Thursday, 23 November 2017

Meet the Dandridges

"Who are the Dandridges?", I hear you ask.

I'll tell you who they are.  They are a rare breed of people; people who encountered harness racing one day.  And then kept coming back.  Time and time again.  Just to watch.  Not to take part, but just to watch.  In a sport which is forced to admit that it caters primarily for those who compete, what made Melanie and David Dandridge decide to come back, when time allows, to watch?  What do we need to do as a sport to get more people like this through the gates at tracks?

Well, I asked them.

Tell us a bit about you both.
Right OK here goes...David has worked on farms and previously ran his own contracting business, he has driven lorries and now drives buses.  I grew up on a farm in a rented cottage, my parents weren't farmers but I was hooked on the lifestyle.  I worked with horses doing stud work and in hand showing and I now work in a school.

We trundle around the country at every chance we get from Musselburgh to Allensmore; Tregaron, Lampeter, Boughrood, Almeley,York, Presteigne and Aberwystwyth; the two of us in our car which we call 'Doonbeg' with a little harness racing sticker on the back!

How did you first come across harness racing?
We first came across the sport whilst visiting relations in Kinmel Bay.  We saw Tir Prince and my eyes lit up; I was intrigued but sadly it was the wrong time of year and the racing wasn't on.  A year later in 1998 we moved to North Wales from Buckinghamshire with our (then) two young sons and I kept badgering David to take us to Tir Prince.

We went to the odd meeting and enjoyed it and then in 2002 we went to Tregaron and we were hooked!

What is it about the sport that attracts you to keep coming back?
The racing is fantastic; it's interesting, we like the people and the different tracks.  We like looking at the breeding although we are no experts but find this interesting.  We don't bet just purely enjoy the racing.

As you are not connected directly to anyone involved in the sport, what do you think could be done to make it more 'user-friendly'?
I think the grass tracks are more of a niche market so only people connected in the sport in some way seem to go, whereas at the cinder tracks [Tir Prince, York etc.] it seems to be more public-enticing.  Tir Prince for example attracts the holiday makers because its location helps.  I think most people want the race package of betting, drinking, making it a social event, and harness racing is a little low key for them and perhaps not glamorous enough.  People want more for the children to do also.

What do you think is the main thing holding the sport back from attracting new spectators, like yourselves, who do not wish to compete?
We think what holds the sport back is a lack of marketing.  The sport is not on TV and people don't know what it is.  I tell someone we're going to watch the harness racing and they ask 'what's that?' or 'is that what the gypsies do on the roads?'.  The lack of advertising is a major thing, even getting it out there by taking the sport to agricultural shows, or even getting it on TV in some way.

What have been the biggest challenges you have encountered in following the sport? 
The weather is the probably the biggest challenge, as it results in meetings being cancelled.  We work so our days off and holidays are based around the sport, cancellations obviously affect this.  Also finding some tracks can be difficult as the signposting is not always good or directions are unclear so we play 'follow that lorry'!

If you could change one thing about the sport, what would it be?
I wouldn't change anything about the sport, we are hooked and love it the way it is!

That said, it would be good to have the paddock easier to look at the horses so that the general public can look before the races at the horses parading up close.  The current impression given is it's a poor man's sport.

What do you think promoters/the governing body need to do to attract more people like yourselves?
A magazine would be good or a page in Horse & Hound, this might change the image the majority of people have about the sport.  Get it in the media with some articles about owners, trainers, tracks, horses etc.

Why not incorporate a harness race at more Thoroughbred racing venues?

Also maybe an app which has the horses, trainers and drivers on it?

How easy do you find the promotional material to access in order to find out more about upcoming fixtures?
We find it easy finding out about upcoming fixtures etc. as we go on various websites so it's no problem for us but before we had Facebook a year ago it was not easy to know if a meeting was cancelled or changed so we had to rely on what was announced at meetings or just turn up and hope for the best.

Do you think that negativity on social media has a damaging effect on the sport?  Or is fair to allow participants to voice their concerns on a public forum?
Everyone has a right to their opinions, I don't think it puts people off the sport, we read them and find it interesting.  We are also rally fans and you get positives and negatives on their sites in exactly the same way.  I don't think it matters or affects the sport at all.

If you've been Thoroughbred or greyhound racing, what are the differences and similarities?
We have never been greyhound racing, it doesn't appeal to us and even though Chester Racecourse is not far from us it's too busy and we don't fancy it at all.  We've been to point to points but for us you can't top harness racing.

