years (or indeed, ever) to qualify for the final at all four of the major grass track meetings in the UK. Having won his heat at Appleby in May, he went on to be fourth in the final. He then headed to Musselburgh, where he won his heat and was seventh in the final. A week later he finished second in his heat at Aberystwyth, thus qualifying for the final where he was unplaced. Finishing second at Tregaron, again qualifying for the final, was incredible.
What's more, having looked up his race report on the BHRC website, I have just learnt that he has qualified for no fewer than SIX handicap finals this season. In addition to the four major meetings, he also qualified in second place for the Camden Stud Spring Handicap Final in Tregaron at the beginning of May, as well as winning his heat at Boughrood the week before this meeting, arguably the fairest grass track in the country. It certainly sorts the wheat from the chaff.
Try telling me that's not impressive.
You can't. Even if you did, I wouldn't believe you.
What turned out to be rather amusing was that I armed owner/trainer, and BHRC Chairman, Roy Sheedy with this information prior to the final. The highlights from Tregaron were subsequently aired on Welsh language harness racing TV show, Rasus, the Monday night following the meeting. Roy had been interviewed and relayed this fact as though he had figured it out for himself! I spoke to him a couple of days later and made sure he knew I was aware of his plagiarism!!
|Earl & me after qualifying for his fourth major grass handicap final of the season (a sEARLfie!)|
At the last minute, Andrew Cairns became available and he was tasked with driving Stevie. Drawn 3 of 3 on the gate in his heat, he lost his head (again) and broke at the start, so badly that he found himself at the back of the field. I was stood with Andrew's four daughters, and had pretty much given up watching the race, when Sally (Andrew's eldest) said 'there Dad goes'. In one move he went from the rear of the field into second and settled in on the rail. As impressive as it was, I still felt that the horse was going to tire coming home having used all that petrol to get himself back into the race. But he didn't. He found himself boxed somewhat as Rocker [Laidler] and Merrington Checkm8 challenged the leader, All Fired Up and John Nicholson. Heading up the home straight I could see Andrew looking left and right to see if there was room to sneak up the inside of the leader, and when the gap came Stevie motored. It was a little late, as after a lengthy wait for the judge to call it, All Fired Up had held on by a nose from Stevie, who in turn beat Checkm8 by a nose. Disappointing to be beaten by a nose after breaking so badly at the start, but we were delighted to be in the final.
|Leading up Stevie before his heat (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)|
And then there was a crash in the back field. From the photos it looks as though All Fired Up (John Nicholson) stumbled and possibly hooked up with Mega Star (William Greenhorn), although not sure if perhaps Mega Star simply ran into the back of the fallen horse. Greenhorn was sent somersaulting through the air and his horse ran off loose; James Haythornthwaite appeared to be unseated from Hawthorns Maggie (although the stewards did subsequently allow them in the re-run). The race was stopped on safety grounds.
|John Nicholson with the fallen All Fired Up on the inside of William Greenhorn and Mega Star|
|Mega Star unseats Greenhorn as James Haythornthwaite & Mick Lord try to avoid a collision|
|Mega Star takes off leaving his driver behind|
Bearing in mind that the front horses in the first running of the final had used up a lot more energy first time round what with the back markers all gearing up to make their moves when the crash occurred, despite Stevie's efforts he looked a tired horse as Mick Lord and Next Generation hunted him down within the final quarter. He faded coming home to finish second.
At the time I congratulated the winning connections in person and on social media, but I am still bitterly disappointed for our team. We have a lot of faith in the horse, despite his attitude problem on the track, and felt that he was due a big win to prove to everyone else what we already believe. Nonetheless, we came away with a horse in one piece and that remains the most important part of racing.
The following day Smarty and I headed to my favourite meeting of the season, Kilnsey Show. People think I'm joking when I say this but I am being serious. It's in no way the best racing of the season, but everyone taking part wants to win and there's a huge crowd all enjoying having a bet and cheering on the horses. My personal highlight from the meeting this year was seeing the two-year-old filly Rhyds Voodoo and Richard Haythornthwaite winning a maiden. Sam [Howard] (the trainer) and I subsequently discussed our shared love of Kilnsey the following weekend at Tir Prince when Voodoo and [Crosshill] Ace faced each other in the BHRC 2YO Fillies Futurity. Remember this is the trainer of Tyrion Hanover who won the richest 2YO pacing event in the UK and Ireland only a few weeks back, talking about how much he loves Kilnsey Show, where it's at least three-and-a-half laps for a mile and the crowd stand on straw bales to get a better view!
I should also give a special mention to Next Generation, who after having won heat and final at Brough the day before, went on to win heat and final at Kilnsey within 24 hours. That's impressive!
And there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of the UK from the perspective of an avid harness racing fan. I was exhausted by the end of it, but right now I can't remember what it feels like NOT to be exhausted!!
Over and out,