Sunday, 5 February 2017

Skibbereen for something a bit different...

On the weekend that 35,000 spectators piled into Vincennes and the world tuned in to watch Bold Eagle demolish his opposition for back-to-back victories in the €1,000,000 Prix d'Amerique (and in doing so setting a new record), I set off in the opposite direction (West, really far West) to watch harness racing of a somewhat different style in Skibbereen, Co Cork, Ireland.

When I first considered the idea of making the solo venture on social media, I was suitably warned that the historical 'men only' weekend was no place for someone of my fair nature.  'Well, tough', I thought.  I'm not very good at being told what I can't do.  So I went ahead and booked my flights and accommodation and off I set on my adventure on Friday (27th January).

Now first of all, Skibbereen isn't as close to Cork as I thought it was.  Turns out there's a lot of Ireland.  Just in general.  Unfortunately my bus from Cork to Skibbereen on Friday afternoon/evening was mainly under the cover of darkness so I couldn't even do any window-sightseeing, although I did see a heron.  In fact, I saw three herons in total (two on the way back to the airport on the Monday).  Thought that was kinda cool.  Got me thinking about ground-nesting birds and the fact that fox-hunting in Ireland is still legal...but that's so far removed from what this post is supposed to be about that I'll leave that topic there.

A friend had recommended I stay at the West Cork Hotel, and if, dear reader, you ever go to Skibbereen, I would also recommend staying there.  The food was really good and when it actually came to race day, I was only a five minute walk away from the course.  And that's as much tourist-y type 'what to do/where to stay/what to eat' as I'm capable of.  The rest of this post is just a glorified gush-fest about how awesome Skibbereen, and its people, truly are.  And it's horses, we mustn't forget the horses.

So Friday night was dedicated to a long overdue catch up with a young man by the name of James O'Driscoll, aka Spud, or 'One Shot', because when there are 8 Jagerbombs lined up on a bar in Aberystwyth for the two of you, he's only capable of drinking one, before crying like a girl and claiming the next day that he was 'drinking shots with some machine', completely disregarding any photographic evidence you may have of him on your phone.  Aside from drinking, we also spent a lot of time together during the two summers that James worked for John Gill, trainer of two VDM Final winners (Camden Tino & Titanium), and BHRC 2YO Filly of the Year 2016, Rhyds Mystique, to name but a few.  Considering he was working for a public trainer and I am a harness racing bookmaker's girlfriend, it was a given that we bumped into each other all over the UK, and we've kept in contact since he returned to Ireland.  He got me up to speed with his filly, IB Tweedy, which would be going for 3 from 3 on Sunday, as well as the other horses, jockeys and trainers who would be there.  Great to see a friendly face on my arrival for sure!
Pretty much sums up two years of 'work' in the UK from James...
My plans for Saturday involved a visit to the IB Stables where brothers Donal and Tadhg Murphy train.  Their filly, part-owned by American Bill Donavan, IB Coyote, was the winner of the VDM Fillies Final last year with Dexter Dunn in the bike, and for one day only she wasn't competition for my Ace and she was just another horse for me to direct my affection towards.  I can't help it, I behave the same way around horses as most women behave around babies.

IB Coyote

One of the things I love about horsey people is the way they want to show off their horses; their pride in their stock.  And the Murphy's have plenty to take pride in.  Aside from IB Coyote (Share The Delight-Jill And Jones-Hasty Hall), I also had the chance to meet Reclamation, a two-year-old filly by A Rocknroll Dance out of Art Sale, dam of top pacing mare Rocklamation (Rocknroll Hanover).  With the filly being so closely bred to Rocklamation, connections must be hoping she follows in her half-sister's hoof-steps.  Next door to her was one of my two favourites (which took me all day to establish, as each time a different horse was brought out of the stable I decided it was my new favourite!), IB McGregor, a five-year-old Hasty Hall out of Annie's Lady, who is the dam of Jill And Jones (dam of IB Coyote).  Without a measuring stick and using judgment alone, we had the horse standing at least 16'2hh, possibly more (I always try to estimate conservatively, as some people have a tendency to over egg the pudding...many a 17hh horse in one barn seems to lose a few inches when moving to another where a stick can be found).  As is evidenced by the breeding of some of the others in the stable, the Murphy's have placed a lot of faith in Annies Lady and her ability to produce very good racehorses, and I can't see that this faith has been misplaced at all.  IB McGregor, or 'Greg' as I noticed he was called (I did ask 'why not Connor?', to be told the horse was around a long time before the UFC fighter!), is definitely my kind of horse.  I'll be following his season with great interest.