Do you find the cost of going harness racing reasonable/value for money/too expensive?
The cost of racing is good; children go free and 10+ races for £10 works out at a pound a race or less so it's good value on that front.

Would you consider purchasing a horse and becoming owners?
We really would love a horse and would take great pleasure in that.

As you are new into the sport, would a syndicate or shares in a purposely-created Owners Club be the best way in?
That is a brilliant idea because on a budget you know there are no scary extras which are associated with horses.

What is harness racing in the UK's unique selling point?  How do you think it can promote itself in the open market for family attractions?
The unique selling point would be the drivers on sulkies and the excitement and closeness of the horses to the start car.  Also the speed the horses pass the crowd at.  The only way to draw in Joe Public is by having stuff for children to do.

As members of the general public, what elements would you change to make the experience of the spectator better? Pre-race interviews with drivers/trainers perhaps?
The interview thing is good but sometimes the PA systems aren't so good and you can't hear very well. Tir Prince is bad for that.  But a lot of my friends go to Chester Racecourse and really they go for the drinking, dressing up, socialising and betting; they pick horses by their names and are not really into the horse side of it or knowing who the jockeys are. 

That said, it would be great to meet horses and learn more about the trainers, drivers etc. and a demonstration on tacking a horse up, more interaction with the people and horses in the sport.  My work colleagues wouldn't be impressed going to watch in a field for example as they like the whole package associated with racing.  I have spoken to people who have come to watch for the first time and they don't seem to stay for the whole event but leave quite early so I think more variety and interaction may keep people there.

Thank you Melanie and David for taking the time to answer more than a few questions, and for putting so much thought and effort into your answers.

I think they have raised some interesting topics for further discussion between those within the sport who have the ability to make changes.  I urge anybody in a position to bring about positive change to consider what part the general public has to play in the furtherance of our beloved sport - the time has come for us to recognise that they are our target audience and not a forgotten byproduct.

Over and out,

#1 Groom 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

2017 Season: Week 25 - Corbiewood wraps up the season

Before I dive into the season closer at good ol' Corbiewood, I must dedicate this entire post to a woman who has given me HELL for the past few weeks for the simple reason that I had not, at each time of meeting, written a lengthy post about the success of her mare, Tarawood Joy, at what turned out to be the final meeting of the 2017 season.

This one's for you, Noreen.  Ahhh, what's the story?!

With the scheduled final fixture at York on the Saturday cancelled due to a lack of entries, Corbiewood was a stand alone meeting with a bumper entry.  The nine-race card kicked off with Peter McAllister's Mooreside Watson winning the first low grade heat in the hands of my favourite dancing driver, Willie 'WD40' Drysdale (disclaimer: it's only me that calls him WD40, but as with this blog, I'm hoping it takes off).  Tarawood Joy, who I may not have already mentioned belongs to Noreen Bennett (and her husband, Charlie), won the second by a nose from the popular Yokalady.  Corbiewood favourite, K And M Redpandana, more easily known as 'Matt', took the third for Team Cassells, having won the week before.

Evenwood Coolsting recorded his fifth win of the season when winning the first of the two high grade heats, with a really gutsy performance from one of my favourite mares in the entire country, Red Emerald, to finish second and well clear of the field.  Another wonderful mare, Greentree Serenity, won the second of the two heats in an impressive 2.02.28 to give driver Andrew Cairns his second win of the day.

The Evenwood breeding came to the fore again, with the Impractical Jokers-inspired LARRY (aka Evenwood Get Real) scoring his first career win on his second start for new connections, Karen and Mark Kennedy.  Cue a lot of OTT shouting on the stable bend from Karen and me...that's why Larry seemed such an appropriate name!

Andrew Cairns didn't spend long out of the winner's circle (and neither in fact did I, having been in for a photo with both Greentree Serenity and Evenwood Get Real), when partnering GDs Hazzard in the novice event.  If I thought Karen and me could shout, I had to think again when I heard owner Gerry Thomson cheering her boy home.  He was unfortunately involved in an unsavoury incident at York the week before and there were concerns from the camp that he would carry that in his mind going into his next race, but fortunately that was not the case and he bounced back in style to win by 7 lengths in 2.05.31.  Cue another photo op for this writer.

