Thursday, 28 September 2017

2017 Season: Week 18 - Tregaron

Now it would be unfair of me to claim that I knew that Michael O'Mahony would go on to have a blinder of a meeting at Tregaron, but I can say that it came as little surprise to me.  The cream has a funny way of rising to the top, after all.

Tregaron Festival 2017 has already been covered on Harnesslink - read here - and you could forgive writer Kayleigh Evans for being a bit less measured in her report than usual, although she writes as professionally as ever.  The reason being, for those of you not familiar with Michael and Kayleigh, that for the last number of years Michael has been training horses from Kayleigh's family home in Penuwch, alongside Kayleigh's brother Mike [Evans].  I think we'd all forgive a bit of bias in a report which means so much to the writer (who shed more than a few tears after Meldoon won the Welsh Classic Final!), so well done Kayleigh for the utmost professionalism in print!

As I go to print with this myself, 4 weeks have passed since the Tregaron Festival.  My timing is getting increasingly worse.  Once the subsequent weeks' updates have been posted you may begin to understand this tardiness.  In a reflection of the month of August for harness racing, I have been overrun with projects, trips and in recent weeks, preparing sales adverts for both York and Builth sales.  This time of year is hard, albeit enjoyable, work.

Anyway, we shall delve in to some of the highlights from Wales' premier meeting which, this year, was back on par with some of the previously more enjoyable stagings and one which you would have regretted to miss.

Michael O'Mahony wins NINE (Graham Rees photos)
Let's begin with the NINE winners piloted by 'man of the moment' (or, indeed, 'man of the weekend'), Michael O'Mahony.  First up was the first heat of the Little Welsh Dragoness, in which he drove the Geoffrey Lyons-Mound owned Lyons Lememay (1/9), winner of the Oakwood Stud 3YO Fillies Oaks at the VDM weekend.  This filly joined Michael's stable mid-season and has come on leaps and bounds under his care, going on to win the Little Welsh Dragoness Final later that day (2/9).

Michael & Lyons Lememay winning the Little Welsh Dragoness heat (Sarah Thomas photo)
Michael then went on to win the first of the five Strata Florida heats with Style Matters (3/9), owned and trained by Lowri Jones.  He was unable to take the drive in the final after steering Southern Sunshine to victory in the last of the heats (4/9) with a well-timed late run in the stretch and it was the Irish-owned horse which came home in front in the final (5/9) with a mirror image drive from the man with the most laid back driving style on the British Isles.

Winning connections of Southern Sunshine after the Strata Florida Final (Irfon Bennett photo)
Southern Sunshine & Kayleigh Evans (Irfon Bennett photo)

On the Saturday, Michael gave little away in the Facebook Live interview with Darren before the racing, but it wasn't long before he was back in the winner's circle in the first of the five heats of the Welsh Classic.  This time it was with the Bethan Kelly-owned and trained mare, In The Ayr (6/9), which he guided over the line in front, with a whole host of ladies piling in to the centre of the track for the winning celebrations after the race.

Owner/trainer of In The Ayr, Bethan Kelly (centre, pink jacket) and friends (Irfon Bennett photo)

Michael was straight back into the winner's circle in the next race, again with a mare, this time in the shape of Meldoon (7/9) who looked impressive when finishing second to Rhyds Passion in the STAGBI Future Broodmares race at Tir Prince a week earlier.  It was the Roy Roberts-owned mare which he later chose to partner in the final.

Before heading to the final, Michael made another detour via the winner's circle with another Geoffrey Lyons-Mound 3YO filly, Lyons Saint Marys (8/9), the heavily backed favourite in the second of two maiden races on the Saturday.

