Thursday, 25 May 2017

2017 Season: Week 3 - The grass is always greener...


The third consecutive weekend of harness racing welcomed the return of the grass meetings with the traditional season-opener at Tregaron now establishing itself in the middle of May following last year's last minute postponement due to weather.  The decision to permanently move the meeting to the third weekend (or second, technically, depending on which way you look at it, what with York kicking off on Monday 1st May) in my opinion, at least, was a good one.

But before we dive headfirst into racing on the turf, Smarty and I headed to York on Saturday for the second meeting of the track's 9 fixture programme for the summer.  If you remember, I'm the official track photographer at York, which is exciting and stressful in equal measures.  I LOVE taking photos, and it's a great chance to get shots for my camera club competitions in the autumn/winter, but at the same time I am paranoid that I'm not going to get a decent shot of the winning horse.  Thanks to some advice from Janet Cockburn (who has been the photographer there also), I managed to find a spot on the first bend where I could catch a clean view of the horses after the start car had pulled away, which in turn meant I could catch them just after the half as well on the sweeping bend.  Then I put my marathon training (exaggeration) into practice and ran back to the finish line to get photos as the horses headed down the stretch.  All in all it seemed to work rather well, and you can see the photos I took here.  Plus, as a small Brucie Bonus, I managed to sell a couple of them as prints.

Anyway, enough about me.  Saturday was also another day of footage gathering with the GoPro.  Simon [Clarke] and Kirsty [Legrice] had been working on a new start car which meant that I needed to figure out where to fit the camera...again.  Although, I'm getting better at all of this the more I fix it to various things.  During the week leading up to the meeting, Lauren Moran (SHRC Young Driver of the Year 2016) had purchased a GoPro Hero Session 5 (basically a newer model of the small camera I have) and having sought permission from the BHRC, the track owner (Mick Welling) and the stewards, we got the go ahead to fix Lauren's camera to a few of the drivers, herself included, using my body harness mount.  We also managed to do the same at Tregaron the following day, so this is probably as good a time as any to share the video with you in this part of the post.  The following video was created by Lauren using a couple of GoPro apps and is being billed as the 'sneak peak' for what we have planned for the remainder of the season:

Pretty awesome, huh?!

So a massive THANKS to Lauren for creating the video (and wearing the camera), and also to drivers Grant Cullen, William Greenhorn, Richard Haythornthwaite and Patrick Kane Jnr for wearing it also.

You can find the full results from York here.  Notable performances for me from the races in terms of the winners came from Greentree Serenity, a mare who I think would be a solid contender for the Mares Series at Corbiewood through June, July and August; Rhyds Rockstar, who seems to know where the winning line is and Live In Star who lived up to expectation after an impressive workout last weekend at Corbiewood before heading to York.  Ayrosmith caught my eye when finishing as a runner up and Cardigan Flashman also put in a gutsy performance in defeat.

Here is as good a place as any to share the new York Harness Raceway promotional video that I've been working on using the footage gathered from various angles.  All feedback, whether good or bad, welcomed!

From there we headed south to Wales for a visit with my parents.  Tregaron is only 19 miles from their house, so it seems like a logical place to stay.  The only problem is, Tregaron is just over an hour's drive.  'What kind of roads are you driving on woman?!' I hear you ask.  The worst kind known to man.  The route is primarily a forestry road, passing up over a mountain and down the other side.  The worst part is the section known as 'The Devil's Staircase', which snakes back and forth with some very tight turns.  Smarty isn't the best traveller in a car (even when he's driving) if the roads go a bit winding, but seeing as we'd slightly mistimed our departure I said I would drive and we'd take the shortest route.  He had previously said he would never travel that road again (after the first time, when he drove) and halfway through the journey he said the same thing!

Nevertheless we made it to the track without any mishaps and I set about getting the relevant permission to attach my recording equipment to people and vehicles.  The starter, Wes Jones, was more than happy for me to put the GoPro on the starting gate and even invited me to ride in the back of the start car with my camera to get photos.  Once all of the necessary permission was sought and granted, this was to be where I spent the bulk of my day!  Lauren was left in charge of the 'Driver Cam' (results included in the video above) so that was one thing off my mind!