Next up I met Alinque Darche, a seven-year-old trotting mare imported from France as part of the Irish-French Le Trot agreement; she was one of four Trotteur Francais present, the other three being the geldings Silvano Bello, Bolero De La Fye and Tenor Meslois who raced with success in the UK during 2016.  I find TF's to be very docile and tolerant to handle; I don't know if this is a breed thing or just testament to good education and training but every single one I have met up close has been very quiet.  Some don't behave quite so well on the track but to work with on the ground, they get a massive thumbs up from me.

The boys from France
Silvano Bello
Tenor Meslois
Bolero De La Fye
Alinque Darche

Oui oui, trés amusant!
I've met a lot of horses in my time, both racing and in other disciplines, and some of them seem to be born with almost a sort of arrogance, a kind of 'look at me, I look good' attitude.  They are the horses who pose for the camera, ears forward and alert, almost aware that they are having their photo taken and want to show off their best side.  Ayr Escape is one such horse I know, owned by my good friend Michael O'Neil, and the Smart family's old horse Beach Bound was the same.  Good looking horses who seem to know it and flaunt it.  This stable has one such horse, a three year old called Rebel Rouser (Rocknroll Heaven-Nukes Last Dream-No Nukes).  He knew he was good looking and he wanted me to know it too.  I think he might also be, as my mother would say, 'a bit of a boy'!

Rebel Rouser

The final two racehorses were full brothers, not that I believed Tadhg when he told me.  The first was another big, big horse which suited me down to the ground; IB A Magician, a four-year-old by Arts Conquest out of Jill And Jones (Hasty Hall).  There aren't many big Arts Conquest's, with him being a small stallion himself, so again I will be following this horse's season with great interest.  He was just my type.  His younger brother, IB A Warrior, himself a two-year-old, couldn't have been more different.  He was much smaller and stockier, a real little powerhouse with a back like a table.  I could have eaten my dinner off it!  I liked him too, he had a bit of spark about him.
IB A Magician
The final occupant of the barn was another import, a Falabella miniature horse called 'Baby Snatch'.  All I can say is, I want one.  As cute as a Shetland without the associated attitude problem!

After the quick tour of the barn, it wasn't long before Tadhg suggested I make myself useful and muck out while he jogged the remainder of the horses which hadn't been out prior to my arrival.  Once a groom, always a groom.  It was like being back at Ty Newydd mucking out whilst Colin jogged the horses. Radio on, singing along, chatting away to the horses.  I can't be the only person who thinks this is as close to heaven as I'll ever get?!

Now I'll be honest, I was probably more of a hindrance than a help over the course of the near-six hours that I was there, because at every given opportunity the pair of us were putting the world to rights.  You can't beat talking to someone who has measured opinions and takes on board what you have to say.  At this time of year the world of harness racing usually goes mad with boredom due to not racing and this leads to bold statements and wild opinions and arguments on social media; you can get easily bored of the same rhetoric and equally exasperated at people's narrow-mindedness.  I'm not going to pretend like that's not exactly what's happening right now (although in everyone's defence, this close season has been the smoothest yet...and that's it all about to kick off because I've jinxed it), so I was glad of the opportunity to speak to someone who sees the bigger picture.  At times, people like that are like gold dust.

I was fairly on top of the mucking out chores so I got upgraded to brushing the horses which had jogged earlier and then rugging them up as the last few were jogged.  I think this was the point at which I thought I never wanted to leave.  I'm rather fickle like that; I have 13 horses at home and really I should have been there brushing them instead of gallivanting around West Cork spending time with other people's horses!  In my defence I was due the short holiday before point-to-point and NH racing takes over my weekends fully, and then the mare being due to foal, and then training the 2017 team, and racing all over the UK and (hopefully) Ireland...cut me some slack!

Time flies when you're having fun and I couldn't believe that the biggest part of the day was past.  I had a mini tour of the island of Inish Beg before we headed back to Skibbereen.  It really is a beautiful part of Ireland.  I wonder if everyone who lives there appreciates how lucky they are.  I'll maybe retire there, when I'm about 95 and financially stable enough to live out my days.

Sunday: Race Day.

Had to ring James to find out where it was.  He sent me to a roundabout which had 5 exits and said 'go straight over'.  Three of the exits could be classed as 'straight over'.  He'd clearly had his quota of shots the night before and was barely audible on the phone anyway.  Managed to get enough sense out of him to wander up the right road, which probably took me about 15 minutes in total because I was a little fragile to be power-walking.  Had to nip back to the hotel later in the afternoon to get a power pack for my GoPro and probably did it in just over five minutes, so that's how close it was to the town centre.

