Saturday, 11 February 2017

BHRC Drive of the Year - GET VOTING

If you haven't seen the poll on Tim Tetrick's social media pages/Harnesslink/the BHRC website, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!

Kidding, you've probably been busy doing important stuff.  Point taken.

You must surely be able to find yourself half an hour though to watch six videos of drives shortlisted for the inaugural BHRC Drive of the Year 2016 and then cast your vote.  I rarely ask anything of anyone, but on this occasion, please do.

The award is being supported and sponsored by none other than Tim Tetrick himself, a master reinsman regarded worldwide as one of the best.  The driver whose drive receives the highest number of votes will receive a gift package from Tim, as well as a trophy which will be presented at the BHRC & STAGBI Awards Dinner on Saturday 25th February.  We're actually going to be keeping the name of the winner under wraps until the night, to add to the suspense.  Voting closes at midday on Valentine's Day (for those romantics among us) or 14th February (for those unromantics among us).  So time is running out guys - GET VOTING NOW!

To make things easy for you, I'm going to post the links for the six shortlisted drives with a bit of background info to the race so you can place them in context.

Race 1


James Haythornthwaite & Porcelain Seelster

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQkY9hcg9xA


The three-year-old imported grey filly (Camluck-Pantecostal-No Pan Intended) came from the rear of the field under a patient drive from regular pilot James Haythornthwaite to take on stablemate Indie Hanover down the stretch, winning the Victor Carson Memorial Final at Corbiewood in September.

Race 2

John Nicholson Jr & Cochise

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ius55lcwff8

Sixteen-year-old John Nicholson Jr was living the stuff of dreams when winning a heat of the Red John Memorial Hurricane Pace at Musselburgh in June on Cochise (Dreamwork-Running River-Raque Bogart), however his drive in the final makes the shortlist for, amongst other things, holding his nerve when being chased down in the last furlong by the previous year's Leading Driver, William 'Rocker' Laidler.

As an aside, keep an eye out for John's father, John Sr, and sister, Savannah, jumping up and down wildly by the inside rail just before the line - his mother Georgina was also in the race as the family had qualified two runners and there were tears in the winner's circle afterwards as John became one of the youngest drivers ever to win a major handicap final.

Race 3

Ian Pimlott & Thunder Jiel

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMBpWvX21w4

This was the first of two trotting races staged at Chelmsford City Racecourse in November following a Thoroughbred card.  The races were televised live on At The Races which gave the sport much-needed exposure to the general public, and they were treated to a driving masterclass from seasoned campaigner Ian Pimlott who certainly didn't panic when the front horses went clear early on.  His well-timed drive ensured Thunder Jiel (Historien-Houba Houba Jiel-Kimberland) broke his duck on British soil having been imported from France earlier in the year.

News today is that Chelmsford have agreed to stage numerous trotting races this coming summer on the back of Thoroughbred cards - GREAT NEWS!

Race 4

Mick Lord & Shaba Hanover

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRjl9ntkpB8

Commentator Darren Owen sums up the race to perfection in the closing stages of the race at York in October.  Mick Lord painted the outside rail with Shaba Hanover (Real Desire-Shakeitupamy-Western Hanover) to pass the frontrunners and storm to victory late on.  This win was the former BHRC 3YO Filly of the Year's sole victory of the season after a successful juvenile career.

Race 5

Richard Haythornthwaite & Ayr Majesty

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwjPd9Z2sik

Not to be outdone by brother James, Richard Haythornthwaite finds himself on the shortlist after steering Ayr Majesty (Daylon Alert-Ayr Queen-Albert Albert) to success in the Tregaron FFA at the two-day festival in August.  The horse finds himself in top company following much success as a youngster, and on this occasion the wily moves of his driver to weave his way through the field provided the horse with his sole win of the season in a leg of the Standardbred Sales Company-sponsored Battle of the Big Guns, after numerous consistent placed runs.

Race 6

Vicky Gill & Rhyds Mystique

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBxw6ZD0tbY

BHRC 2YO Filly of the Year 2016 Rhyds Mystique (Hasty Hall-CPs Village Jigsaw-Village Jiffy) burst onto the racing scene with this impressive debut, which became the first of 8 wins from 9 runs in her freshman year.  Vicky Gill partnered her in every race, and the duo's first victory stemmed from a late burst of speed to pass the field in impressive style.  Little did we know just how good this filly would be during the course of the season.  One suspects that driver Vicky knew though, driving with immense confidence on this first start.

Now to the nitty gritty - voting.