Again, you can find results for Tregaron on the BHRC website but I'd like to shine the spotlight on a few performances which brought a real smile to my face.  Firstly, Joel Richards on Im Immpartial Too in the first of the two heats for the final.  He's only 16 years old, but he's learning all the time.  After a third-placed finish at Tir Prince the weekend before on Wye Joel's Best, the duo went on to finish second at Tregaron.  Joel then drove Im Immpartial Too to victory in a tight finish and gave an impeccable interview to Darren Owen.  Over the last couple of years, I have been more than impressed with the youngsters in this sport; John Henry Nicholson, who won the Hurricane Pace Final last summer with Cochise and then went on to win the Tim Tetrick-sponsored Drive of the Year award at the BHRC awards night also gave a brilliant interview with Darren when receiving his award.  Not only are these people the future of our sport, they are also great ambassadors for how inclusive a sport it is and hearing them speak with such passion really fills me with hope.

Joel Richards & Im Immpartial Too
Posing for winning presentation photos
Post-race interview with commentator Darren Owen
An equine performance which stood out for me was Lakeside Bono, trained and driven by Mike Evans.  The Pro Bono Best gelding faced tough opposition against last year's Horse of the Year, Miraculous, and the multiple-2 and -3 year old winner Party At The Spa in the Doonbeg 4YO Senior Welsh Dragon however looked the part during the parade and also throughout the race, finishing third.  I think people should keep an eye on him this summer.

Talking of Miraculous and Party At The Spa (PATS), this was a real clash of titans and the draw played a key part.  Put these two horses level and there is very little between them and on this occasion, Party At The Spa came out on top.  Trainer Teresa Haythornthwaite was in tears, which had me in tears, and when Miraculous' driver came past and shouted his congratulations I thought that was about all I could handle.  I guess I'm a sucker for rivals on the track putting it all aside once a race is over.

Party At The Spa & Alan Haythornthwaite lead the field just after the half
Miraculous (red bluff) & Party At The Spa (black hood) - two longtime rivals
Winner winner!
Tears from trainer Teresa Haythornthwaite
The joys of winning - Teresa and daughter of owners Shane & Claire Fletcher, Jess
And how can I forget the Free For All?!  Well, it's not a FFA by name (it's the Tregaron Open Preferred Handicap) but it featured five of the country's most prominent Free For Allers: Shades Of Grey, Saunders Mach 3, Foolaround, Stamp Hill and Coalford Tetrick.  And it was the latter who stormed to victory under a late but well-timed drive from Mark Pritchard, building on his second placed finish at Tir Prince behind Porterstown Chris the week before in the Anto Russell Memorial FFA.
Coalford Tetrick (far left) in a thrilling finish in the Tregaron OPH
Last but not least, there was the Camden Stud Spring Handicap Final, with 8 horses facing the starter.  I was delighted to see a horse I bred, For One Night Only (aka Jimmy) included in the lineup.  He'd finished fourth in his heat, but went on to finish fourth in the final with a strong run down the stretch.  I sincerely hope that he steps up to the challenges ahead of him and sneaks a couple of wins having switched from WBCRA to BHRC with owner/trainer/driver Rhun Wilson.  The winner however featured in several of my posts last year after winning the Cilmery Final and then going on to be runner up in the low grade Aberystwyth Final.  He is one of, if not the, most successful Share The Delight offspring in the country - Llywns Delight.

Llywns Delight & Lee Price behind the gate
Brothers Lee and Robin Price after winning the final
And that was that!  I have to commend the committee on their efforts in staging a fantastic meeting, I enjoyed the fixture more than I have done in previous years and the most so far this season.  The racing was competitive, the races were well-framed, the horses were driven on their merits.  I left the field nestled in the middle of nowhere feeling exceptionally positive about harness racing in the UK.

How long will that last?!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 11 May 2017

2017 Season - Week 2: It's all go, go, GoPro!

The second week of the season welcomed the first meeting of the year in Wales, at Tir Prince Raceway in Towyn.  OK, so once again this blog post doesn't bring you racing from Scotland BUT if you read on, there is a cheeky wee visit to Corbiewood included so be patient.  Also note, I've finally managed to update the title of the blog to something a little more apt, considering my tendency to travel the full length of the British Isles!


On Saturday 6th May, Smarty and I were up sharp to get the horses jogged before making the 260 mile journey, along with another bookmaker (BMG), to Tir Prince.  I'm currently trying to run a marathon in May to raise money for the British Heart Foundation (I just need to run 26.2 miles over the course of the entire month - simple, right?  Wrong.) so I also had to cram in another mile or so before we left to ensure that I didn't fall behind and leave myself too much to do towards the end of the month.  All in all a very productive morning at the stables and after an uninterrupted journey we arrived at The Plough Inn, St Asaph, ahead of schedule.  If you're ever in the vicinity of Tir Prince, you should check this place out; the food is amazing.  And remember, I eat out a lot all over the country, so I'm getting to be a good judge of food.