For anybody who doesn't know what this road racing is all about, keep reading.  A quick summary would be close to how Steve Wolf once described it: harness racing meets barrel racing meets monté.  The winter road racing season in Cork is for horses raced in the saddle only; the majority of the horses don't race in the summer on the grass tracks and are kept solely for the winter racing, although some do switch between the two and race for the biggest part of the year.  This isn't illegal road racing, like the kind we unfortunately see broadcast all over mainstream media here in the UK and Ireland which tarnishes the public image of the actual sport of harness racing.  This is a bonafide sport, with the appropriate permission and road closures, run under rules set by the governing body, the Irish Trotting and Harness Racing Federation (ITHRF)

I'd arrived about an hour and a half before the first race, and after a quick chat with the guy collecting money on the 'gate' ("Are you here for the racing or just passing through?") I found my old friend, and jockey, Deirdre Goggin.  Deirdre was the first friend I made in racing.  I kept myself to myself for the first season I worked for Colin and only socialised with the owners and friends of Colin and Shirley's.  In 2009 we'd taken 3 horses to Aberystwyth to race across the two days and stabled up at the Equine College.  Colin and Shirley were sleeping in the lorry and I had a two-man tent (the youth of today don't even know what it was like travelling away with horses!).  We went for food in the Marine after the racing on the Saturday and I decided I was going to go out for a few drinks on my own before getting a lift back to the college.  As I crossed the road to walk to the Pier, I bumped into a man and his daughter heading in the same direction; Michael and Deirdre Goggin.  By the time we made it to the Pier we were the best of friends and we spent the remainder of the night drinking together (I think I got dropped off by a taxi back at my tent at around 4am...).  That was nearly 8 years ago and we've been friends ever since.  Michael is well known for often being the only Irish man to travel across to Wales to race at some fixtures, and for a long time before I could get to grips with the Cork accent (thanks to STAGBI for all the phone calls I received in the office) all I ever understood were the swear words.  Eight years later, and I can understand nearly all of what the man from 'the closest parish to America' says to me!

I'd previously met Deirdre's younger brother, Michael Jnr, but at Skibbereen I was treated to the full set (excluding Mrs Goggin, although I have the distinct feeling that at some point I'll meet her as well); I was introduced to Deirdre's sister, Carol, who proved to be wonderful company during the races, and her youngest brother, Brendan, who although upon our introduction appeared to be dying a slow death as a result of a great night out the night before, turned out to be the commentator.  He made what can only be described as a miraculous recovery as soon as the microphone was handed to him and he provided great entertainment during the course of the afternoon.

Michael Goggin Jnr
Deirdre Goggin
The plan of attack for the afternoon's racing was for Deirdre to wear my new GoPro camera on her helmet for the races she was riding in.  I invested in the camera and several different mounts just after Christmas as I had an idea to do some promo stuff for racing here in the UK having watched a really awesome 360 video of Montrell Teague driving Wiggle It Jiggleit back last year.  I shared it everywhere I could because it's not every day you can virtually sit behind a 1.47 pacer.  So many people who have retired Standardbreds are completely clueless about the sport of harness racing (often declaring that they 'rescued' their horses from the racetrack) and I've seen the positive impact that action photos and race videos have had in educating these people.  The logical next step is for them to be 'in' the race.  Plus for anybody who doesn't know anything about harness racing...well, it demonstrates the thrill and excitement of our great sport from within.

Deirdre wearing my GoPro camera
First hurdle was getting it switched on.  Several tests runs around my living room had proved fruitful, but it appeared the battery had gone flat.  Cue power walk number one back to the hotel to get my portable power pack which I'd bought specifically for this purpose but stupidly left in my room.  Power walk number two was from the hotel back to the course.  We finally got it up and running just in time for Deirdre's first ride, which was the second race on board Springhill Jaz.  I'm not even going to try to describe the races - watch the video.  It takes a bit of getting used to (my mother watched one of the videos last night and told me she felt sick halfway through), as you're moving with the rider as opposed to the horse.  But here goes:

Race 2

What do you make of that?!  It's different, that's for sure.

Now after we'd gotten close to a winning ride on the first attempt, I was hopeful on the second try.  Saunders Paris is a game little mare and Deirdre confided in me that she had some 'ammunition' which I can only deduce to mean this horse, known affectionately to the family as Mandy.  This race, as the one before, was over the distance of a mile and a half, so the riders started at the furthest point from the finish, turned the bale at what would be the finish next time, rode back to the 'start' and then turned for the finish.  Each stretch between the bales therefore must be half a mile (nobody confirmed that but even with my questionable maths skills I'm fairly confident I've got that right).  Coming to the bale the first time Deirdre and Mandy looked to be travelling well just behind the leader, although some jostling at the bale saw her get away fourth of the five runners to head back up the road.  Once they rounded the corner out of Brendan's sight, the commentary switched to someone who was in view of the further point, although the quality of sound wasn't as clear and it was difficult to hear who was in front (also I was still getting to grips with that Cork accent).  After they'd turned the bale Carol must have heard that Deirdre and Mandy had hit the front, and Brendan confirmed this as they rounded the bed.  The duo were lengths clear of the field and cruising home to an emphatic victory; the camera was still recording and I was delighted to have captured that winning ride.  Michael Jnr insisted that I join the family for the presentation photo, and I jokingly asked Michael Snr how much he would take for the mare (knowing full well he would never sell her).  The man wouldn't even put a price on her; Carol assured me that Mandy was a part of the family and with them she would stay.  I love when people make commitments like that.  Some horses don't know how lucky they are.