The field on the final circuit in the Welsh Classic Final (Sarah Thomas photo)
As if the tally marks after each winner weren't enough of a giveaway, and in order to truly be the 'man of the weekend', you should have come to the very obvious conclusion that Michael topped off a phenomenal weekend with victory in the Group 1 Welsh Classic Final when romping to victory on Meldoon, the four-year-old daughter of Doonbeg out of Real Melody.  Emotions were very high immediately following the race, and despite trying my best not to succumb to the tears, when I looked at fellow STAGBI director Gwenan (who is heavily involved with the staging of the fixture at Tregaron) and saw her crying without abandon, I went over the edge!  Then Kayleigh appeared on the track, in tears, with her mother, and also Michael's number one fan, his niece Chloe Anne who was such a delight over the course of the entire weekend and seemed to love every minute of Michael's success.  Michael's family soon joined the party in the winner's circle, followed by Meldoon's deservedly emotional owner, Roy, his wife Diane and friends.  There are moments in racing when I look around me at the way in which winning affects people and I think 'this is the drug we all crave'.  That high of victory is what we all chase after every time we put our horses onto the race track.  I love the feats that horses achieve and the manner in which they do it, and I love the emotions that people show when the horses they care so much about fulfil their potential.  Roy was unashamedly emotional about the victory and nobody could blame him; owning a Welsh Classic Final winner is one thing but to have bred her as well, that's just wonderful.

Meldoon winning the Welsh Classic Final (Irfon Bennett photo)
The realisation quickly sinks in for Michael (Sarah Thomas photo)
A popular winner with the local crowds (Irfon Bennett photo)
Michael's #1 fan - niece, Chloe Anne (Sarah Thomas photo)
Celebrations (and tears!) for the team (Sarah Thomas photo)
More tears - from the owner this time! (Sarah Thomas photo)

Delving back into the general racing, I must mention the spectacular drive that Steve Lees gave No Brakes in the Little Welsh Dragon 3YO Final on the Friday.  Regular driver Grant had qualified the horse in the last available place in his heat; as a fourth place qualifier he was left with a choice of the two worst picks for the draw and as such, Grant made the decision to drive Tarawood CJ (drawn 2) who, having won his heat with Grant at the reins, was entitled to second choice after the other heat winner, All Good Hanover (drawn 1).  I was a little surprised to see Grant choose a horse he'd only driven once over a horse he has driven (with much success) all season, however all's fair in love and racing and based on their heat performances, CJ looked to have the better chance in the final.

CJ looked to have an even better chance as the race went off when All Good Hanover broke at the start, massively impeding the horse drawn behind it, GDs Hazzard.  The starter allowed the race to continue without calling a false start, which in hindsight would have been the correct decision.  Starter Shae Price has taken a lot of stick (borderline abuse) for the decision, and I am going on record as saying it was the wrong decision to make in not calling a false start.  However, people make mistakes.  It's very easy for me to sit here and say all of this with a level head; I've been known to lose my rag at the starter at Corbiewood in the past when it's been my horse which has been impeded by a breaking horse in front of it at the start, only for the race to go ahead and my horse to be tailed off.  Impartiality is a wonderful thing.  To the connections of the two horses involved: nothing could be changed once the race was over.  To the Thomson's, I feel for you as your horse was innocent in the whole debacle and was never given a fair chance, and despite being impeded ran a stormer to finish fourth, only losing out on a rosette by a nose.  To driver Lee Fletcher on board All Good Hanover - if what you have said is true, that the reason you had your horse turned back into the stretch after pulling up whilst the race was still going was because you were going to send it hell for leather towards the field and bail out and see what damage the horse could do - shame on you.  I sincerely hope this was a bad joke and that despite the red mist which I'm sure many of us suffer from, you are able to accept that your horse was in the wrong; had you galloped on the second line and not hampered anybody, you'd have been left, fairly and squarely.

Whilst I don't particularly want to give the former Bishop Auckland Soccer Hooligans co-leader a stern telling off, here I find myself.  Let's put this all behind us and move on; the starter made a mistake, he has learnt from it, calling for him to never start a race again simply adds more pressure on the BHRC to find volunteers for thankless tasks.  Remember that.  I don't see an orderly queue forming to take on the job.

Back to the race itself: I was partaking of an alcoholic beverage with my friend, Hayley Cassells, who happens to be the groom to No Brakes (aka Charlie).  Below par earlier performance in his heat, bad draw in the final and the fact that Hayley couldn't see over the crowd in front of her to watch the race meant that the two of us were basically having a bit of a blether in the background and not really paying attention.  At the business end of things I saw Alan Jones coming wide with My Buddy down the stretch and got all excited because I love underdog-type scenarious and major upsets in big races and all of a sudden No Brakes is storming through the centre of the field to get up by three quarters of a length.  I turned to Hayley, who had a full pint in her hand, and screamed 'CHARLIE HAS WON' and for the first time in the 3 years I've known her, Hayley threw her pint in the bin.  In the bin.  Just lobbed it like it didn't matter and ran for the track.  And I followed, because that seemed like a good idea.

