Thursday, 20 July 2017

2017 Season: Week 12 - Corbiewood, Tir Prince & Wolsingham

I feel like this needs to be a bit short and sweet, what with the fact that I've been a bit post-happy this week (with two driver interviews posted - Sean Kane and John Henry Nicholson) and moving house and work etc.  I'm rushing around trying to get this posted before Corbiewood on Thursday, followed by Musselburgh on Friday and Saturday.  But remember, it's about quality not quantity (not something I have adhered to previously!).

Corbiewood last week saw the fourth of the six legs for the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series and once again we had a different winner, this time in the form of last season's Scottish Horse of the Year, Starzapan.  You can read my report from the meeting on Harnesslink here.

As referenced in the report, there was a popular winner in the form of Littlemill Jo.  As a 2YO, she gave a credible performance in the SHRC Futurity at Corbiewood, and quite a few people have been watching her with interest this season (myself included).  'Jo' is 100% homebred, being by the Henderson family's own homebred stallion, Littlemill Rogue, himself the current 3YO track record holder at Corbiewood, and out of their homebred mare Hendos Star.  And she is a real family favourite, with video footage emerging on social media prior to her win of breeder/owner/trainer/driver Steven's two young children, Jamie (7) and Emma (5) jogging her at the family's stables.  One thing I truly love about harness racing, and particularly so at the moment, is the involvement of youngsters who are either too young to be involved in any official capacity, or who are just emerging onto the track having obtained their licences.  It truly is a family sport, with no barriers in terms of gender, length of involvement, or experience.  Anyone can give it a go.  And I'm glad to see that they are.

Track photographer Bill Cardno was absent so myself and Willie Paterson stepped in to *try* to take photos.  I'd managed to turn up without my spare battery and with limited juice left on the battery in my camera, plus I was working with my 70-300mm lens and nothing else.  Then it decided to rain as the qualifiers were being run, and for the remainder of the night it was fairly gloomy and not ideal conditions for a total amateur like me to take photos.  Nevertheless, I managed to get at least one half-decent photo of the race winners (excluding K And M Redpandana, who turned out rather blurry).  For anyone who cares, here's what I managed:

Littlemill Jo & Steven Henderson
Merrintonmoonlite & Gordon Gilvear
Porterstown Keith & Stephen Cairney
K And M Redpandana & Hugh Menzies
Starzapan & Stuart MacKenzie
Camden Massino & William Greenhorn

Total amateur!!

Again it was three countries in four days, so on Saturday we headed to Tir Prince, North Wales, for the VDM prep races and the first of the Crock of Gold heats.  It was probably the busiest it's been there all season, with plenty of buzz about for the juvenile races and in particular, the feature race.  Two of the three leading 2YO colts were non-runners for the colts/geldings division, with the third not entered, and three horses eventually faced the starter.  Georgie Camden, owned by Peter Davison and trained by Sally Teeboon, was driven to victory by Richard Haythornthwaite in the absence of stable driver, Patrick Kane Jnr, who was plying his trade on home soil in Ireland at the Barney Joyce Memorial Weekend.  Not to be outdone in his absence, Patrick went on to win the Irish prep race for colts/geldings the following day with his wife, Rachel Bousfield's, homebred Stakes On The Pan.  The fillies division went the way of the very impressive Ayr Empress, bred, owned, trained and driven by a variety of O'Neils.  As in, 'Boots' off of 'Big Burd and Boots', and his family.  Poor Hughie (aka Jnr Jnr, aka The Baby-Faced Assassin) was once again called into the stewards after the race, having been pulled in on Thursday night at Corbiewood for 'excessive shouting at his horse'.  I think sometimes rules get made up on the spot.  I also think that the rule could have, and perhaps should have, been applied previously to other drivers.  And indeed, members of the crowd (anyone else remember the 'f*** him up Dougie!' comment shouted at a driver to cut up another horse during a race?).  Anyway, that's by the by.  Clearly I need to work on Jnr Jnr's discipline.  Although he doesn't look to be as unruly on the track as the officials keep claiming him to be.  But contrary to some people's belief, I don't have eyes in the back of my head so I'm probably just not noticing his wanton disregard for the rules.

Anyway, it was good to see a Scottish horse travelling down to one of the bigger tracks and showing some real class and flair.  She looks a strong candidate for the big final in August.  In Ireland, Robyn Camden narrowly beat the debutante, Reclamation, to take the fillies division.  The Murphy's, who train the runner up, won the VDM Fillies final last year with IB Coyote so have solid form heading into the race this year.  They also enjoyed success with IB A Magician, Rebel Rouser and Tenor Meslois over the weekend - that'll make the epic journey from Cork to Dublin worthwhile!!

Back to Tir Prince and my favourite race of the night - the Crock of Gold heat.  Stoneriggs Mystery was drawn 1, and was a deserving betting favourite, but he was headed at the first bend by the heavily-backed reigning champion Porterstown Road, who in turn was cleared by Deans Alibi by the quarter, having shown a blistering turn of foot under a bold drive from Stevie Lees.  Heading down the back straight for the last time, I wasn't convinced Mystery was going to be able to clear the two in front of him, no matter how much I was willing him on, but as they turned for home and everyone started screaming he seemed to find another gear and cruised past them to a very popular (and slightly emotional) victory.  Form is temporary, class is permanent.

Before I move on to our visit to England, I also have to give a mention to Sulky Du Blequin in the George Dixon Memorial FFA Trot over 1.5 miles.  John Foy sent Sulky away positively at the start, and with each lap he went further and further clear of the field.  It seemed that the further he went, the better he went.  He will be a tough nut to crack in the FFA trots for the remainder of this season.  It was pretty impressive, I have to admit.