Follow this link HERE

If, for any reason, that doesn't work (I'm still a technophobe at heart), go to the BHRC website (http://www.bhrc.org.uk/racing/news/drive-of-the-year-2016/) and follow the link at the bottom of the story.  WARNING: Do not be alarmed at the enormous photo of Tim Tetrick's face when you click on the link - the details are below it).

Come on, get involved.  Most of my readers will be totally impartial viewers, not knowing any of the drivers or horses shortlisted.  So judge them, be critical, be impressed, click on your favourite.

REMEMBER: voting closes at MIDDAY on TUESDAY 14TH FEBRUARY GMT (that's Greenwich Mean Time, to you and me).  I don't know what this is in the various US time zones - look it up.  Or vote AS SOON AS YOU'VE FINISHED READING THIS.  Go on, you know you want to.

Over and out,

SHOUTY CAPS LOCK #1 GROOM

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Skibbereen for something a bit different...

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

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

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


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

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

IB Coyote
 

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


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

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

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

Rebel Rouser

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


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

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

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

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


Sunday: Race Day.

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

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






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

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

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

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

Race 2


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

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

Race 3


Saunders Paris

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

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

Race 5

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

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

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

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

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

Over and out,

#1 Groom (on tour)

Friday, 20 January 2017

Happy New Year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR Y'ALL!

Wherever you saw in the beginning of 2017, I hope you had a blast!

So it's now the middle of January and I haven't posted for almost a month.  This time last year I was posting on almost a weekly basis with driver interviews from the drivers who frequent the racetrack in Scotland: Corbiewood.  It was part of an initiative I came up with to provide entertainment to racing fans in the UK, but also to introduce the familiar faces up North to a wider audience of non-racing fans in the UK and Ireland, and anybody reading internationally as well.  In the last 12 months my viewing figures in North America have gone through the roof (helped in the main by both Heather Vitale and Allan Schott, both of whom have read my blog and plugged it on their own sites - for this, I am very grateful.  You've really helped to build the platform that I'm working from!).  So for those of you newbies involved in racing in America and Canada who haven't read my driver interviews, please do take some time out to go back and get to know our drivers.  Each post follows the same pattern but each driver somehow made it their own with their unique answers!

Anyway, so the purpose of this post is simply to update you all and let you know I haven't disappeared off the face of the earth.  I'm still here!!  Time to use the perennial excuse of 'I haven't had much free time to write', which is as true as ever.  However, I've not been idle over the last four weeks.  Since returning from France I have been focussing on a number of projects which have eaten, and continue to eat, up my spare time.

The stallion grading system which I was working on during the summer required some additional info (as evidence of how each stallion on the active list met the criteria set by the Board [or didn't, as the case may be]) following the AGM.  Gwenan Thomas (STAGBI Administrator) had filled in much of the missing information but I have worked on the gaps and the list is nearing finalisation, subject to any discrepancies noted once it has been published.  I firmly believe that it's a major step forward in the promotion of the breed by assessing horse performance both on the track and in the breeding shed and highlighting those who have excelled at both aspects.  Undoubtedly it will be unpopular with members who feel that their stallion hasn't been awarded the grade they feel it should have, but the criteria are based on factual evidence not opinion, and apply across the board.  I don't feel that we can be fairer than that.

I have also made progress on a project to digitalise the BHRC record books.  I have access to the printed record books from 1970 to 2006, with the online database beginning in 2005 and running to the present day.  Using the records as I do, whether it be for a Hall of Fame application, an article or a stallion advert (or indeed, most recently to find evidence of race records for stallions for the grading system), I found it an inconvenience to have to search firstly for the relevant year's record book (having used the STAGBI online database to decipher the year of birth and age of the horse I was searching for, to then estimate which year(s) he or she had raced) and then for the information I was seeking.  I'm no stranger to research, having completed a module on the LPC in Legal Research when I was in uni which required me to source information from every conceivable location, including case law and statute material (very tedious).  I also love books.  But in this day and age we should be able to access information online at the click of a mouse or the touch of a button.  It's the era we live in.  As a comparison within our sport, the USTA and Standardbred Canada websites are so much further ahead in terms of their online database development; Harness Racing Australia's website provides a search function which allows you to pull up information on any horse registered in their jurisdiction...and even when I can find the 'English' button on Le Trot's website, I can search for any race, any result and any horse that I like and see the information almost instantly (depending on my wifi connection).  Some of these sites do require a bit of time spent in order to get to grips with the layout and how to find what you're looking for, but at least the information is readily available.

Smarty says I only need to digitalise from, say, 1990 to 2005, because (1) nobody is interested in anything further back than that.  He says I (2) create work for no reason.  He says it's (3) a massive waste of time.