Whilst on the track I spoke to Steve [Lees] and his son, Stephen, and told 'little Stevie' that he'd need to work hard to be as good a driver as his old man, who'd won the race with a horse who scraped into the final by the skin of his teeth.  Little Stevie pointed up to the commentary box and said 'that's where I want to be, up there not out here'.  Duly noted young man.  We will get you on the right path to be a commentator.  I mean, surely we all know someone who could help out a budding young commentator?! *cough* Darren Owen *cough*

Will we see 'Little Stevie' here one day?! (Irfon Bennett photo)
Anyway, a massive CONGRATULATIONS to owners Bob and Linda on their win.  Linda's delight every time Charlie has picked up a rosette this season has been great.  The proud Facebook posts and the photos of his trophies and ribbons have been refreshing to follow.  Charlie's done good!

I'd also like to give a mention to trainer/driver Rhun Wilson for his training 1-2 in the fourth heat of the Strata Florida with Dulais Daniel and Reeds Scarlett.  Dulais Daniel is owned by Rhun's good friend Steven Williams and was driven to victory by William Greenhorn, while Rhun drove the runner up who seems to be flourishing in his care.  Bizarrely, Rhun was subsequently called in to the stewards over concerns that he had not driven his horse, Reeds Scarlett, on its full merits.  I must have been watching a very different race.  The horses may have the same trainer, but they have different owners, and what I saw was a hard driven finish from both drivers.  Rhun was only cautioned, but I was not alone in thinking he was hard done by.  Kudos to him anyway, this is his first season with BHRC having moved from WBCRA and after struggling in the early part of the season (and admitting he'd perhaps made a mistake in switching codes), after his first two wins at York with two trotters, he's really gotten into his rhythm.  Keep up the good work - and although Jimmy is yet to win a race off a stiff mark, please keep trying with him.  He's racing competitively and his day will come!  Although if you do change your mind, I would gladly take him off your hands!! Sorry Smarty, I'm casually flouting the 'no more horses' policy on a public forum...

To round off my recap from the first day, a mention must also go to Horse of the Year contender Evenwood Sonofagun who was commanding in his FFA appearance when winning the Battle of the Big Guns in an impressive time of 2:04.  This was his 14th consecutive win and his 10th of the season.  He's phenomenal and a joy to watch racing.

Evenwood Sonofagun heading to win #14 (Irfon Bennett photo)

The second day featured a few performances that I enjoyed, including Rhyds Adora (Dai Isaac) winning the first race of the day, a maiden race.  The runner up, Ayr Musketeer was also an eye catcher and subsequently went on to win his maiden at Lampeter.

Oaks Telstar won his novice by a head from Blackfield Jennie, and while I rate him a far better horse than that performance, he was decidely lacklustre and this turned out to be his final race of the season.  He will start the 2018 season as a Grade 1 and I think he's shown plenty of potential this season already to make him a really chancy candidate for one of the major grass handicap finals next year.

In scenes the stewards deemed reminiscent of Rhun Wilson's training 1-2, Alexis Laidler fielded the first two home in the third of the five heats of the Welsh Classic.  This time William Greenhorn was on the runner up, JMs Hallstar, while Rocker drove Jack Swagger to victory.  Willie was called in to the stewards after the race and was subsequently find £50 under rule M28 (In the event a drive is unsatisfactory due to lack of effort or carelessness, and the Stewards believe that there is no fraud, gross carelessness, or a deliberate inconsistent drive they may impose a penalty under this sub-section including, but not limited to, a fine and/or suspension or disqualification).

