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

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