(1) I'm interested in pre-1990.  In the last 3 months alone I have consulted the pre-1990 record books on numerous occasions to gather information for a variety of written pieces.  I also think that the pre-1990 days are what gives our sport its history.  Smarty has at least admitted that if the facility was there to look back through records from that era, he probably would make use of it.  Read that as definitely.

(2) Yes, I do create work for myself.  But right now I'm wasting valuable working time looking for information via the longest route available, not the shortest.  As I've learnt in my current 9-5, sometimes you have to invest time in something which may initially cause delay, in order to feel the benefit further down the line.  It's a concept loosely based on 'speculate to accumulate'.

(3) To quote Thomas Jefferson: "Determine never to be idle.  No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any.  It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing."

And that's not what I class as a 'waste of time'.

Having requested the permission of the BHRC Council to pursue this project, and the help of the BHRC office to input the data, I am a little disheartened that after being advised that my idea would be put before the Council at their meeting in December for approval, I am yet to hear back.  I appreciate that in the grand scheme of things to be discussed it doesn't feature particularly highly on anyone's agenda, but remember that when busying yourself trying to resolve a major issue, you should still be able to resolve a far minor issue (especially when a capable third party is offering to do the work free of charge) rather quickly with a 'yes' or a 'no'.  Nonetheless, I advised at the time I submitted the requests to the office that regardless of the outcome of the Council decision, I would pursue the idea myself without any assistance if necessary as an electronic database would suit me personally and is an investment for myself if nobody else.  So work has begun on that.

Then there's the *shameless plug alert* BHRC & STAGBI joint awards dinner on February 25th at Daresbury Park Hotel, Warrington.  I am eternally grateful for Kirsty at the BHRC office for taking the leading role on organising this as I found it a touch overwhelming last year, which has in turn freed me up to work on the photo and video presentations and the running order of the event with Darren Owen, one of the UK's leading Thoroughbred commentators but also a fantastic ambassador for harness racing.  His level of professionalism on racedays and at non-racing events is second to none and he has a wealth of experience and knowledge to lend which I know is appreciated by all who work with him.  I'm sincerely looking forward to working alongside him at the awards event, in whatever capacity that may be.

So that's another thing I'm currently working on in my free time - photo and video compilations.  Due to the sheer number of awards on the night, most presentations only consist of photos which means the workload isn't too great.  It's actually a lot of fun putting them together, the only hard part being sourcing the original videos.  My plan is to publish the videos on my Youtube channel after the event so that people can watch and share them as a momento of their successes in the 2016 season, so watch this space!

I've also invested in a GoPro camera, something I declared as mildly ironic on my Twitter considering I don't personally participate in any extreme activities.  I'm taking my inspiration from Ms Vitale here a bit, and also Ryan Macedonio.  There's a really personal side to harness racing which doesn't shine through in results on a website; there's the people and the horses behind places, earnings and records which make up the rich tapestry of the sport.  So I'm away to start filming all of that.  A little dinky camera will make it easier for me to sneak up on unsuspecting people and then bully them into talking to me; they won't know if I have a camera hidden in my pocket ready to get brought out and shoved in their face for high brow questions such as 'do you have lucky pants you wear whilst driving?'.  I will become the master of surprise.  Or mistress...

Speaking of which (Ryan Macedonio, not pants), I've somehow only just come across Ryan's most awesomest TrotCast podcast (SUBSCRIBE SUBSCRIBE SUBSCRIBE) and I am borderline obsessed.  I LOVE finding new ways to follow racing globally so this is my favourite thing for January so far.  I downloaded as many of the previous podcasts as I could to listen to in the gym and now find myself laughing out loud in public all the time.  My favourite episode (probably just because I know the people in it) is the British and Irish invasion of Pompano Park for the Amateur Drivers tournament back in December.  Aside from the fact that I'm listening to familiar voices (whose faces I can picture), it sounds as though everyone had so much fun taking part and on more than one occasion I couldn't contain my laughter, which resulted in a few funny looks from other people in the room.  Word is Ryan is considering coming to Portmarnock for the VDM in August so I'll be keeping my eyes peeled so that I can shake this man's hand for his highly entertaining, and at times thought-provoking, work!  I'd also like to give a small shout out to Richard Haythornthwaite who, in the absence of a Scottish driver in the travelling party, told the world about Corbiewood.  It was nice to know that the band of merry men (and women) north of Hadrian's Wall had a voice Stateside!