By this point Andrew Cairns may as well have started laying foundations for a new house in the winner's circle, as he wasn't long in heading straight back into it with Noreen Bennett's Tarawood Joy, who held off a strong challenge from Yokalady to win the Watson Bell Memorial Trophy Final.  Here come the girls and all that (both winner and runner up are mares, and we all know how I feel about mares winning in mixed company).

In the LPD Demolition Final, it was Indie Hanover who came to the fore to win for driver Richard Haythornthwaite who had borderline begged his parents (trainer Teresa and driver Alan) to keep going one more week to be there for this particular meeting.  The winner of his heat, Evenwood Coolsting, finished second, with James Brown (partnered by our very own Jockey) in third.

Incidentally, at the beginning of the meeting as I was running around trying to hand out photos to people who had ordered them after York, I took a call from someone with an American accent asking what time the racing would finish that day.  I thought no more of it until, during the course of the day's racing, I spotted four strange faces wandering around the bar.  Fuelled by a bottle of Bud, I struck up conversation just before the penultimate race and found out that they were in fact the people who had called me earlier in the day.  They were staying in Edinburgh and had been collected by a taxi driver who had recommended visiting Corbiewood as something different to do.  Take a bow, Brian 'Nova' Kilgannon, for this sterling PR work!

Hailing from Colorado, they had not experienced harness racing before, so this was really an interesting introduction to the sport.  In the absence of the sponsors of the final race, Karen [Kennedy] and I arranged for them to go into the winner's circle and present the trophy to Team Haythornthwaite.  That is the kind of personal experience we can guarantee at good old Corbiewood!!

Guests from Colorado present the trophy to connections of Indie Hanover
And I managed a selfie with our new American friends!
Little did we know that this would be Corbiewood's final meeting of the season, and indeed the season closer in the UK, as entries were short of the required number to stage a meeting on Sunday 22nd October.  As sad as that may seem, for me the season finished on a real high, as I haven't laughed so much or cheered so loud or run around so madly in a very long time.  I was exhausted when it was over and my face ached from smiling too much but it was SO. MUCH. FUN.

And that's what this sport is.  Underneath all the bickering and in-fighting and politics and attempts to bring about professionalism (that may or may not work), what lies at the heart of this sport is that it is fun.

I'm not going to go on some teary-eyed ramble about why I love it so much because, after 3 years of writing this (potentially) pointless blog, it should be pretty clear now why.  But after just one afternoon of racing, on a cold Sunday afternoon in central Scotland, I can tell you it's because of the Noreen Bennett's and the Gerry Thomson's and the Karen Kennedy's and the Marian Clark's and the four people from Colorado who have no idea what's going on but suddenly have a trophy thrust into their hands to give to 3 total strangers whilst someone takes their photo and every weekend from May to October, in every corner of this little island we live on, this happens and no matter how tired I am from travelling up and down the country, I want to see as much of that as I can.

Roll on 2018!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 16 November 2017

York & Brightwells Sales 2017

Camden Stud Standardbred Sale @ York Harness Raceway


Brightwells Standardbred Sale @ Builth Wells

Lot HORSE Price Buyer
(NS = Not sold, NF = Not forward)
11 LADY ELLA 200 P Davies
12 SPRINT AHEAD (USA) 1000 A Jones
13 VOCIFEROUS 1300 K Young
14 BRYWINS VELVET 2600 E Wozencroft
15 MYSTIC RIVER 3200 C Wadhams
28 CHECK ON TOM 800 T Davies
29 YSTWYTH VALLEY 800 J Duggan
31 OAKWOOD CISCO 600 L Gething
32 ANNIEJOAN 1000 J Wright
33 PRUDHHOE BAY 3000 R Evans
34 SAUNDERS MACH 3 2000 M Bevan
35 AYR SUPERIOR 600 J Wright
41 CHECK ON DANCER 1200 B Timmins
45 MAHOGANY ABBY 1800 P Manning
46 MAHOGANY AMBER 1300 C Wakefield
47 MAHOGANY ASH 2400 P Anderson
49 OAKWOOD MAESTRO 14000 G Power
50 OAKWOOD IN IT TO WIN IT 10000 A Flower
51 OAKWOOD STARCAM 28000 Meadowbranch Stud
52 RHYDS DRAGONFLY 13000 C Fletcher
53 RHYDS SEEANDBESEEN 16000 C Fletcher
56 STATESIDE ICON 35000 J Foody
60 CHINATOWN BELLE 1050 J Connors
61 AYR ELEGANCE 15000 A Dickinson
62 AYR VICTORIA 3100 W Grievson
66 OAKWOOD COSMO 7000 M Walsh
68 RHYDS SALSA 7500 E Joyce
70 STATESIDE VOGUE 10000 G Power
71 STATESIDE PIN UP 6200 G Dowse
73 BARLEY MO 2000 B Nicholson
79 CARAMASARA 1900 W Grievson
86 REAL YANKEE 2000 T Thomas