For the second weekend in a row, Smarty and I stayed away from home in order to avoid the mammoth drive back to Scotland, only to head back to the north east of England the following day.  We're learning all the time.  The following day we headed across the country to Wolsingham, one of the best grass tracks in the country although like Binchester, not as well supported by spectators as it probably should be.

I was due to interview John Henry Nicholson as part of the build up to Musselburgh this coming weekend, what with him winning the Hurricane Pace Final last year at the tender age of 16.  Incidentally, the interview, which was published yesterday (19th July) has been my highest viewed post of the year so far, and has also been shared by Musselburgh Racecourse's official Facebook page, which is followed by over 19,000 people.  That's the way to get the sport out there in the public eye - on the back of official and trusted organisations/bodies who have a wide client/fan base.  Strangely, although possibly connected, Newbury Racecourse's official Instagram account began following me tonight.

Anyway, the whole Nicholson family were great to work with once again and are a joy to be around at the races - although a warning to anyone who wants to preserve the full function of their eardrums: DO NOT stand next to Savannah when her father, mother or brother is in a race; if one of them wins, she will deafen you.  Unfortunately, Scott [Murray] and I found this out the hard way!  But way to go John Snr on your two wins!  What a time to get the stable back in form, with Musselburgh literally just around the corner!

My favourite winner of the day had to be Next Generation, part of owner/trainer/driver Kelly Peacock's extended family.  At the end of last summer, he won three races in two days; the Appleby Brough final on the Monday, followed by heat and final on a very different, but equally testing, track at Kilnsey.  At Wolsingham, with just over a lap to go he was sitting at the rear of the field and appeared to not respond to some gentle reminders from Kelly, however down the back straight he was airborne and he came home a clear winner to round off a day of competitive racing.

And that was that.  Three countries in four days.  Time spent with Scottish friends, Welsh friends, English friends and even Irish friends.  We even saw Acey Baby when she worked out at Wolsingham after the racing, although she seems as disinterested in me now as ever.  Clearly Andrew, Joanne, Geoffrey and the girls are spoiling her and I'm no longer her favourite!

Before I sign off, we must re-visit the 'MISSING' list.  Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned missing items have been found.  If anyone knows where they are, please do bring them to the attention of the public.  Alas, in the past week, further items have gone missing.  If anyone knows where these are, again, please bring them to everyone's attention.

MUSSELBURGH 3YO PACE - advertised, entries taken, not on the start sheet. Where is it?  How many horses entered?  I believe the entry form stated a minimum of 8 runners - does this mean that there weren't sufficient entries?

OFFICIAL NOTIFICATION OF NEW TROTTING RULE - on Saturday evening at Tir Prince, as the horses were parading for the heat of the 3YO Le Trot series, the commentator announced that there was a new rule in force which meant that any horse which broke stride for more than 15 strides would be disqualified.  Can you imagine being at Cheltenham or Aintree and hearing the commentator announce a new rule set by the BHA, without the BHA having first published that rule on their website?  I still don't think I've seen an official notice.  Also, what happens to the prize money if horses are disqualified?  Is it re-distributed to the finishers of the race?  In Ireland on Sunday, every horse bar one was disqualified for a similar rule.  Will the winner receive the full purse for the race (as would happen in the Thoroughbred world when only one finisher)?  Answers on a postcard.

CONSISTENCY - just in general.  When horses were made to requalify under rule N15 at Corbiewood last season, they were not permitted to race on the same day as they re-qualified as it was impossible for them to be cleared by the BHRC at this time, when they had essentially been suspended from racing until re-qualifying.  This was a rule which the stewards in Scotland stuck to religiously.  Unfortunately, it appears that the rule is applied differently in Wales & England.  If anyone finds consistency lurking anywhere, point it in the right direction.

I'm away to get ready for some crazy antics over three days of racing in bonny Scotland.  This is my home tie, I don't need to travel far for these!  Let the fun begin...

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

An interview with...John Henry Nicholson

On 24th June 2016, John Henry Nicholson made history when becoming the youngest ever driver to win the Hurricane Pace Final at Musselburgh.  At 16, he catapulted himself into the spotlight as one of the country's up and coming drivers, and his cool and calculated drive on board Cochise won him the Tim Tetrick-sponsored Drive of the Year Award, voted for by the general public and celebrated at the annual BHRC and STAGBI awards evening in February of this year.

With Cochise winning the Hurrican Pace Final (Bill Cardno photo)

John Henry trains horses alongside his mother, Georgina, who also drives occasionally. Dad, John, is a regular driver and sister Savannah competes in the saddle races.  The family have plenty of racehorses, as well as broodmares and stallions, most notably The Firepan, and breed horses with the prefix Evenwood.  That's right, this family is responsible for breeding World Record holder, Evenwood Sonofagun!

In the build up to this year's event at Musselburgh, I took some time to chat with John Henry about last year's phenomenal victory, the opportunities that have come his way since and his plans for this season and the future.

Let’s go back to 12 months ago – talk us through your first visit to Musselburgh as a driver.
I had three drives at Musselburgh last year; it was my first time driving there as I’d only started driving the year before [2015].  I won heat and final of the Hurricane Pace with Cochise and also a heat with Silver Alert.  My mum had said before the meeting that if I won heats with both of them then she would come out of retirement to drive in the final!

And how did that go down with your dad?!
Well, it was all agreed beforehand and that was that!  She hadn’t driven for a couple of years and the decision was made before we even got to Musselburgh.

John Henry (second left) lines up for the final with mum, Georgina (fourth left) (Bill Cardno photo)
Not only was it your first visit but weren’t you also a C Class driver at the time?
Yes, I’d won with Rhyds Beijing at Haugh Field and with Silver Alert at Kilnsey the summer before, and then Jasper Hill won for me at Hellifield a week before Musselburgh.  The three wins at Musselburgh tipped me over into a B Class driver.