So that's where things are at with me right now.  Last weekend was spent near Newport with Wellfield Stud's former groom, Rachel Sydenham and Scottish amateur driver Annette Wilson.  Rachel left Wellfield to take up a position as head travelling lass at Thoroughbred trainer Rob Stephen's yard, which is literally right next door to Wellfield.  The groom's accommodation is opposite the entrance to BHRC Chairman Roy Sheedy's training establishment so I ventured across the road to call in for a cuppa and a chat briefly with Roy and his father.  I was treated to (yet another) tour of the stables, in which I met his two homebred two-year-old colts, Wellfield Wizard and Wellfield Warlock, who are currently being broken in by Roy and his old man (who is well into his eighties), as well as his racehorses which are wintering well before they come back into work ready for the summer's racing.

In a week's time I will be in the south of Ireland for the road racing meeting at Skibbereen, Co Cork.  It's something I've followed avidly on social media for a number of years but never seen in the flesh, so this is an opportunity to tick something else off the bucket list.  I've already spoken to a couple of friends down there who are willing to assist in a couple of features for this 'ere blog so again, watch this space.

And before I go, just another teaser for upcoming projects - I've been working on a proposal during the winter which will hopefully bring something new and exciting to Corbiewood in the summer.  I have the support of the SHRC committee and the backing of an external sponsor, so the next phase is to get the club members (owners, trainers and drivers) on board.  I really hope I can pull this off, and if so, expect a ridiculously long write up about it on here and Harnesslink and probaby Twitter and maybe Youtube and definitely Facebook and maybe even Instagram.  Seriously, I have a social media addiction.

Anyways, time to love you and leave you.  I will be back a lot sooner next time as I'll have the maiden voyage to Skibbereen to tell you all about.

Over and out,

#1 Groom



Monday, 19 December 2016

Visiting Vincennes

This may be as good a time as any to officially announce that I have been nominated and accepted as the President Elect of STAGBI (The Standardbred and Trotting Association of Great Britain and Ireland).  It's semi-relevant to the trip to France, so bear with me on this.

Not something I was anticipating when I went to the AGM a couple of weekends ago, I must admit, but I am honoured to have been considered and ultimately elected.  When I rang my parents to tell them, my dad reminded me that only 13 years ago we as a family had no idea who or what STAGBI was.  When Smokey arrived at our home, all white with sweat and eyeballs out on stalks, and I wondered what my dad's motives were in bringing this lunatic home for his teenage daughter to ride, we hadn't set eyes on a STAGBI passport before.  It meant little to us.  It was only when Smokey was subsequently sent to the stallion that the stallion owner advised us that we should become STAGBI members.  Fast forward to 2016 and here I am, the President Elect (channelling Trump vibes, although the title is all we have in common).



Anyway, the reason this is relevant is because on the weekend of December 2nd-4th I travelled to Paris on behalf of STAGBI to attend an international weekend hosted by Le Trot (pronounced 'Le Tro'), the French governing body for trotting.  The purpose of the weekend was to celebrate the individual member countries' Trotteur Francais of the year, bring drivers from a number of the member countries together to compete against each other and to provide and receive feedback on the export and breeding programmes of Trotteur Francais within the various member countries.  Great Britain were represented by Dr Jack Dowie and Bill Green from TROTBritain, the committee who oversee the racing of Trotteur Francais in the UK, and myself from STAGBI, which is responsible for the registration and administration of all pacers and trotters in the UK.  John Foy, his wife Stacyann and son George attended to collect the TF of the Year award for Sulky Du Blequin, and John also participated in the Prix des Recontres Internationales on the Saturday afternoon.  Our nearest neighbours, Ireland, were represented by Mark Flanagan, James O'Sullivan and Nadina Ironia from the Irish Harness Racing Association ('IHRA') who are responsible for the breeding and racing elements of pacers and trotters in Ireland; Alan Richardson and Ricky Hanson attended to collect the TF of the Year award for Vichy Du Moem, and Sean Kane competed in the international race in Ireland's colours.

Firstly, I have never travelled abroad on my own before.  I've travelled the length and breadth of the UK by air, rail and road alone, but never abroad.  Secondly, my French is VERY limited.  French was one of two subjects in school that I didn't put much effort in to (along with Chemistry).  I didn't like the teachers, so at best I did the bare minimum; at worst I was a total distraction in the classroom (if I was even in the room to start with). I dropped French as soon as it stopped being a compulsory subject and focussed on German, which I enjoyed.  As a result, I headed to Paris with 'Bonjour' and 'Merci' in my tank.  It literally took me about four hours in France itself before I remembered what 'please' was in French.  I became that obnoxious British person who can't speak another language and just expects everyone to speak English all the time *cringe*.  I wish I'd at least brushed up on my German a bit, that would have been useful with the German, Austrian and Swiss delegates (whose English was superb, considering it was their second or third language.  At least I can hang on to the fact that my English is exceptional, imagine if Smarty had come with me? 'D'ya ken wit ah mean?'.  No John, nobody 'kens' what you mean.  Because 'ken' isn't a word.  It's a man's name.  Ken.  Or Kenneth.  Or Kendrick.).