At York, from 52 entries there were 49 sale lots forward.  Of these, 24 were sold through the ring.  The total sale value came to £135,350 with an overall average of £5640.  In the yearling section, there were 28 entries with 19 sold for a total of £124,550 making a yearling average of £6555.

In 2016, 24 horses were presented for sale; 20 were sold.  The total sale value was £116,400.  The average price across all horses forward was £4850.  The total sale value of the yearlings was £111,650.  The average yearling price was £5,876.  Therefore the averages in 2017 are higher than those from 2016, showing a continued increase in the value of horses sold at the Camden Stud Sale.

At Builth, from 60 entries there were 55 sale lots forward.  Of these, 47  were sold through the ring (78% sold).  The total sale value came to £249,150 with an overall average of £5301.  In the yearling section there were 41 entries with 33 sold for a total of £229,400 making a yearling average of £6951.50.

In 2016, 51 horses were presented for sale; 44 were sold.  The total sale value was £254,490.  The average price across all horses forward was £5784.  The total sale value of the yearlings was £226,250.  The average yearling price was £7542.  The averages in 2017 are slightly higher for the whole sale (with some of the broodmares selling for very strong money) however the total value of yearlings sold and the yearling average has decreased.

One interesting thing to note was the purchases from the leading owners for the past two seasons (Claire Fletcher, 2016 and Raymond Huschka, 2017).  In previous years although both owners have purchased from UK sales, they have also ventured across the Atlantic to purchase at Harrisburg.  At York, the Huschkas purchased the two highest priced yearlings for the Laidler team (Horatio Camden and Christy Camden, totalling £43,000), whereas at Builth, Claire & Shane Fletcher purchased two colts from Rhyds Stud (Rhyds Dragonfly and Rhyds Seeandbeseen, totalling £29,000).  Neither camp purchased from the American sales this year.

I personally view this as a MASSIVE thumbs up for British breeding at the moment.  Whilst Camden Stud and Rhyds Stud continue to record strong sales (with Rhyds Stud offering their first crop of new stallion See And Ski's yearlings - which appeared to be well received), Oakwood Stud, Ayr Standardbreds and Stateside also recorded good sales prices, with Stateside Icon topping the sale at Builth (£35,000) and Oakwood Starcam (£28,000) being the highest priced filly sold at Builth.

We sold Cliff (Crosshill Costa) at York and he came straight back up the M74 to Stirling with Sandy Cassells - great news for me as Sandy's daughter Hayley sends me regular photo updates of his education and he has settled in perfectly!  We avoided any accidental purchases and after last year's bonanza spending from my dad, he also avoided buying any more horses!  He can wait patiently for his Hasty Hall foal out of Frisco Frisk (Rogue Hall), and I'm waiting rather impatiently for my Hasty Hall out of Vain In Spain (Artsplace) and my Arts Conquest out of Coalford Tracey (Coalford Laag). Can't it be April already?!

With sales season now over, I can start looking forward to awards season (arguably my favourite time of the year!!).

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

2017 Season: Week 24 - York Sale Day

Extract taken from #1 Scottish Groom, 2017 Season: Week 18 - Tregaron:

"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*"

I spoke to Darren at Corbiewood on the Sunday of the Murdock Weekend regarding the above conversation and left the ball firmly in his court.  On a day marred with incidents both during the sale itself and the racing, when twelve-year-old Stephen Lees stepped up to the mic to call the three-runner Northern Trading Ltd Novice Pace, I went into a bit of a meltdown.  I wasn't the only one, as little Stevie's sister's boyfriend, John, desperately tried to fire his phone up quick enough to record it (as Kellie wasn't there).  A flat battery sent him into a panic, but thankfully Marcia Thompson (off of Equine Products UK, who basically keeps giving me free hats and her own coat to wear because I don't dress appropriately for the weather) was on hand to film the commentary (and thus miss the race as she stood with her back to the track facing the commentary box).  You can watch the video here:

It's one thing sitting in the comfort of your own home in front of your close family commentating on videos you have watched over and over, but it's something else altogether commentating on a live race in front of a large crowd in a new environment.  A three horse race can be very difficult to make sound interesting (particularly when, as in this case, one horse dominates a race as Springhill Calaburn did) but Stephen did a fantastic job and the round of applause he got at the end was thoroughly deserved.  I genuinely think he can go far if he sticks at it, because he's good already.  And there are a lot of people rooting for him, because he is one of us.