What was going through your mind in the final stages of the Hurricane Pace Final?
I was calm, I knew I had to keep him going so I was focussed on that.  All the way from the two furlong marker all I could hear was screaming from the stands, the atmosphere coming up there is unreal.  Then I could see my dad and Savannah shouting on the rail and gesturing to keep going.  When I hit the line though, my mind just went blank.  I actually said ‘what do I do now?’; I was completely lost in the moment.  I just didn’t know what to do!

Did you think you had a chance of winning?
The horse had worked well the week before, his trainer had brought him down to me to work him out and afterwards I told my dad what time he’d done and we knew it was alright.  Going into the final I was quietly confident because he’d won in a good time and done it easily, although I had to stand away from everyone else before the race because I felt sick with nerves and couldn’t speak to anyone.

The drive on Cochise in the final was nominated for BHRC Drive of the Year 2016 and ultimately went on to receive the highest number of votes – what did you think of that?
When the drives were shortlisted and the voting opened, I thought it might be close between myself and James [Haythornthwaite].  None of us knew who the winner was when we attended the awards night in February though so I was really nervous on the night.  When I found out that I was the winner and that I’d received such a large share of the votes, it was great.  I was able to collect the award sponsored by Tim Tetrick with my family there.

Collecting his Drive of the Year award

Not only did you receive a gift pack from world-renowned driver Tim Tetrick, but you also got to meet him?
Yes I did.  I went to America in May and while I was there I met John Campbell and Tim Tetrick so I had my photo taken with them both.  Tim said he’d seen the videos shortlisted for the award and was really chatty, although they were getting ready to go out and drive so we didn’t have long to talk.

I went over to visit my good friend Jeffrey Greenberg in New York and he arranged for me to have a drive at Yonkers in an amateur race.  Before the race all of the other drivers were giving me advice and they were all really welcoming.  I drove a trotter called Windsun Fireball in the race, he was drawn 8 so there wasn’t much I could do other than take back for the first part of the race.  Going down the back for the last time I pulled out and followed Paul Minore who had been giving me loads of advice beforehand, and I ended up beating him by a nose for third.  It was my first time driving a trotter in a race! (Read the Harnesslink report, giving John Henry a brief mention, here).

I also got to warm up a horse at the Meadowlands which was a great experience, and I saw Huntsville jogging at Goshen.  While I was there I visited the Hall of Fame and spoke to a driver who told me that winning is 50% horse, 25% luck and 25% driver and I believe that’s true.

Warming up at the Meadowlands

Meeting Tim Tetrick
Meeting John Campbell

Since you won at Musselburgh, do people talk to you more now?
Definitely; I’ve gained more respect from people and I’m getting more catch drives.  Not that many, because we have maybe 10 or 12 horses running at meetings some weeks but if I can fit them in then I take them.  Sometimes my mum and dad will drive two of ours so that I can take an outside drive in the same race.  It’s important to make time for people where I can.

How has the 2017 season been for you so far?
Things didn’t start so well as we had a virus badly in the stable and all the hard work seemed pointless, I was worried and didn’t think we would get there but we’re coming back into form after winning at Binchester, and I drove the heat and final winner, All Fired Up, as well.  We had another couple of winners at Wolsingham last weekend too.  It’s the right time to come into form with Musselburgh next weekend!

Winning the final on All Fired Up at Binchester, July 9th 2017
Which horses are you looking forward to driving at Musselburgh this year?
All of them, but my favourite two at the moment are All Fired Up and my aged trotter, Tenor D’Ouville.  I’m looking forward to driving them; they’re both good horses and stayers which will suit the track.  I just need a bit of luck!

Now that you’ve won Musselburgh, do you have any other goals for the future?
I take every win as I go.  You’re trying to win everything so you just go out and do it again and again.  I love driving and winning a race is a bonus, but winning at Musselburgh is different class, it’s something else.

Who is your driving idol?
John Campbell by far.  I sit and watch videos of him all the time.  It was great to meet him in America.  We’ve got two race carts from him which are arriving just before Musselburgh so we’ll get to use them there.

What about your parents; have they influenced your driving style?
Well I’ve got my mum’s quiet hands but I’ve got my dad’s finishing hands.  I can get a horse home but I can also sit and wait.  It’s the perfect combination.  Look, if I’ve got the engine I feel like I can pilot anything, but you need the engine!

Family affair - John Henry (centre) with parents John & Georgina, and sister Savannah (all in blue)
Do you have any advice for the young drivers competing in the C Class race at Musselburgh this year, which for many will be their first time driving at the track?
Just keep cool, don’t rush.  You have to keep your cool.  Watch when you’re going over the road and just wait.  It opens up on the home straight for you.  Just go with the group into the straight and it opens up for you.

We know you’re busy training horses every day with your mum and going racing, but what do you do for fun in your spare time?
Chase women!


Thank you to John Henry for taking time out of his very busy schedule, training and racing horses and chasing women (he was being serious!), to answer my questions.  Just over 12 months ago I only knew the Nicholson family by name; the victory in the Hurricane Pace Final, and the subsequent reporting I did on the landmark win, sparked a friendship which will undoubtedly last forever.  The four of them encapsulate everything that is good about harness racing; their passion, commitment, good humour, graciousness in defeat and exhilaration in victory...they make being a part of this sport all the more enjoyable.

It's hard to believe that John Henry is only 17 years old.  Despite claiming to be nervous in various situations, he comes across as cool, calm and collected, with an air of confidence that could never be mistaken for arrogance.  He's very cheeky, that I can say!  On the track, he doesn't look out of place, nor inexperienced.  I firmly believe that he has a very bright future ahead of him.