So I managed to get myself from Edinburgh airport into Paris CDG via Airfrance (had to resist a Rachel from 'Friends' moment when the French air stewardess spoke to me in English with a French accent, it was all I could do not to say 'OHMYGOD I can understand you!'.  But already aware that I was going to be the obnoxious British person who couldn't speak any other language than English, I didn't want to make matters worse for myself).  From there I relied on the hotel address written on a piece of paper, which my taxi driver got me to in one piece.  He was wearing a suit, and we listened to classical music, and he didn't speak.  And there was wifi in the taxi.  I was impressed with France so far.

When I arrived at the hotel I was met by John Foy and family checking in at the same time.  They had driven across from Kent via the Eurostar; apparently it took less time to get to Joinville-le-Pont than it does to get to Tir Prince Raceway.  A friendly face upon arrival made me feel less daunted by the whole thing.

Later that evening we convened in the hotel lobby along with the delegates from all the other invited countries and were bussed to the racetrack at Vincennes for the awards dinner.  I was seated with Jack, Bill and Fraser Garrity, the Racecourse Manager at Chelmsford (which staged two televised trot races in November after a Thoroughbred meeting), as well as a group from Holland which included driver Rick Wester who was competing in the Prix de Recontres Internationales the following day, and his partner Wendy.  Wendy and I quickly struck up conversation and found out that we both liked to drink large amounts of wine.  Strong start.  I established that there are 4 main tracks in Holland, the biggest being Wolvega, which is just over an hour from the centre of Amsterdam.  This is when I realised that I could get Smarty on holiday to countries I wanted to visit in Europe if I could coincide them with racedays at harness racing tracks (like we did in Malta).

We were bussed back to the hotel at the end of the evening, which was located next to what we believed to be an Irish pub (seemed strange, in France, but I was happy to roll with it).  The sensible version of me (which doesn't exist) would have wished everyone 'good night' and headed for bed, as I had an early start the following day to sit in on the meeting between Le Trot and the member countries.  The not-so-sensible version of me (which is just me, all the time) decided to head to the Irish pub with Nadina [Ironia], Sean [Kane] and Sean's Spanish-Irish friend, Al (whose name I only found out when we were booted out of the pub at closing time).  Turns out the only Irish thing in the pub was the people I was there with.  Considering they're not always there, it's hardly an Irish pub, is it?!  Oh, but there was a Guinness sign outside.  And they served that inside.  But every pub I've ever been in in Wales serves Guinness so...yeah, a bit confused.

The next day those of us who were attending the meeting were taken back to the racetrack where we firstly watched a presentation by Le Trot on the number of TF exported to the various countries; the number of TF races staged in each country, and the number of TF bred in each country.  Interestingly, the highest number of exports in 2016 was to Malta, a country which breeds very few, if any, horses of its own due to the high population and small land area.  It surprised me though as during my visit three weeks prior to this one, I saw so many other European trotters at Marsa.  I don't know where they're hiding all of these horses!!  In 2016, Ireland staged the highest number of TF races, and is projected to stage the highest number in 2017 also.  This is mainly due to the fact that Ireland, and on a lesser scale Great Britain, have opted to import TF and move away from British-bred and other European trotters, therefore able to stage a large number of races restricted to TF (as these are essentially the only trotters in the country).

During a short break I introduced myself to the US delegate, Peter Venaglia, who was attending on behalf of Yonkers.  We spoke at length about the International Trot at Yonkers, and just before the meeting was reconvened I jokingly asked if he would consider extending an invitation to the UK in the future to compete in the race.  He didn't say 'no', and seemed quite receptive to the idea.  Obviously it's difficult to say no when somebody puts you on the spot but I'd like to think that the communication channels have been opened regarding this.  If anyone from the BHRC is reading this - I'm handing this over to you now!

The second half of the meeting featured segments from each of the countries represented in the meeting.  This was a fascinating insight into how the various TF programmes are working in different countries.  Some spoke about how money generated through racing shown on the PMU has been spent to improve infrastructure and facilities, some spoke about plans to stage meetings between neighbouring countries (Germany and Holland), and some spoke about plans going forward for increasing breeding numbers.  One country used the time to beg for a PMU day, which was a little uncomfortable to watch and perhaps not the best platform upon which to make the request, however I know from personal experience that if you can't get an answer down the correct route, sometimes you have to challenge people in an inappropriate place in order to get a response.