Race 3

Saunders Paris

We had a short break from filming as it was Michael Jnr's turn to ride in the fourth race, where he finished a respectable third.  The favourite, IB Tweedy, had one of those 'mare days' when refusing to start twice, and was beaten in a tough finish by Hillside Mustang.  Connections were disappointed, but after two wins from two starts leading into the race, I don't think they should be overly disappointed with her performances so far.  Rumours suggest that the horse will cross the Irish Sea at some point in 2017 to race at one of the major grass track festivals in the UK.  I hope the whole 'One For The Road' syndicate come with her so that I can show them some of the hospitality they showed me!
Jamie Hurley & IB Tweedy
The fifth and final race was my last opportunity to get some racing footage.  Bearing in mind that at this point none of us had any idea how it was going to turn out, as I'd not had the chance to road test it on my own helmet at home (I really need to get around to backing some of the horses we have in for this season...).  Nonetheless we gave it one final spin and hoped for the best.  I moved to a different spot to take photos, past the crowd and bookmaker (great to see Dan Carlin again) to a quiet spot on the road.  It was from here that I took one of my favourite action shots as Jamie Hurley on Maitha Buachaill and Deirdre on Rhyds Ponder went head to head in the final stretch in a truly thrilling finish.  It'll be no surprise to you that these two jockeys are fighting it out at the top of the leader table for Champion Jockey status - the looks on their faces says it all!

Maitha Buachaill (left) & Rhyds Ponder fight out the finish
Deirdre led for much of the race so the footage is a little monotonous over the 2 mile race, however the closing stages show Jamie's exhiliration at winning, and for that alone it is worth watching the full race:

Race 5

And then it was over.  Everyone packed up and left.  It was a whirlwind experience, one that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.  The road re-opened and normality resumed.  And I went back to my hotel to process everything I'd seen.

That evening I bumped into Jamie Hurley as I was heading to the pub to meet up with some friends, and he wanted to know why he hadn't had the chance to wear the GoPro.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing and his win on Maitha Buachaill would have been bloody fantastic to get on video.  Logistically I was short on time to get the camera from one helmet to another as the races were pretty quickfire.  I think he accepted my reason!  But I was genuinely surprised at how popular an idea it was; I received a lot of queries about when the videos would be posted before I got around to editing them.  The fact I had a camera also hadn't gone unnoticed, and I was pestered for a few days about when they would be ready.  I set the privacy to 'public' on my Facebook page so that people I didn't know who had been there would be able to see them, and last night after they were published my Facebook just went CRAZY with notifications and shares and comments and tags.  People were very complimentary about the photos though and it was great to be able to share that with everyone.

It was abundantly clear to me during my visit that the people of Cork who organise and compete in these races are fiercely proud of what they do.  I think they should be commended for their enthusiasm, especially in the face of the perennial problem of decreasing numbers of horses and spectators, a problem which afflicts nearly every aspect of harness racing across the UK, Ireland and indeed North America.  Cork is a thriving hub of harness racing and is the only region to sustain both a winter and summer season.  I think they should be commended for getting and keeping horses fit in the depths of winter in reduced daylight hours and colder weather (although they have a much warmer microclimate than much of the rest of Ireland and it's a damn sight warmer there then Scotland!).  Many of its organisation's members travel over to the UK to race at the premier meetings.  The trek they make is incredible.

Above all else, they are so welcoming.  I felt so at home there.  Skibbereen, to sum it up crudely, is like a mirror image of where I grew up: Builth Wells (where the Brightwells Standardbred Sale is held every October).  The only difference is that in Skibbereen, everyone has a horse instead of sheep!  You can't go under the radar, no matter how hard you try.  And in all honesty, I didn't really try that hard!

Would I go back to Skibbereen?  Probably not.  But only because now I want to tick every other winter road racing fixture off my list of places to visit.  I think I may be pencilled in for Goleen in March 2018, what it being organised by my adopted Irish family, the Goggin clan!

Over and out,

#1 Groom (on tour)

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