Wednesday, 16 May 2018

2018 Season: Week 2 - A solid 6 for Team Laidler

On Saturday 12th May harness racing returned to its spiritual home at Tregaron for a ten-race card including the Spring Handicap heats and final, Senior Welsh Dragon and the first of nine legs of the Star Maker Series.

After picking up their first win at Tir Prince last week with Springhill Calaburn, the Laidler team hit the ground running on week 2 with a 12 length victory in the first event with my family's 3YO filly, Rhyds Sapphire.  This was her first start under new management and we were glad to see her kick things off with a win.  Fingers crossed she can play a major part in some of the 3YO stakes races this summer once she's had a spin around Appleby in novice company.

Rhyds Sapphire (Hasty Hall-CPR-Life Sign) & Rocker Laidler (Graham Rees photo)

The success of the 3YOs continued as last year's Junior Welsh Dragon winner, Merrington Movinup (bred by Rocker & Alexis and now owned by Raymond & Frank Huschka) showed real class to beat more experienced horses in the first of the two heats for the final, with Tommy Camden (Richard Haythornthwaite), Rhyds Nightlife (James Haythornthwaite) and Ghenghis Pride (Alan Haythornthwaite) - that's a lot of Haythornthwaites - taking the three remaining places for the final.

Merrington Movinup (The Preacher Pan-What A Commotion-Hopping High) & Rocker Laidler (Graham Rees photo)
In the second of the two heats, David Bevan's gutsy performer Lakeside Paddy got up from my 2018 horse to follow, Ring Of Fire after the first of my new feature "Bobby's Bloopers".  Driver Bobby Richards, who I have known for a number of years and think the absolute world of, mistook the start line for the finish line and eased up in front before the wily Bevan snatched victory.  Favourite Happy Hands faltered and finished out of the first four, and last week's impressive heat winner Rockin Mambo was a no-show after connections mistakenly thought racing was the following day!

David [Bevan] made it a quickfire double to match Rocker when steering Immortal John to a confident and well-timed victory in the second of the maiden events ahead of American Mistress and Ayr Paparazzi.

Next up it was Bobby's 17-year-old son Joel's turn to take the reins with his namesake, Wye Joels Best.  This perhaps should have been my nap of the meeting, as in his first three lifetime starts he was placed behind White Flame (fastest Skewbald pacer in the world), Rhyds Passion (BHRC Mare of the Year 2017) and Springhill Glory (Appleby, York & Aberystwyth 3YO winner).  That's pretty good company to be keeping.  Forget nap, I was nap-ping and I failed to give this out as my 'cert' for the meeting during the preview with Darren [Owen] and Kayleigh [Evans] (yes, these previews are totally a thing now and I love them).  Anyway, Joel trains all 8 horses at home and drives 4, while dad Bobby drives the other four.  Quality horses or not, Joel is going places.  To my global readers - remember his name: JOEL RICHARDS.  He could turn up anywhere in the world one day and drive winners.  You heard it here first.

Wye Joels Best (Pro Bono Best-J Vs Jiffy-Village Jiffy) & Joel Richards (Graham Rees photo)
Now at this point in the day, a certain Mr William Laidler had begun to pine for the winner's circle so he made it his mission to get back there as quickly as possible, and the fifth race was his chance to do it as he steered Wilf Burton's Blackwell Tiana to a comfortable victory from Lane House Stan & Michael O'Mahony (the Tregaron Festival superhero last August when partnering 9 winners across the 2 days).

Much like buses (you wait ages for one and then three come along at once), Rocker notched up a further two wins in as many races when Springhill Ruby overcame the favourite Rhyds Star Quality (Mick Lord) in the second of the two Grade 1 & 2 events, before taking the first of the Star Maker legs with Laneside Layla.  This mare only raced once in 2017 when finishing second to Rhyds Rock Star at York at the opening meeting of the season.  That in itself was fairly strong form, provided that she had overcome whatever issues had prevented her from racing for the remainder of last year.  It appears that she has.  I must give a mention here to runner up Laughing Buck (Julie Phillips) who looks as though he may have a rewarding season with the connections who have had previous success with his half-brother Masquerade Avenue, a multiple winner on the Wales & West circuit.  Also, a horse which caught a few people's eye was third placed Borntorun, a runner up in the Breeders Crown 2YO Fillies to Rhyds Mystique and who subsequently missed her 3YO season.  She could be one to watch in this series now that the number of runs for non-winners has been altered to unlimited.

Attention then turned to one of the two feature races on the day - the Doonbeg 4YO Senior Welsh Dragon - the last stakes race in the Dragon series.  The pessimists amongst the harness racing fans could not let go of Rhyds Rock Star's below-par peformance in the 3YO Little Welsh Dragon Final at the track last August when he broke and finished 5th, and it was such a hot topic on social media (although I missed it, as hard as that is to believe what with me being a total social media addict) during the build up to the meeting that driver James Haythornthwaite admitted in his post-race interview that he had even begun to have doubts himself about whether this super 4YO son of Hasty Hall would be able to stay down and perform to his best.  I was lucky enough once again (thanks to the officials, committee, driver John Crump and starter Conway Price) to ride in the back of the start car and come face to face with the horse as he scored up in post position 2, and before we rolled around to the start I spotted James putting Rock Star around the first two bends at half speed; I can guess only to give them both a bit of confidence.  Rock Star was keen, and gave me a right eyeball as the car pulled away - I later told Smarty that he was quite an intimidating horse to face off with as he looked to be totally in race mode: ears flat back and raring to go.  From the moment the race started, he was away, and the Rock Star that we saw last week at Tir Prince was definitely in action, winning in just under 2.07 on a dead half mile grass track.