After the meeting we were treated to lunch, before the afternoon's racing which featured Sean and John on behalf of Ireland and Great Britain.  During the earlier races I was shown around the paddock area by Mark [Flanagan] and James [O'Sullivan], and I cannot express in words how amazing a place it is.  When I visitied Pompano I was blown away by the paddock, which is a huge barn divided into open-fronted stalls grouped by race and numbered according to numbercloths.  However, Vincennes was more like a Thoroughbred racecourse in this regard.  I've only had hands-on experience of Ffos Las in terms of racecourse stabling, but from photos I've seen from friends working within the TB industry, the comparisons between their facilities and Vincennes are very close.  Each horse has a stable; there is a pre-parade ring of sorts, which really is used mostly to cool down horses after racing, so a post-race ring I suppose; wash bays for horses inside stables and outside wash bays for cleaning sulkies.  It was like a rabbit warren of stables, and I got myself a bit lost more than once trying to find my way back to the main grandstand.  The people who spend their racedays in the paddock also have a bar by the horse-entrance to the track, which was the kinda place I could definitely have spent more time across the course of the weekend!!

In the paddock
Even their track maintenance equipment is miles better than ours!

Rather than repeat myself re the Prix des Recontres Internationales, I'll just send you to the (very short) article I wrote for Harnesslink - here.  The article also features a link to the race on the Le Trot website, which makes for good viewing.  To summarise, Sean finished fifth on the betting favourite, with France, Hungary and Holland taking first, second and third respectively.  John's horse was disqualified rounding the final bend after it galloped (automatic and immediate disqualification in France, a rule I think should be brought in here in the UK), although he fared better than Switzerland (whose horse basically refused to start and was disqualified from the beginning when throwing a tantrum and galloping) and Belgium, whose horse broke early on also.  To make matters worse for Switzerland, after the race I saw the Swiss driver crossing the line with a smashed up wheel, doing all he could not to tip out of the sulky.  When I met with him and his wife that evening in the hotel, he explained that due to being disqualified, he followed the field around at a safe distance until the race was over.  The Belgian driver did the same, however as the pair rounded the final bend the Belgian driver lost concentration and whilst taking in the view of the crowd and grandstand, veered across into the Swiss driver and smashed his cart to bits.  The trainer of the Swiss driver's horse had two older carts of his own but had borrowed this newer cart from a friend, which was then being returned to him much worse for wear than the condition he lent it in.  Good luck explaining that one...

John Foy & Sean Kane head to the paddock after the group photo

After the race, I witnessed international relations at their best.  Mark Flanagan and the Polish delegate agreed to stage two meetings between Irish and Polish drivers: one to be held in Ireland and the other to be held in Poland.  To my knowledge, the two countries have no connection but one simple conversation could bring them together to celebrate a sport that is clearly loved in both.  The moment was tinged with sadness for me though in that the UK wasn't seizing similar opportunities to build relationships with other countries, as far as I was aware at least.  I don't know if that's down to the mindset that we should sort out our own house before inviting anyone in to it, but sometimes I think you just have to go for things.  Take chances.  Carpe Diem, as they say in Latin.  Seize the day.  It was my high school's motto, and something I try to live by each and every day.  Unfortunately I have no jurisdiction to be setting up such things.  I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing, because if it had been within my remit to set up international race days with other countries, we'd have had some sort of summer in 2017!  I'd be signing us up for everything.  Life is better lived saying 'oh well' rather than 'what if'.

Saturday night back at the hotel was 'free time', and I had planned to spend it chilling out in my room with my laptop so that I could catch up on all my outstanding writing projects.  Alas, I am weak-willed and instead found myself in the bar with Mark, James and John Foy, and later out for a meal which involved lots of wine.  I bowed out at midnight because everyone was back in the not-at-all-Irish pub, and I knew if I went there I would be there until I got chucked out at closing time again.  A rare glimpse of the sensible version of me!

On Sunday we returned to Vincennes at lunch time for a buffet lunch and a day of racing.  I went exploring the huge building which was staging an indoor festival with various regional food stands.  I also met a horse owned by Jack Dowie, and the couple who train for him.  I soaked up the atmosphere in the build up to the big race - the Grand National du Trot, which I'm told is only a fraction of the atmosphere generated for the Prix d'Amerique in January.  There were so many people there, waving French flags and cheering.  It was unlike anything I have ever seen before.  The French not only know how to stage race meetings, they also know how to enjoy them.