A lot of people were talking about the drive; I didn't see it on the day as due to the angle I was standing at I only had a head-on view down the stretch.  However, the racing was recorded for the Welsh language harness racing show, Rasus, and the race was (possibly poorly chosen) aired on the pre-recorded show.  The footage used showed, in my opinion at least (although as I'm not a driver I'm not actually supposed to comment on how others drive), a pretty bad example of not driving a horse on its merits (aka 'non-trying').  The penalty for a breach of this rule is 'Fine and/or suspension'.  Now, I'm currently working on another post/an open letter to the BHRC Council about removing the discretionary element of the majority of penalties in order to create a level playing field AND give stewards some added protection from often unfair verbal/written abuse (a case of 'don't hate the player, hate the game').  So we'll leave that for another day.  My point here is, whether we agree with the amount of the fine or not, the driver was fined.  I now hear a rumour (courtesy of Watty & Fletch on TrotTalk TV) that Willie has been called back before the BHRC Council for a hearing relating to this incident.  Whilst I fully agree with the BHRC as a governing body reviewing the decisions of stewards, in this instance I am unaware that anybody has appealed the decision.  The rule breach was identified and penalised as per the rulebook.  The BHRC seek now only to undermine the track stewards who imposed the (arguably too small) fine.  Regardless of the amount, the fine was still imposed.  The BHRC should perhaps instead seek to review the rulebook and penalties rather than retrospectively looking to punish a driver for an offence he has already been punished for.  Double jeopardy, as those familiar with the criminal justice system refer to it.  The man did the crime, now he's done the time, so to speak.  Let's all move on.

'The Greenhorn Glare' (Sarah Thomas photo)
Sadly, the horse involved in the incident, JMs Hallstar, has since been put down, and is a great loss to the team as he still displayed bags of potential for the future.  The owners were keen to locate another horse with potential for the 2018 season, and later that day a horse from the stable must have caught their eye when winning the Grade 1, as Easy Company (owned by Gregor Paterson and Scott Mason - the gruesome twosome) has since been purchased by the Huschkas.  Good luck and well done to connections, new and old.

'The Gruesome Twosome' and their trophy (Sarah Thomas photo)
Sticking with the Huschka/Laidler combination, their 2YO colt Merrington Movinup surprised many, but not all, when overturning stable mate and betting favourite (actually, unbettable favourite) Matticulous to win the Junior Welsh Dragon.  Some connections of the runner up were overheard stating their unhappiness with the way the horse was driven, but the draw was what made the crucial difference in this race, and the winner should never be underestimated.  He was a very impressive winner in 2:07 (bearing in mind that the Junior Welsh Dragoness winner, Greenhill Hanover, clocked 2:13.4 in the previous race).

My final observation of the weekend relates to a horse I am from now on referring to as 'The Iron Horse': Llwyns Delight.  And what a delight he is for owners Lee and Robyn Price and both their families.  He is such a family favourite and indeed a favourite with harness racing fans.  Having won the Tregaron Spring Handicap heat and final in May, he also went on to win heat and final at one of the country's fairest and toughest tracks - Boughrood, just 6 days before winning a heat of the Welsh Classic at Tregaron.  He then finished third in the final off a whopping 50 yard trail with a tremendous late run to prove his staying power.  From 19 starts this year, winner of 6 with 6 placings, all in good company.  What a superstar he is!

The Iron Horse - Llwyns Delight wins again for driver Lee Price (Sarah Thomas photo)
And there we have it.  A very belated review of Tregaron.  I am aware that I haven't touched upon all of the races, winners, incidents and news from the meeting, but as time goes on my memory begins to fail me and at meetings as big as this, I can only really process and retain so much information.  For two whole days I find myself taking in so much, both on and off the track, that when I finally get home to Scotland I need about 3 days to recover!  It's meetings such as this, and Appleby, Musselburgh and Aberystwyth, that so many of us train horses for - we want to win here.  I may not have mentioned every winner individually, but to those of you who won - WELL DONE.  It is a lot harder than many appreciate, and winning at Tregaron remains at the top of most people's bucket lists.  Rightly so.

Well done to all of the people involved with Tregaron Trotting Club - you smashed it!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Farewell Old Friend - A Tribute to Stoneriggs Mystery

Champions don't show up to get everything they want; they show up to give everything they have. - Alexander den Heijer

Tonight (Saturday 9th September 2017), harness racing fans are set to say 'goodbye' to a horse who has dominated the highest levels of British harness racing for the past 9 years:


From the first moment that 'Mystery' burst onto the scene way back in 2009, he showed tremendous potential.  The 11-year-old son of Village Jasper out of Stoneriggs Quality (herself a product of solid British breeding [Todays Man-Monkroyd Mystery]) won his maiden at York in an impressive 1.59.6.  Then owned by breeders the Slack family from Appleby, Cumbria, and trained and driven by the champion duo Alexis & Rocker Laidler, Mystery went on to win a Grade 1 at Brough before wrapping up his 3YO season with a victory at Tir Prince in 1.59.5, finishing up unbeaten in his first three lifetime starts.