We arrived at the track just over an hour before the racing was due to start, which gave me time to meet with Racing Manager, Eric Witherspoon, to see if we could get the GoPro fitted to the start car as I'd done at York.  He had no problems with that and sent me to find BHRC Vice Chairman, Jim McInally, who was filling the role of starter on the night.  Jim and I had a couple of other projects to discuss first (all will be revealed in due course I'm sure) and I was also asked by Jim to submit the Drive of the Year poll via the BHRC Facebook page as an entry for the World Trotting Conference media awards.  The submission deadline had passed however Gwenan Thomas (my fellow STAGBI director) submitted the Drive of the Year piece as well as my overall blog (yes, this blog, the one you're reading right now).  I received confirmation this morning that the submission had been accepted, so now we wait and see.  Don't get your hopes up; I'm not!

I then set about trying to fit the GoPro to the starting gate.  Whilst in the process of doing that, Darren Owen came onto the track and before I knew it I was involved in a Facebook Live interview with Darren and Jim.  I must point out that I had fairly little warning - Jim did mention it about five minutes before we went over to the start car, but I had no idea what the content of the interview was going to be about and I had no time to prepare.  Basically I winged it.

Not sure if this will work *fingers crossed*, but hopefully you can watch a few minutes of cringeworthy Sarah winging it here.

Although, my father did ring me on Sunday morning to tell me how proud he was of me.  He doesn't have Facebook, so I can only deduce that my mother or brother showed him.  They need to stop doing stuff like that.  First warning!

With a bit more preparation I think I could quite happily chat away to Darren before a race meeting kicks off, although I'm not sure I'll be a regular feature on his Live posts.  Who knows, stranger things have happened though (like that time Heather Vitale made 'Sarah Thomas Sunday' a thing on Facebook).

Anyway, the GoPro was fitted in the centre of the gate near the 3 hole.  Tir Prince's start car has wings on each side which fold forwards flush with the length of the car (there's room for 8 on the gate).  I realised during the first qualifier that as the car was following the horses behind the last horse in the field, it wasn't going to be collecting any in-race footage.  So, before the races began, I moved it to the 2 hole.

Biggest mistake EVER.

Because the 2 hole is situated on one of the folding wings, it's not protected from the wind as the vehicle moves such as the centre of the gate is (by the vehicle itself acting as a windbreak).  As a result, and possibly because the wing was less stable structurally, the footage from that point onwards was super shaky throughout.  What's worse was that as the wings closed as the car pulled away, I was missing out on that 'golden moment' where the screen pans out to capture all the horses hurtling side-by-side towards the first bend.  When I realised this after getting home at 2:45am, I was devastated.  Smarty tried to convince me it was a lesson learnt and I know for next time where's best to place the camera, but I was kicking myself for moving it in the first place.  I was right to begin with and I shouldn't have moved it.  Lesson well and truly learnt.

Once again I'm not going to talk you through each race; you can see the official results here.

Despite the disaster that was my GoPro footage, I did at least manage to get a handful of photos (mainly during warm ups).  I think I'm still getting to grips with the challenges of nighttime photography coupled with moving subjects...

All in all a very promising start to things at Tir Prince although it probably could have gone better for me (my laptop battery was also flat all the way home so no editing was done during the car journey).  I am not deterred though!


We were supposed to have been spending Sunday at the Lauderdale point at Mosshouses, however entries were thin on the ground due, in the main, to the very dry conditions we have had recently.  Going was firm, so we decided to give it a miss.  Hindsight proved that was a good idea, as several of the races were walkovers with only one horse declared to run.

Instead we ventured to Corbiewood for the first of the qualifier and workout days at the track.  I packed up all of my recording and photography equipment and made plans to gather as much footage as possible.

I spoke at length to SHRC Chairman Fred Hay about fitting the GoPro to the start car, which he was absolutely fine with.  During the conversation, driver Gordon Gilvear wandered over (in his defence we were standing at the stable door of one of the horses he was due to workout) and asked if I planned to fit it to a driver or sulky.  I explained that further down the line, if I could prove to the stewards that it was safe and secure and that I would only put appropriate footage in the public domain, that was the ultimate goal: to record in-race footage from the participants themselves.  Fred suggested that 'today is as good a day as any' and volunteered Gordon to carry it (which he was fine with).

So after a trial run on the start car in one of the qualifiers (which turned out fine, so we have a gate position for that for the future), I fitted it to Gordon's sulky.  He had two drives, so for the purposes of my new favourite phrase, 'trial and error', I tried it forward-facing in the first and rear-facing in the second.  Due to the angle I fitted it at and the post-production correcting I had to do to prevent you all from getting sore necks, the final videos aren't 100% what I'm looking for BUT after several failed attempts of gaining steady footage with the camera attached to the horse, I think I've now nailed the in-race recording method.  We are in business.