Grand National du Trot winner, Aubrion Du Gers

Emmanuelle Morvillers, who organises these international visits and hosts them so wonderfully, advised me that STAGBI will be invited back for the Prix d'Amerique; alas I think that trip will be taken by Gwenan [Thomas] and Ryan [O'Neil].  I had hoped to attend with Smarty, who I think would really enjoy the weekend of racing, but other commitments at home at that time of year mean that we'll have to give it a miss.  It's a shame, but I know we'll definitely go in the future so I can hold on to that thought.

I'm aware that this post has jumped about and not really delved into some of the meatier issues which underly trotting and its future in the UK.  I am conscious of the fact that I am primarily pacing-minded, and do not have the experience or background knowledge required to pass comment on how things are being done.  I am even more conscious of how that lack of experience and background knowledge make me appear to others far more knowledgable than I when I make any sort of constructive criticism.  It would be fair to say that when I have made any constructive criticism previously, I have been faced with such fierce defence of the programme that I am becoming increasingly reluctant to pass comment again.  But there is more than one way to skin a cat.  If I cannot make my case heard because I am deemed not to be knowledgable enough about the subject, then I must educate myself.  I have a history of being able to research subjects thoroughly and through various means; so this is what I will do.


Monté racing is as popular as sulky racing
What Le Trot are doing all across Europe and the wider world is genius.  It is something to be marvelled at when you look into the inner workings of it.  The French are not only consummate hosts, they are entrepeneurs.  They have dominated a market across the globe and their reach continues to grow.  Any reservations I previously had about having trotters were blown out of the water by the subliminal sales techniques that Le Trot employ.  I want to be a part of that.  Obviously, life isn't as simple as that and I can't just jump on the bandwagon and buy a Trotteur Francais.  That's not to say that I never will though.  It is at least encouraging to see the larger numbers of TF coming in to the UK, with the latest batch of two year olds arriving this weekend and heading to their new homes.  The excitement from horse owners is palpable.

Now all I need to do is to close the divides which are forming between trotting men and pacing men; between the governing body and the committee which promotes the TF programme with Le Trot.  Easier said than done.  But you should know by now that I'm not one to back down from a challenge...

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Malta Racing Club

A couple of months ago I was pestering Smarty for a holiday.  Work was taking its toll and I fancied a few days away to recharge my batteries.  My first choice of destination was Berlin, for a cultural weekend, but Smarty didn't like the sound of that.  Fearing that I may not get a weekend away at all at this rate, I offered him the choice of destination.  This is what he came up with:

Malta.

It didn't take much investigating to establish that the weekend that I had highlighted as available was the weekend which featured one of the premier meetings in the Maltese racing calendar: the President's Cup Final Day.

The holiday was booked, and on November 13th we boarded a plane and headed for the sun for a four day break.  Our flight arrived in the sole airport on the island at 12:15pm, with the first race at the track scheduled for 1:15pm.  Rather than waste time trying to travel to the hotel and then back to the track, we were driven straight to Marsa Racetrack whilst our luggage was taken to the hotel.

Unbeknownst to us both, we had been dropped off at the 'back entrance'.  Not knowing any better, we wandered down the narrow street, dodging horses and sulkies walking to the track entrance, and were pointed in the direction of the entry gate by a gentleman sat in the street.  I genuinely didn't know what to expect as I handed over the €10 for us both to enter and we walked through the turnstiles.

What a beautiful track.

 

The five eighths of a mile track was banked on the bends, with two long straights.  A grandstand topped with a bar sat to the left of the gate we'd walked through, with a large flat viewpoint from which I was able to get some good photos of the race finishes.  Six bookmakers were housed underneath the grandstand, facing the winner's circle.  The on-course 'tote' was located to the right, facing the winner's circle from another direction, and past this was a second, smaller grandstand.  Towards what we finally realised was the main entrance (near the Lidl in the photo) was the third and smallest open grandstand.  The stabling area and warm up track were furthest to the left, almost hidden from sight.

With less than half an hour before the first race, the place was almost empty.  I thought perhaps racing in Malta is similar to our experience in Florida; great racing and facilities, but no crowds (I assumed it was being televised on the PMU, but found out at a later date that only 2 days per racing calendar are shown on the PMU).  Before long, the place began to fill up, and during the course of the day more and more people arrived.  By the time the big race went off, the place was full.

There were 9 races, with 120 horses spread across them.  I was surprised when looking through the programme that so many of the horses racing weren't Trotteur Francais.  I had assumed that most, if not all, of Malta's racehorses were imported from France.  There were Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Danish, German and American trotters alongside the French trotters.  The largest field of trotters was 16; the smallest was 10, which was the feature race - the President's Cup Final.  Again, I was so busy taking everything in that I didn't consider that perhaps the Maltese President would attend.

I was busy taking photos of horses warming up on the track when the crowd began to part and the President passed through, waving at everyone.