This electric inception to his career did not go unnoticed and he was subsequently purchased by David Morton from Larbert, Scotland, remaining in the same stable for his second season campaign.  Mystery carried on where he left off, winning heat and final at Appleby, before he first tasted defeat when finishing second to Adore Hanover at Ffos Las.  He went on to have another 3 wins that year, taking heats of the major handicap finals at Musselburgh and Tregaron and a heat of the 4YO Championship at Corbiewood.  Alas, the finals of all 3 eluded him.

Leading the field to victory at Appleby (Graham Rees photo)
In 2011, Mystery climbed to new heights, finishing in the first 3 in every single start that year.  This included three wins on the bounce at the start of the season (York, York & Musselburgh, where he again won a heat of The Famous Musselburgh Pace, finishing third in the final).  His first foray into the Free For All ranks came in the Billy Williams Memorial Pace at Tir Prince, and it would become the first of three victories in the event commemorating the founder of the track.  His next win came in the Dark Rum FFA at Corbiewood, and he went on to win again twice at York off long trails in heats of the Daniel Welling Memorial and Dennis Leonard Memorial, finishing third in both finals.
Victory at Musselburgh (Graham Rees photo)

In 2012, he went on a streak of four wins in top company to bag the York Championship Flying FFA, the Musselburgh FFA and arguably most importantly, heat and final of the pinnacle of FFA racing, the Crock of Gold.  Not unbeatable, he suffered defeat at Musselburgh the day after his FFA victory and despite winning a heat of the Welsh Classic at Tregaron, was subsequently disqualified in the final.  Undeterred, he bounced back to win his second consecutive Billy Williams FFA at Tir Prince and finished off the season with a victory in the Anchor Inn FFA at York.

Winning a heat of the Tregaron Classic @ Amman Valley in 1.57.9 (Graham Rees photo)
Mystery started his fifth season of racing with the same vigour as every previous year, winning firstly at Appleby and then at Pikehall.  The cracks began to show however when he finished fourth in the BHRC European Pacing Classic at York and then third in a heat of the Crock of Gold, and he did not perform to his usual high standards in the final on the same night, finishing unplaced and bringing an early end to his season.

Winning at Pikehall (Graham Rees photo)
They say a change is as good as a rest, and 2014 hailed the beginning of the next chapter of Mystery's long and illustrious career as he moved to the Mick and Sheelagh Lord stables, where he has remained as a firm favourite to the present day.  Despite finishing second on his first start of the season at Corbiewood, he went on to record victories at York and Boughrood, before returning to Corbiewood for a match race against Astounding (the current track record holder) which was a thoroughly enjoyable head-to-head which drew in the crowds, and despite being the so-called 'invader', Mystery was a popular winner.

Winning at Aberystwyth (Graham Rees photo)
Winning at Boughrood (Graham Rees photo)
The following year, doubts began to creep in again as Mystery started the season with lacklustre performances at Appleby and Wolverhampton where he was unplaced in legs of the Battle of the Big Guns Series.  'Form is temporary, class is permanent' has never applied more than to this horse, and Mystery put all doubts to bed when storming to victory in the Battle of the Big Guns leg at Tir Prince, a win which kickstarted an unbeaten run of 7 races including further legs of the series at Tir Prince and Tregaron, the Daniel Welling Memorial FFA at York, the Brian Thomas FFA at Aberystwyth and his third Billy Williams FFA at Tir Prince.  In scenes reminiscent of Kauto Star regaining his Gold Cup title, Mystery went on to win back the Crock of Gold, and when winning the Battle of the Big Guns leg at Corbiewood secured the title as the original 'Big Gun' in winning the Standardbred Sales Company-sponsored series.  Victory in the BHRC European Pacing Classic at York in the September finished off an amazing season with nine top class wins across the country.