To the young drivers who will be lining up on Saturday, 22nd July, behind the starter at Musselburgh for possibly the first time in their driving careers - one of you is about to experience something unlike anything you've ever experienced before.  Good luck and most of all, ENJOY IT.

#1 Groom

Saturday, 15 July 2017

2017 Season: Week 11 - Corbiewood & Binchester

The harness racing train keeps on rolling after an epic weekend in Aberystwyth with meetings at Corbiewood, York, Binchester and Allensmore on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday respectively.

Corbiewood's meeting on Thursday featured the third leg of the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series and for the first time in the series saw the race fully subscribed with both English contenders present.  The write up I did for Harnesslink can be found here.

Once again it was a race which was won in the closing yards, with a blanket finish across the full width of the track.  Loriznitestar, who has now raced in all of the legs to date, finally returned to the form which saw her winning the STAGBI Future Broodmares race earlier in the season at Corbiewood.  It was very much welcomed by the owners, Tam Sneddon and Lynne Elvin, and after the race trainer Paul Cullen said of the mare, after two below-par performances in the first two legs, that 'Loriz' was 'a typical woman'...I don't know what he meant by that, but I was faux-affronted at the comment!!

Loriznitestar & Grant Cullen (Bill Cardno photo)
Heading to the line (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)
So that makes three different winners for the first three legs, and with the entries for this week's racing now published, it is guaranteed that the winner of the fourth leg will be a different mare again, as none of the previous winners have entered.  The prize money is being shared fairly and everyone is getting their turn!  This is shaping up to be a proper series with a really exciting final on the 10th August (a race I'm unfortunately going to miss due to personal commitments).  Stay tuned for plenty of promo material in the build up to that grand finale!

The other race I just want to touch upon is the one which Valentine Camden won for my friend George Carson.  The week before we were enjoying the success of GDs Baby and then out of nowhere comes Val flying around the last bend four wide and storming home to victory.  I've mentioned it before but Val used to belong to my friend Emma Langford down in Wales and I feel as though I have a personal connection to the horse seeing as George and I endured a 25-hour round trip to collect both him and my old mare Smokey in April 2016!  Once you've been through that, it changes you as a person, and as a group we are inextricably linked!

Valentine Camden & Willie Drysdale (Bill Cardno photo)
Speaking of Smokey, my little old mare had to come up to the stables at the end of last week after Smarty's daily checks of the fields found her to be lame with a suspected abscess.  She didn't half look every minute of her 23 years when she hobbled off the lorry into the stable and I had to start that thought process of what happens 'when the time comes'.  Call me over-dramatic if you like, but nobody has any idea what this horse means to me.

Runnis Smokey (1994, Rajah Lobell-Columbia Square-Cover Up)
Anyway, Saturday morning before we left for York, the Jockey and I dug the abscess out and I soaked her hoof before spraying the cavity and putting her back on box rest.  There was definitely an immediate improvement and by the time we returned on Sunday night she was a different horse in terms of her attitude!  I forgot how much of a little madam she can be!  On Monday night I took her out for some exercise, however the planned walk around the track and a nibble of the grass turned into me putting her in the lunging pen and leaving her to her own devices - for a horse so advanced in years, she can definitely still motor and I made the executive decision that I didn't want to be half-dragged around our track!  Now that she's walking almost sound again, and also feeling better in herself, she doesn't really look so old and I think I can put the 'when the time comes' conversation to the back of my mind for a while longer yet.

As the opportunity was there, I decided to measure her with the measuring stick my parents got me for Christmas a couple of years ago.  I'm able to measure horses almost to the centimetre without a stick, having been taught a useful trick by my dad many years ago.  And as you'll know, Smarty and the Gaffer have no idea about height and claim their horses are all 15'1hh.  So the stick has come in quite handy in recent times (OK, so Eternal Flame and Wild Bill Hickok are both 15'1hh, but Cassius Clay is 16'1hh so that theory goes out of the window, and Ace is 15'2hh).  When I first owned Smokey, when she was 8 and I was 13, she was 14'3hh.  She was the perfect height for my dad and me (6' and 5'11'' respectively) to ride (note: I find people tend to ride horses that are too big; Star is 15'3hh and definitely as big a horse as I'll ever need to ride).  The day that I unloaded Smokey off George's box at our place, Smarty laughed and asked me why I'd brought a pony home.  I vehemently defended her size, claiming she was 14'3hh and that was that, it was just that she's finer boned and less chunky than Dark Velvet (who is also 14'3hh) so looked smaller.


Smokey has shrunk.

She is, at a push, 14'1hh.  I therefore own a Standardbred pony.  She definitely wasn't that small first time around!  If I sat on her now (having not grown taller since I was 13), I'd squish her.

Anyway, enough about an old mare (kidding, I could never talk about her enough, she's the reason I'm here right now, writing this - true story).  On Saturday we went to York for an eight-race card staged in glorious sunshine.  Once again I was back on photographer duties (you can see photos of the race winners here).

I particularly enjoyed the performance from Hollieoaks, it was nice to see a female 1-2 with Greentree Serenity finishing second.  The aged Le Trot race for non-winners featured an exciting finish between Show Business and Titan De Prelong, with the former coming out on top.  The two-year-old pace also featured a close finish, with Rhyds Star Quality getting up in the shadow of the line three wide for driver Mick Lord with the fillies Brown Eyed Girl and Scappa Hanover filling the minor placings.

Smarty and I stopped overnight at Scotch Corner so as to avoid driving all the way home to Central Scotland just to come back down to Co Durham for Binchester the following day.  Kudos to Hugh and Michael O'Neil who travelled from Ayr to York on Saturday to watch the racing, then back to Ayr on Saturday night, then at the last minute deciding to drive back down to Binchester on Sunday to support friend George Carson who had two runners.  That's some dedication to racing!