Twelve-year-old Stephen Lees Jr in the commentary box at York Harness Raceway
I don't wish to detract from the racing and the achievements of those who participated and won, however this was the highlight of my day by a mile.  Unfortunately during the course of the afternoon there were multiple incidents which left a bad taste for those who stayed after the (eventful) sale into the afternoon's racing.  I'm not going to dwell on them.  Suffice it to say that there was a distinct lack of organisation running throughout the entire day and after the penultimate race (when pacing fans began to leave) I was bombarded with connections of horses searching for rugs, trophies, rosettes, prize money and indeed, the hard-to-miss (except on this occasion) 'Racing Manager'.

Anyway, here are my noteworthy performances from the racing:

Cassius Clay - our boy clocked a PB of 2.00.6 when finishing second to the electric Coalford Mystery who followed up on his win at Wolverhampton with a 1.59.7 performance in the Daniel Welling Memorial.  This turned out to be Cassius' last run of the year as the Gaffer swanned off on holiday to Salou the following week and we weren't allowed to race him at Corbiewood in his absence.  Booooo.  He'll hopefully be back next year for some more fun (and hopefully more firsts than seconds!).

 Coalford Mystery - as above.


Plan B - ran a stormer to return to winning ways after finishing second the week before at Wolverhampton, however owner Jean Fell was absent as her and the family were at the Horse of the Year Show, so it was a depleted turnout in the winner's circle but at least this time the gelding was on his best behaviour to pose for the camera!

Anna Diem - this gorgeous chestnut mare was trained by her owner Emyr Edwards in the earlier part of the season before moving to trainer/driver Mike Evans' yard solely in order to race in this event, having not raced since 2014 (she is not eligible for the Trotteur Francais races staged by Trot Britain so there are very few racing opportunities for her).  She made the effort worthwhile for connections when winning the BHRC Prakas in style.

T'es Trop Foot - another trotter who impressed when winning the George Button Snr Challenge trophy, making it three wins on the bounce on three different surfaces (grass at Almeley, tapeta at Wolverhampton and hard at York).  Stablemate Sun Gahn finished second so I had both boys in the winner's circle to celebrate the connections' 1-2 in the race!

Starzapan - I love a mares race and I particularly love a STAGBI Future Broodmares race, and this one did not disappoint!  Having finished second in the mares race the week previous to Shades Of Grey, Starzapan went one better to record her lifetime mark of 2.00.7, bearing in mind that she has rarely left Scotland, with this being her first run on a hard track other than Corbiewood.  I was delighted for connections, Trackside Racing Stables, but particularly the First Lady of Corbiewood, Mig MacKenzie (mother of owner, Ally MacKenzie) who grabbed my arm on the way out of the winner's circle and declared that she was so happy she didn't know what to do!  That's what racing does to people!

Ontop Shouder Cuda - having owned his dam, Orders (Real Desire) for a short time, I have always had a soft spot for this horse and he did not disappoint when clocking 1.59.6 to beat superstar 4YO and joint Crock of Gold winner Miraculous by a neck to take the Camden Daniel Top Class Pace.

One more week of racing to go, with the scheduled penultimate fixture at Corbiewood on Sunday 15th October becoming the final fixture due to a lack of entries on the 22nd.  I missed the meeting the day after the sale due to a lack of enthusiasm (brought on by the tiredness of a 4am start to get to York, and not getting home until 11pm - I think I can be forgiven for that!).

The sale write up will feature in a joint post alongside the Brightwells sales results in order that a comparison can be easily drawn between the stats from both sales (including comparisons with last year's sales also).

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Friday, 3 November 2017

2017 Season: Week 23 - Wolverhampton Charity Meeting

That's right eagle-eyed viewers, you will have spotted that I have skipped straight from week 21 (Murdock Weekend) to week 23 (Wolverhampton).  That is because week 22 was meant to feature a fixture at Tir Prince on the Saturday night (including the British Pacing Classic for aged pacers) and a meeting at Corbiewood on the Sunday.