Facing off with Rhyds Rock Star (Sarah Thomas photo)
Cruising just after the half (Sarah Thomas photo)

This was the third year in a row that owners Claire and Shane Fletcher, and trainer Teresa Haythornthwaite, have won this race (2016 - Sports Trick; 2017 - Party At The Spa; 2018 - Rhyds Rock Star).  Teresa was understandably emotional as last year's victor, 'Party', sadly passed away later in the 2017 season and this win obviously brought back the memories of what was an emotional victory last year (that's two years in a row I've had photos of you in tears Teresa!).  That's what racing does to people, and the people so deeply affected by loss and success are the kind of people I want in my life!

The last race on the card was the Camden Stud Spring Handicap Final, and the 3YO Merrington Movinup started as the favourite.  Earlier in the day, Bobby Richards had told me he wanted a 2-page spread when he won the final, as boxer Anthony Joshua had had a 4-page spread (presumably after one of his world title successes) - I LOVE this man's confidence, which is always tinged with cheeky humour.  I was watching Bobby and 'Fire' closely, and heading down the back straight he was clearly in trouble stuck on the rail with several horses in front of him and to his outside.  The box is not a good place to be, and in the style of Anthony Joshua, Bobby thought he would fight his way out of it by pushing his way up the inside of David Bevan and Lakeside Paddy.  I didn't call David 'wily' earlier for nothing - that door which may have appeared ajar came closing with a bang and I thought Bobby was for the deck as his horse faltered and shuffled back in the field coming around the last two bends.  Merrington Movinup had shot clear and came home an unchallenged and impressive winner, but imagine my surprise as I looked up from the viewfinder of my camera to see none other than Bobby and Ring Of Fire storming down the straight to finish second - the last time I'd seen them they were nearly last less than an eighth of a mile from the line.  This was "Bobby's Bloopers" #2!!

Taking nothing away from the winner though, 'Joey' [Merrington Movinup] as he's known is a real star for the future and I think he has an exciting 3YO campaign ahead of him.  This was Rocker's sixth win of the day and I have to take my hat off to Alexis [Laidler] for a sublime training performance from her team.

Merrington Movinup cruising to victory in the final (Sarah Thomas photo)
A couple of things that I took from the meeting and which I feel should be touched upon are as follows:

- the format of the heats & final; currently I believe that the format is too 'grade-specific' for an early season event.  Had the committee allowed Grades 1 & 2 to participate, the top 8 handicap horses entered could have been siphoned off for an OPH standalone race.  This, in theory, would have allowed horses such as Evenwood Sonofagun, Coalford Tetrick, Mikey Camden and Wellfield Ghost to race (Llwyns Delight, a G9 horse, raced in the high grade heat as a G7 with a C Class driver on board utilising a 20 yard lift).  This suggested format would also allow for more heats with fewer horses from each heat progressing to the final.  It is my belief that the punters and spectators (and indeed, probably the pesky bookmakers) would prefer this.  A secondary issue is that in the first 2 weeks of racing, there have not been races for the best horses in the UK at 2 of the leading venues.  Harness racing cannot allow for these horses to be standing in stables rather than racing - otherwise we face the very real risk of losing these horses to North America which quite frankly, as an avid harness racing fan, is not what I want.  I'm selfish, I want to see the best horses racing right in front of me and not on some race replay website.

- Saturday vs Sunday racing; whilst this caught the connections of Rockin Mambo out (I'm sure they'll laugh about it one day), I think the change of day affected both bookmaker and crowd turnout.  Saturdays are notoriously busy in the events calendar - point to points, Thoroughbred racing, shows etc. I appreciate that Sunday clashes with Ludlow Racecourse, however I think the move to Saturday was more detrimental than successful.  However, these things have to be tried in order to find out what works best.  I would like to work with the committee to publicise the fixture around the local area as we passed a large number of tourists on our drive to the track and it took all my willpower not to hang out of the car window and shout at them to follow us.

For those who voiced negative opinions on social media directly before the racing regarding the prize money on offer, I have this to say - the card was decent.  It was decent, despite this perceived 'poor prize money'.  Why would the committee suffer a greater financial burden when there was little improvement to be found in the quality and number of horses racing?  Furthermore, the prize money on offer was in line with recent years at this venue and fixture, where cards have been of a similar quality.  In addition, this year (for the first time in a number of years), the racing was penalty free.  I would love for us all to be racing for small fortunes, however in this economic climate within animal racing sports, I feel as though the committee should be commended rather than vilified for staging such a strong fixture so early in the season when you take into consideration the appalling weather during the winter which put so many of us behind with our training.

Coming up this weekend we have the opening meeting at Corbiewood (the home of Scottish harness racing and the centre of my universe) and the first of the Wales & West promoted fixtures, at Presteigne, both of which are staging £500 finals.  Corbiewood will play host to the second Star Maker Series leg, and Presteigne welcomes aged trotters for their first outing of the season.  There is literally something for everyone so don't sit in the house twiddling your thumbs, #COMEHARNESSRACING

Over and out,

#1 Groom

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