Forward-facing view from the sulky
Rear-facing view from the sulky

I've shared this footage with a few people who seem to be impressed and keen to get this going so fingers crossed, I should be able to get some really good footage in races with 8+ horses in the race.

I then took a bit of a mad moment earlier in the week (thanks to Gordon, for his innocent question about my GoPro) and I've ordered a 360° camera which in theory will fit into the mounts I have for my GoPro.  If and when it arrives, my goal is to recreate the AMAZING Montrell Teague and Wiggle It Jiggleit video.  Trial, and indeed, error.  Or as the creator of that video says in the description, 'working out the bugs'.  The biggest bug I have being the fact I am technologically clueless.  My only saving grace is that I have a vision.  If I know what the end product should look like, then I'll be able to work out my way to get to it.

I haven't actually had a chance to edit the photos I took from various locations both on and next to the track, but here are some that look *alright* in their raw form:

Owner/trainer John Govan & Ayr Majesty
Before I bore the brains out of you any more, one quick thing before I go.  I've been working away quietly in the background (about the only thing I've ever done quietly) on a new website for the Scottish Harness Racing Club.  Currently the SHRC are communicating with members via the Facebook page which I set up 2 years ago, however some members have asked for a website as they do not use Facebook.  It's probably 90% ready to go, I'm just waiting on the thumbs up from the committee to 'go live' with it.  Once you see it you'll know it was me who designed it.  It just screams SARAH THOMAS.

I'll be sharing it like mad once I get the go ahead so...

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 4 May 2017

2017 Season - Week 1: The season has started...

...well, in England, at least!

I know, I know, this blog is supposed to be about harness racing in Scotland but with a fortnight still to go before the first scheduled meeting of the season north of Hadrian's Wall, the only racing there is to talk about is from other parts of the UK!

The 2017 season kicked off this year at York Harness Raceway, the home of Mick Welling's Camden Stud.  Despite there being a handful of meetings staged at the track last year, the fixture on May 1st was pitted as the return of York, with a number of changes made to the establishment.  Firstly, there's a new racing manager (Craig Stevenson; you may remember him as the guy who also stood for Regional Steward for Scotland, against/alongside me.  Neither of us got the job).  Then there's the refurbished bar (ironically, not an area I frequent much at York!):

Adrian Cahill photo
And last but not least, there's a new photographer.  Some bird who thinks she's the bees knees, 'all the gear, no idea' type.  Her name is Sarah Thomas.  The jury's out on her yet.

(No, there aren't two Sarah Thomas' in harness racing.  I'm the new photographer.  I use the term loosely; I'm just a person who owns a camera - but you can see my photos from Monday here.)

After two weekends of qualifiers and workouts at the track, a five race card was all that was on offer on Monday 1st May, however this was followed by four further qualifiers and workouts.  The sun shone and the meeting was well-supported by harness racing enthusiasts and members of the general public alike.

As the photos suggest (assuming you clicked on the link to look at the photos before reading on), Team Laidler had a storming start to the season with four winners out of five, and a second in the race they didn't win.  I can't post the results at the moment as they're not yet on the BHRC website, but keep an eye out for them on the results section on the main page.

As well as the individual action shots and the presentation photos that feature via the link above, I also managed to get some other interesting photos using both my camera and also a GoPro which, with the help of starter Simon Clarke and his partner Kirsty Legrice, we managed to fit to the starting gate itself.  With no way of knowing at the time how it was all going to turn out, we alternated between continuous photos (every 0.5 seconds) and video and here are the results:




View of the race from the start car

Pretty cool, huh?!

I'm still getting to grips with where the best place to stand as the photographer is but despite placing myself just before the winning line inside the track, I was still able to take some shots down the back straight (although post-editing these aren't as clear as the photos from the home straight).  I keep saying it: trial and error.  The next meeting is on Saturday 13th May and I'll be all over the inside of the track trying to take photos, having spoken at length with Janet Cockburn about some of the better places to stand.

Here's the only long-distance shot I've actually edited so far, as my priority was to get the individual action shots and presentation photos edited and published ASAP.  Since then the focus has turned to the GoPro, so perhaps tonight and tomorrow night I can actually see what else I have saved on the external hard drive!!
Frankie Camden setting sail for home
I don't think there's much else to say right now, other than the ideas for capturing the essence of harness racing seem to be working thus far, so fingers crossed for the remainder of the season I can gain the cooperation of other promoters in order to document this wonderful sport in photos and videos!!

Over and out,

#1 Groom