President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca (and foreground: Edwin Borg, from the Malta Racing Club, who I met at a later date in Vincennes) 
Following a lengthy presentation whereby each of the ten drivers competing in the final was presented with a momento by the President, and the national anthem was sung, the President went around the outer rail of the winner's circle chatting to the public.  Smarty and I found ourselves in the right place at the right time, and ended up talking for a short while about our love of horses, and strangely, Scottish football fans (she had just returned from a working visit to the UK, and England had beaten Scotland in the football two days earlier which resulted in some Scottish football fans behaving badly in Trafalgar Square).  We weren't expecting that!!

We hadn't had much luck betting in the earlier races, opting to support the bookmakers rather than the tote (a relic of a close history with the United Kingdom).  I chatted to a few of the bookmakers, trying to get the inside scoop on some of the runners in the big race, but to little avail.  I backed a horse called 'Ouch', a 9-year-old Swedish trotter gelding who had won his last two starts with 1'15"8 and 1'16"8 km rates respectively.  I'm not going to pretend like it was a purely educated selection - I liked his name.  I'd only managed a second placed finish out of the first five races, so my ability to read the form guide was limited.  As the bookmakers said, all the horses in this race were good, so it was even harder to select the winner.

Clearly my knowledge of trotters is still in its early days, as the eventual winner wasn't even on my radar.  Uhal Berven, an 8-year-old French Trotter (by Corot, the sire of Three Pack who raced with success in the UK) led out and made all with Rodney Gatt at the reins.  Nico Oland sat in the pocket for much of the race and looked a danger throughout, but as the field turned for home the leader wasn't for stopping and romped home as the crowds cheered.  I had never experienced such celebrations, with connections of the horse and driver in the winner's circle crying, cheering and hugging each other.  It really was a sight to see.

Down the stretch
Uhal Berven striding for home
Winning driver Rodney Gatt during his post-race interview
Uhal Berven oblivious to all the fuss!
Winning horse and driver
Shortly after the race we headed off to meet our taxi, but not before nosing through some of the private stables which surround the track, often in converted garages under tall buildings. Malta as an island is densely populated, and where Marsa Racetrack is located is particularly urban.  Makes sense - race where the people are so that they can pay to come through the gate to watch.  The downside being that there are no grass paddocks to turn horses out.  As we saw on subsequent days when exploring the island, these racehorses are turned out anywhere and everywhere in order to stretch their legs on a sunny day, including in dirt paddocks built precariously on top of buildings!  You could also pass Marsa without noticing it, but once inside it is a beautiful purpose-built arena in which to view equine athletes at peak fitness.

Almondo Rich being prepped for his race
In many ways, racing at Marsa was similar to here in the UK.  The bookmakers working alongside the tote were a reminder of the shared history between Malta and the United Kingdom.  All of the races we saw used the starting car, although in Malta this was fitted with a digital clock display which counted down the minutes and seconds to post time.  Prize money was comparable, with 'Copper' class races for €225 to the winner; 'Bronze' class races for €315 to the winner; 'Silver' class races for €360 to the winner and 'Gold' class races for €495 to the winner.  The President's Cup Final, which I would equate to our Crock of Gold Final for FFA pacers, was worth €2025 to the winner, and was classed as a 'Premier' class race.  On the two days where races are shown on the PMU, the prize money is more than this, but these races are limited to Trotteur Francais which excludes a large number of horses.

As a direct comparison, Marsa racetrack is better than any of the tracks in the UK and Ireland in terms of size and quality.  The surrounding facilities are a little worn down, but the track has been kept immaculate.  The fields are up to 16 horses, whereas the maximum number of runners in a race in the UK is 12 (at Tir Prince, and the Thoroughbred racecourses).  I also noted the aged of some of the runners, with the oldest horse at 16 years of age.  Currently the BHRC upper age limit is 14 years of age; in France it is 10.  Some of these horses did not show their age at all, which is a testament to their owners, trainers and grooms.  It appears that juvenile racing in Malta is non-existent, which is another difference between our two countries as the profile of stakes races for 2, 3 and 4 year olds continues to rise in both the UK and Ireland.

However, what harness racing boils down to, regardless of where you are, is people's passion and love for it.  It is driven by the people within it, who often compete for no financial gain in the long run.  It is driven by the horses, who are trained and raced with so much care and dedication by their connections.  It is driven by spectators looking for the thrill of competitive racing at affordable prices.  Maltese racing, at its heart, is no different to British racing.  I cannot recommend visiting this beautiful part of the world highly enough.

All photos in this blog taken by yours truly :)
Over and out,

#1 Groom (on tour)