Last year saw the first ever meeting at Binchester, a meeting which I enjoyed thoroughly and which saw the ill-fated Arts Pace Hill pace a mile in 2.00.8 as a three-year-old.  Binchester is a 5/8 grass track and as we were so early in arriving (probably for the first time in our joint history - we are more often the last people to a meeting than the first people) I took a walk around the track.  It's remarkable how good a track it is.  It's like a bowling green.

As for the racing...first class.  Super competitive with a number of close finishes.  Only one odds-on winner all day (stepping down in class of race after finishing second at Aberystwyth last time out).  The Nicholson family cleared up, with John Snr winning the first heat on Check Me Out and a maiden race on Laneside Legend.  He also qualified Firestarter for the final when finishing second behind son, John Jnr on board All Fired Up.  This meant the stable had 3 runners in the 8-horse final, and mum, Georgina, had to don her colours to join the line up.  Alexis Laidler fielded the two fancied horses, heat 3 and 4 winners respectively, Ayr Major and Rhyds Solution (owned by Julie Sedgewick, owner of the field the track was situated on), both of which were involved at the business end of things in the final.

As the field passed me, sat on top of Graham Smith's pick-up taking photos at the 50 yard marker, any one of five horses was in with a massive chance, and it was John Nicholson Jnr and All Fired Up who got up by a neck from William Greenhorn and Ayr Major to land the final.  Claire Bousfield and Mispantastic finished a head behind in third, with Rhyds Solution overcoming a massive trail of 70 yards to finish fourth, a head behind Mispantastic.  Long time leader Check Me Out and John Nicholson Snr were only a short distance behind in fifth.

John Nicholson Jnr getting up to win at Binchester
The Nicholson family (centre) and friends after the final
Thrilling stuff!

Coloured pacer Busking Boy was an all-the-way winner for young Jak Foody in the maiden & novice combined, with Brywins Beach Baby and Andrew Cairns winning convincingly in the maiden pace.

For the second year in a row, the meeting was not as well supported by harness racing regulars and the general public as I hoped and expected.  Twelve months ago I offered to help with promotional material in the build up to the meeting for getting out and about in the local area - that offer still stands.  As for getting racing people there, all I can do is appeal to you to consider it.  Plenty of Scottish people are travelling across the border, with and without horses, because we can see the potential the track has, and it is supported by local owners, trainers and drivers, but I expected to see more faces, more people paying through the gate to support a solid meeting on a fantastic track.  Use it or lose it folks!

Before I head off to start writing up about Corbiewood and the fourth leg of the Oakwood Stud Mares Series (because I am that behind with this post), and start packing for a weekend of racing at Tir Prince and Wolsingham, I just have to raise a serious question about things that seem to be going missing.  At first it was just one minor thing, but then it was another, and another, and before I knew it, loads of things were just disappearing and nobody was talking about them anymore.  So if anybody has seen or heard anything about the following, please let me know.  There's a carpet, which although restricted in available space, does still have some room for things to be swept under it.

Grey FFA at Tir Prince (due to be run tonight) - the owner of one of the runners messaged me last weekend for an ante-post price for his horse and when I asked whether it would be on (because I could only count 4 horses who would enter, and seemingly 4 horses isn't a sufficient number to run some races, but then 1 is enough for others), he had been told that it was.  Only, when the start sheet came out there was no mention of it.  Advertised but not on.  Status: MISSING

Integrity test results and explanations on BHRC website - there is still an outstanding test result which is showing up as blank next to a horse's name on the BHRC website...from the end of May.  Now, I know the reason for this (it's nothing sinister), but an explanation to licence holders in general hasn't been forthcoming which simply leads to speculation and false accusations from everyone all over social media.  That's wholly unfair on owners and trainers in my opinion.  A simple explanation as to the delays in publishing results (OR don't publish any results until all results are received back for a specific day) would shift the spotlight from the connections of horses back onto the BHRC though, and that probably isn't the desired outcome.  Status: MISSING.

The record that wasn't a record - a few weeks ago, I logged on to Facebook after a Sunday at the racing and was met with a post about Coalford Tetrick having won in 2.54 for 1.5 miles at Amman Valley.  Immediately something didn't ring true.  Not because I don't rate the horse (video and written evidence suggests otherwise, if you're willing to look for it on here and Facebook - or just batter in and accuse me of being jealous because I'll never breed or own a horse as good, your call) but because only a couple of weeks prior to that he'd been timed at least 8 seconds slower when finishing runner up to Miraculous at Tir Prince.  And whilst it is true that he won in 2.57 at Portmarnock over the distance, I just felt that the time wasn't right at AV on that day.  When the distance was queried, because we wondered whether it was slightly short (knowing that the track is short of a half mile per lap so requires additional yards to be added on to make up the mile distance), the response we had was borderline alarming.  We were vilified almost for querying it.  And yet, eye witnesses there (people I trust entirely) were ringing me telling me the distance had been calculated wrong by the officials.  For the purposes of a record, whether track or national, these things must be correct or it makes a mockery of the record system.  A couple of weeks later at Pikehall I was advised by a BHRC council member that the matter had been resolved and indeed, the distance was short by 80 yards (instead of adding on the required extra 40 yards at the start, the officials had subtracted it, making it 80 yards short of the 1.5 miles).  No official statement anywhere though.  Nor an apology actually for some fairly personal and unnecessary comments.  Status: MISSING

Other than that, all's good!  Well, it's not, but I can't really talk about any more negative stuff because I've probably already pushed it too far this week.  Rest assured though that for every ounce of rubbish stuff that goes on, the good people of this sport produce ten times the amount of memories and fun and joy and laughter and leave me 100% convinced that good will win in the end.  You all know who you are.