Winning at York (Graham Rees photo)
Nobody told Mystery that at 10 he should be considering winding down, and he came back for the 2016 season with a bang when winning his first three starts (Tir Prince, Tir Prince & Appleby).  Despite hitting a bad patch of form, he returned to winning ways at the Golden Anniversary fixture at Corbiewood when winning his second leg of the Battle of the Big Guns series, which despite his lesser form from the previous year, was enough to secure Mystery back-to-back Big Guns titles.   He finished off the season unplaced at Tregaron as the next generation of Free For Allers appeared to be coming to the fore.

Winning at Appleby (Graham Rees photo)
Winning at Corbiewood (Bill Cardno photo)

Bringing us to the current season, Mystery looked well beaten at Appleby on his first start of the season when faltering at the start of the Battle of the Big Guns leg, finding himself tailed off from the field with almost too much to do.  With a lap to go he was still chasing the pack; and then Mick switched on the turbo and down the back straight he was airborne, clearing the field and coming home to cheers from a most appreciative crowd: Mystery was back!

Tailed off at Appleby (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)
Heading home in front after clearing the field (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)

A firm favourite with the stable (Elizabeth O'Neil photo)

Beaten in a thrilling finish into second at Aberystwyth by the star-juvenile-turned-free-for-aller Miraculous, Mystery returned to Tir Prince to win a heat of the Crock of Gold on the 15th July, coming three wide off the last turn to roars from the crowd.  Despite three unplaced runs since at Tir Prince, York and Tregaron, tonight he heads into his last Crock of Gold with an outside chance.  The fairytale ending to such an impressive career is not outside the realms of possibility, although he will face a field of younger contenders all vying to take the crown, including the afore-mentioned Miraculous and the superstar Evenwood Sonofagun who is chasing his fifteenth consecutive win.

I have been fortunate enough to witness the majority of Mystery's victories from trackside and I have felt every emotion there is to feel on this journey that he has taken so many of us on.  I still recall vividly the sense of pride on that night at Tir Prince in 2015 when, after two below-par performances at Appleby and Wolverhampton, he romped to victory.  I was one of the doubters, those who said 'maybe he's done, maybe now is the time to call it a day for the horse who owes nobody anything'.  Smarty said to me, 'if he still has anything left, if he is still the Mystery we know, tonight is the night'.  And that night was the night.  That performance forced a lot of people to eat their words.  I also remember taking great umbrage in Ireland that same season when, before he was beaten by Bath Lane in the FFA, an Irishman who had been out of the sport for a few years asked me what would win the race.  I didn't hesitate in saying Mystery, 'he's the best FFA horse in the UK'.  After the race, the gentleman approached me, and mockingly said, 'the best you've got huh?'.  I was furious.  Mystery was never unbeatable, but over the course of so many years he truly was, and is, one of the best horses ever to grace the track.  To insinuate, based on one performance, that he wasn't that good, was an insult which I felt as personally as if he was my own horse.

And that has been the joy of Stoneriggs Mystery.  We have all seen him race.  We have all cheered for him when he has come home in front, and we have all commiserated with him when he's been beaten.  We have all felt our hearts swell with pride when he has overcome the odds to win, and all suffered the disappointment when through his own errors he has lost a race.  No champion is infallible, but in the face of defeat he has been picked up, dusted off, and gone back out there to compete.  He has been a credit to both stables who have guided him on such a glittering and successful course, winning in every season he has raced from 3 through to 11, and to his owners, David and Wilma Morton, and all of their close friends and family, who have believed in him for all this time.  With a record of 1.55.7, UK earnings of £55,442, and 43 wins from 79 starts in the UK, he has done everyone proud.

Tonight I fully expect to be a blubbering mess.  I am an overly emotional person at the best of times, but moments like this don't happen every day.  This is the end of an era.  As we move into the Miraculous/Evenwood Sonofagun/Coalford Tetrick era, we must thank Mystery for his years of service to us and our sport.  Good horses have been, and good horses will come, but there will only ever be one Stoneriggs Mystery.  With his unique style of racing, his determination and heart, he has taken us all on the greatest journey over the last 9 years.

Thanks for the memories, Mystery.
The one, the only: Stoneriggs Mystery