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Friday, 14 July 2017

An interview with...Sean Kane

Everybody's favourite feature on the blog is BACK!


Slightly different angle with this one, as the gentleman in question is Irish and therefore not technically a driver on my 'patch', so to speak.  Nonetheless, I felt compelled to interview him as we have struck up quite a good friendship since spending some time together in France at the end of 2016.

Introducing...Sean Kane.

Sean has been training and driving horses for the last few years from his family's home at Mooreside Stud, Dublin.  His father, Ger, has been training horses for much longer, and sisters Mary and Emma also drive and ride in races.  It's a real family affair.

Sean (centre) with sisters Mary & Emma in the saddle (Nadina Ironia photo)

Sean and I have known each other for a couple of years, in the way that many people in harness racing in the UK and Ireland know each other: to say hello in passing at major meetings.  However, in December of last year we found ourselves at Vincennes as two of the youngest delegates for our respective countries (Sean as a driver representing Ireland, myself on behalf of STAGBI and the UK) at an international Le Trot weekend.  During some of our free time we got chatting over a few drinks and by the end of the weekend I had come to realise just how passionate and hard working an individual Sean is.  I think the idea for Sean to feature on the blog was spawned over a few vodka and cokes in an Irish pub that was definitely not Irish - so here we are!

These questions were sent to Sean, and returned to me, at the beginning of June.  Due to various other commitments and posts, this interview was put on the backburner...until now.  At Aberystwyth a couple of weekends ago, I accosted Sean in the Pier and asked when I was 'allowed' to post his answers.  He told me that I must wait until he'd driven a winner again; we agreed that he would carry his phone in his pocket and as he crossed the line in front, he would take out his phone and Snapchat me a winning photo as a signal that I could 'go live'.

On Saturday, 8th July, at Portmarnock, Sean drove Soprana Gede and Ecrin De Bussieres to victory, and DID NOT send me the requisite Snapchat in order for me to post this interview!  So the friendship is on the rocks here...

...anyway, here the interview is, in all its glory!

For anybody who doesn't know you, how long have you been involved in the sport and where did it all start?
All my life; it started from being that fat little kid eating chips at the old Portmarnock watching my dad [Ger Kane] and uncles Patrick and Jason Kane.

You're a trainer/driver; which do you find more rewarding of the two aspects?
I get as much of a kick from training a problem horse to win as driving any winner really.

Which is the best horse you've ever driven/trained?
The best horse I've sat behind was a 2 year old in France, Earl Simon.  He was under my care when I worked out there and was the fastest ever 2 year old to qualify in France .  He has won 3 of 3 now.  I'm yet to meet my superstar horse to train I think.  I'm waiting patently!

Which horse, past or present that you haven't driven, would you like to drive and why?
Bold Eagle.
I would give an arm and a leg to sit behind him in full flight!

Who did, or do, you admire as a driver?
John Campbell has always been the boss for me.  I've read his driving strategy column whenever I'm on a bad spell.

Who did, or do, you admire as a trainer?
I've been fortunate enough to come across some clever men on my travels but I think Mark Purdon is someone I'd admire as he's won everything.

Which is your favourite track in the UK and Ireland?
Portmarnock Raceway for the home advantage!

Which is your favourite meeting in the UK and Irish racing calendars?
I love the Vincent Delaney Memorial weekend [at Portmarnock in August] because it brings horse people from all over the world to our venue.  I also like Aberystwyth because I can just take a break and watch some class racing in the sun.

Out of all of the races you have won, which has been the most memoriable?  Which race would you like to win that you haven't already?
I think my first win in New Zealand on Righteous Royal will be hard to forget.  I was on a big losing streak at the time and it was badly needed. The 3 year old gold division in the Le Trot scheme [in Ireland] would be amazing to win.

If you could change on thing about the sport in Ireland, what would it be?
I would love to make a living from the sport so whatever it takes to do that. I believe it will happen with the good work from the Irish Harness Racing Association.

Trotting has really taken off in Ireland over the last few years, and a couple of weeks ago Dundalk staged the first PMU meeting.  With the rise of trotting, do you think that pacing races have had their day?  Or can the two divisions work side-by-side?
I don't think pacers have had their day, they have declined due to the incentive from Le Trot but once we're self sustainable I think it will rocket back up to work side-by-side.

You've done your fair share of travelling to follow the sport - tell us a bit more about the places you've worked around the world.
So far I've been to Sweden and New Zealand twice and France; each different styles in their own right but I've taken what I've learnt from each country and adopted it into my own training regime and I'm happy with the results so far.  I've met some great people along my travels which is what I love about this sport.

How have you fared when driving abroad?
I won 7 races in New Zealand and drove 4 times in France with the best being a second place finish where I was just beaten.

Where is next on the bucket list to visit?
This winter I want to head over to America and see what I can learn over there.

What's the motive for working abroad?
I really just wanted to up my game and see how each country does it. Plus my dad was a big influence in me heading abroad.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given, and by whom?
If you're going to do something make sure you do it right; don't half do it.
That was from my uncle Jason when I was a kid.

Where do you see yourself in the sport 10 years from now?
Hopefully making a living training a nice barn of horses with some staff. [editor note: I wonder if I could get a job...].

What are your hobbies/interests outside of racing?
I like to run a lot and train in the gym but I don't have a lot of time during the racing season.

If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be and why?
Stockholm, Sweden for the Eliteloppe weekend.

You're stranded on a desert island - what five things can't you live without?
My phone
My horses 
Good food
The lads 
I can only think of four!!

You're holding a dinner party for five famous guests (alive or dead) - who would they be and why? 
No idea I'm a brutal coo!
[editor's note: maybe you should have invited Gordon Ramsay?!].

If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
Follow JR [John Richardson] around, I reckon he has it handy!

If you won the lottery, what would the first thing you would spend your winnings on? 
Probably on the stable.

What would you name your autobiography? 
Mistakes By Sean

Which actor would play you in a film about your life? 
James Haythornthwaite [editor's note: former Rugby League player - yes; harness racing driver - yes; actor?? James is there something you want to tell us?!].

When was the last time you go into trouble?

Describe yourself in three words.
Mad about trotters.

For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Mooreside Stud, watch this video filmed and edited by Adam Keogh, Daniel Breen and David O'Carroll.

Sean on board Soprano Gede (Nadina Ironia photo)
Sean, Emma & Mary (Jacqueline Richardson photo)
Sean working at Vincennes, Paris (Nadina Ironia photo)

Thanks Sean for taking the time to answer my questions and to humour me with this borderline pointless (but thoroughly enjoyable) blog.  I'm sure everyone will join me in wishing you all the best with your future travels and training ventures and I hope to keep seeing you in the winner's circle because people like you are the future of our sport!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Friday, 7 July 2017

2017 Season: Week 10 - ABER

Not just Aber, as the title suggests.  Because I can't abide the thought of neglecting to mention good ol' Corbiewood on Thursday night!

I'll genuinely keep it brief, mainly because I've already gone to the effort of a report for Harnesslink, which you can read here.

The Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series second leg was won by my good friend George Carson's GDs Baby, a popular victory amongst the support squad consisting of myself, Hugh O'Neil, Michael O'Neil, Kareen New, Kelly O'Neil and Alice O'Neil.  That's a lot of O'Neils.  Oh and a guy called Jim.  We inappropriately raided the track and headed to the winner's circle en masse for our photo, only this time I wasn't in it because I organised the series; I was in it and I organised the series!

GDs Baby & William Drysdale leading from pillar to post (Bill Cardno photo)

I did put the GoPro on Stuart MacKenzie who drove Starzapan to finish third, however the camera I received back after the race was not the camera I sent out onto the was caked in red ash and I'll be lucky if we got half the race!  Next time it's a wet night I'll be looking to stick the camera on a horse guaranteed to be a front runner for at least the first half of the race!!

In other news this week, it has been announced that Sweet Lou semen will be available from Oakwood Stud in 2018.  This is exciting stuff.  I'm sure there will be more news to follow over the coming weeks and months but this is a story I'll be keeping a close eye on.


Now we can talk about Aberystwyth.

It was hot and sunny, there was an abundance of alcohol and some racing.

Over and out,

#1 Groom


Well, I'm not kidding.  It really was hot and sunny (for the most part), and there was an abundance of alcohol, and there was some racing.  Rather a lot of racing, actually.  Fifteen races on the Saturday and thirteen on the Sunday.

The weekend, in terms of the major handicap finals, belonged to the Laidler team.  Jack Swagger took the Saturday final from Billy Wilk, winner of the Carlisle final only a couple of weeks ago, with World Record saddle pacer Evenwood Sonofagun blowing the competition away on Sunday when beating super Irish mare Kickass Katie by 7 lengths in the Park Lodge Classic Final.

Kayleigh Evans summed up the weekend pretty succinctly in her report for Harnesslink, which you can read here.

I'd still like to expand on a couple of performances myself which I enjoyed though, for various reasons.

The Wakefield family, and indeed the Dyer family by relation, must have the highest ratio of children making it onto the racetrack than any other family in the country.  Gary Wakefield and wife, Debbie (nee Dyer), had already produced multiple race winner Kelly (28), with younger daughter Chloe (17) winning a qualifier at Cilmery only a week prior to this meeting and due to begin driving in betting races imminently once her test is passed in the coming weeks.  Not to be outdone by his sisters, 15-year-old Lee harnessed up for his first ever competitive race at none other than one of the crown jewel meetings of the calendar, Aberystwyth.  He certainly did not let the occasion get to him as he gave an exceptionally cool drive on Forest Drifter to win the meeting opener.

There is an abundance of young drivers in the sport at present, with those in the 20-24 category seeming positively ancient now with all these teenagers getting involved.  Lee and Chloe Wakefield, Joel Richards, Jess Dyer…then there’s multiple race winner Mac McMeekin and Hurricane Pace Final winner at Musselburgh last year, John Henry Nicholson, both of whom are only 17.  Chloe [Wakefield] tells me that once her test is passed she'll be heading to the Young Drivers Series which is being staged on the Welsh circuit and the battle will be on as she lines up against her younger brother.

The next performance I want to highlight is that of Ring Of Fire, trained and driven by Bobby Richards.  In my write up from the previous weekend (read here) I mentioned some eye-catchers at Cilmery, one of which was Ring Of Fire.  I was confident that he would win imminently and win he did, with ease.  He was the only tip I gave out to people and  they didn’t back him – disappointed!  I don’t travel up and down this country every weekend with my eyes shut!

Cilmery proved to be a fair form guide for Aber as Buckland Fox Trot, fresh from his heat and final win at Cilmery, just got up in the shadow of the line from Merrington Checkm8 in the third of the five heats to guarantee a spot in the final.  This was the second qualifier my former boss, Colin Bevan, drove on the day, having finished second in an earlier heat on board Masquerade Avenue.  For One Night Only, or Jimmy as I know him, finished third and appears to be improving with each start (having been thrown in at the deep end somewhat since coming over from WBCRA).

Photos I was able to take from the back of the start car - thanks Wes!

In terms of the Scottish performances, Billy Wilk scored a win in his heat on Saturday and finished second in the final for the Corbiewood-based Cattigan stables and partnered by William Greenhorn, and Bob Craw & Hamish Muirhead’s Let’s Party kicked Sunday’s racing off with a win in the maiden with Grant Cullen on board.   Perhaps not the haul we’ve had in previous years but Scotland remains firmly well-represented on the national level.

Half-brothers Matticulous and Miraculous also notched up wins on the Sunday.  Matticulous, who finished second to Rhyds Star Quality at Tir Prince, took the 2YO colts & geldings race convincingly for Andrew & Joanne Cairns with his main rival absent.

Matticulous wins the 2YO colts & geldings
Trainer Joanne Cairns with head groom, Abbie Cairns, celebrating victory
His older brother faced a much tougher challenge at the top in the FFA however.  Old-timer but fan favourite Stoneriggs Mystery showed he can still pace with the best of them as he led out, clearing Porterstown Chris in the one-hole with ease.  Richard Haythornthwaite on board Fool Around provided Miraculous and Patrick Kane Jnr with cover for much of the race as the field sat two-by-two (like going into Noah’s Ark, as commentator Darren Owen highlighted at the bell).  Down the stretch it was difficult to call a winner as Miraculous had to work hard to pass Mystery; Porterstown Chris and Coalford Tetrick were both in the shake up but it was the young pretender, the 4YO son of Arts Conquest, who got up by a neck from two-time Crock of Gold winner and back-to-back Battle of the Big Guns champion, Stoneriggs Mystery.  He in turn stayed on by a neck from Porterstown Chris.

Stoneriggs Mystery & Mick Lord
Mystery leads the field with Miraculous taking cover second over

Miraculous lines up on the gate
Miraculous heading to the winner's circle

World Record saddle pacer Evenwood Sonofagun was as easy a winner as you’d have liked when winning heat and final on the Sunday.  If anyone hadn’t rated The Firepan as a stallion before (and they should have, as he was a formidable racehorse himself and has produced winners of all ages on both hard and grass tracks previously), they will now.  This four-year-old gelding has notched up 8 straight wins, as well as a 1.57.5 clock at York under saddle and must surely now be tendered as a future Free For All horse.  With plenty of major handicap finals still up for grabs and a handicap system which no longer harshly penalises big prize money winners, we may have to wait until 2018 to see him join the ranks of Miraculous, Mystery, Chris et al.

Evenwood Sonofagun winning by seven clear lengths in the final
'Gunner' and trainer (& jockey) Alexis Laidler
I also have to give a mention to Kickass Katie who was second in both the heat and final to the eventual winner.  Last season she was placed in the heat and final of the Strata Florida at Tregaron and went on to win the BHRC Sire Stakes 4YO Fillies at Tir Prince in 1.59.6.  Smarty and I often speculate about how good a filly has to be to warrant being exported to North America and that performance was sufficient, had she have been ours, for the flights to have been booked!

Because I’ve rambled on a bit, I’ll keep my ‘eye-catchers’ short and sweet.  From Corbiewood it was Littlemill Jo.  She raced against Ace in the 2YO Futurity at Corbiewood last year and was only headed on the run-in last week by the novice, Royal Mint Howard.  I feel as though she’ll pick up a win or two this season.  At Aberystwyth it was Sper Buggy, runner up in the 3YO colts & geldings behind multiple winner this season, Springhill Glory.  He came with a very late and very strong challenge to only be beaten by a nose.  He’ll go close again.  Also Sealofapproval from the Dyer stables, who ran with credit to finish second in the 2YO colts, to the clear delight of driver Angela Dyer who crossed the line cheering at her horse.  Finally, and this may be more personal bias than objective analysis, but my parents’ filly, Rhyds Sapphire, put up one helluva fight in the 2YO fillies race to be beaten by Robyn Camden.  Despite being drawn 4, Saffie was sent out of the gate by David Bevan with extreme confidence in her ability to manage the first bend without faltering – and this confidence was not misplaced.  She held off the eventual winner around the final two turns before being passed on the run-in and finished a convincing second.  She won’t always face Robyn Camden this season, so I’m keeping everything crossed for a big performance again, only next time I’m  hoping she goes one better!

Rhyds Sapphire (Saffie) leads the field in the 2YO fillies before finishing second

For anybody who couldn’t be at Aberystwyth, for one reason or another, I hope my brief write up illustrates how good an event it was.  For those who were there, I know you enjoyed it as much as I did (apart from some of the bookmakers).  Let’s all remember that but for the efforts of a small committee, and in particular of one very determined and organised individual, we wouldn’t be enjoying such a fantastic fixture.  Stand up Heulwen Bulman and let us applaud you.  The Special Contribution award bestowed upon you by the BHRC for your endeavours not only in 2016 for the bonanza 20th anniversary meeting at Aber, but in the 19 years which came before it, was thoroughly deserved.  You are a credit to our sport; to your local area; to the great country of Wales.

Celebrating the end of the first day with Rachel [Sydenham] & Heulwen Bulman

Thank you Heulwen.

And before I sign off, thank you to the following people who also contributed to a brilliant weekend in Wales:

My parents
My fellow #powerofthree squad
My life coach
My non-dancing dance partner
'Wahey' Gerry
Bohammed aka Rag‘n’Bone Man
Hodor ‘hold the door’ aka Mark the bouncer
Everyone who went into wild appreciation of the best 50p I’ve ever spent on a pub jukebox – “in all the years I’ve been coming to Aber, this place has never gone crazy for Oasis like this before!”
The bra ninja
My stepson
El Presidente and his band of merry men
The back stretch party excluding the pork pie fiend
Smartypants (especially for the McDonalds breakfast on Saturday after a 4am finish)
Wull ‘I think everything you do for harness racing is great’ Greenhorn

Over and out,

#1 Groom
Aka Sarah ‘Wull, if Jack Swagger wins can I come into the photo?’ Thomas