Only, Tir Prince was called off on the Friday before the Murdock Weekend (bit of a sore point amongst some; we had intended to take Cassius down had he made it to Grade 1 during the weekend, which he did, but I won't lose sleep over the mammoth round trip in the lorry, no sir-ee) and despite several people's best attempts, the British Pacing Classic was abandoned rather than moved to Corbiewood (even though CW was the only other track to tender originally for the race, and also the only other hard track staging a meeting on the weekend of the scheduled race at Tir Prince).  Word was there were only 2 entries for the event at Tir Prince and they were happy to get their money back rather than come to Corbiewood to race.  Their loss.

So in reality, the only point of interest from the entire weekend was that 7 of the 8 winners (of mixed races) at Corbiewood on the 24th September were mares (Crown Royal, Thornton Bronte, Dynamic Ace, San Diego, Lady Mary, ATM, Sureamsomething).  In the only race won by a gelding, a mare (Yokalady) was second.  Four of the aforementioned eight mares were runners in the Oakwood Stud Mares Pacing Series which was deemed a huge success (not just by me), and I found these results encouraging for potential entrants in 2018 (when I hope to organise the series again).

Fast forward six days and Corbiewood broke with tradition to run on Saturday 30th September to allow Wolverhampton a clear date on the Sunday.  A quick shout out for Rab 'Ranter' Wilson driving I Live To Party to victory, with his other horse Crown Royal (driven by Brian Gilvear) finishing second.  A casual two-horses-in-the-winner's-circle occurred thereafter.


This was a charity meeting to raise money for Leukaemia Research and St James' Hospital Leeds, a cause close to all of our hearts as Jacqueline Gill (née Wilson, daughter of the aforementioned 'Ranter') was treated for the disease and has now, thankfully, been given the all-clear.  I was asked to be the official photographer, which I clearly didn't think through as it was a 5 hour drive there, a 5 hour drive back, and there were 15 races in between.  Suffice it to say that I was pretty tired at work on the Monday!

Jacqueline Gill and post-race interviewer Thomas Bennett at Wolverhampton
First of all I have to say a MASSIVE thank you to Chloe Wakefield for her organisation skills in the winner's circle; I have been lumped with the task (without properly being asked) of handing out rosettes at York numerous times this season as I am already in the winner's circle waiting to take photos, however when I saw the sheer size of the trophy table at Wolverhampton (rosettes, trophies, sashes, flowers) I didn't know how I was going to manage (having volunteered to help the organisers).  Fortunately for me, Chloe had been asked to do the job and she did it with a huge smile on her face all day; completely in control of what prizes were for what races and who they were going to throughout the entire day (which meant I was free to take far too many photos of everyone!)

Chloe (right) with winning groom Abbie Cairns after race 4
So...highlights.  You know there are going to be a fair few in amongst 15 races.  First of all, the saddle race which kicked off the day.  Predictable? Yes; Enjoyable? Also yes.  I'm a big fan of John Barley and I know the trainer and jockey both very well.  Plus my brother was in the winner's photo, after the owners and me all shouted at him to stop hiding on the sidelines!

Charlie Price & Caenwood Dafydd parading in the paddock ahead of Lee Price & John Barley, and Lauren Moran & Ladyford Lad
Ladyford Lad (aka Gilbert) smiling for the camera as he heads to the start
John Barley an easy winner of the saddle race
Cardigan Flash Man followed up on his two wins the previous weekend at Corbiewood with another convincing win in the second race, which seemed to lift owner Alf Swinbank's hangover marginally when he entered the winner's circle.  This was the first of three consecutive driving wins for Andrew Cairns, who partnered the trotter Bora Bora De Seg in the Silver Le Trot and the Bousfield family's Genetic in the Maiden for a quick treble.

Jaimie Davies and Quality Art won the fifth, in a highly competitive and wide open affair.  Next up was the super grey mare, Shades Of Grey, making her third career visit to the winner's circle at Wolverhampton when taking the STAGBI Future Broodmares race in a close finish from the Scottish mare, Starzapan.

Shades Of Grey powering away at the start with James Haythornthwaite at the reins
Ghengis Pride returned to the winner's circle for the fourth time this season with driver Alan Haythornthwaite quick to follow son James' example in the previous race; other son Richard wasn't long in joining the party when winning the next race on 3YO trotter Emirat Du Levant, making it three different Haythornthwaite wins in as many races.

Steve Lees started his run of winners in the latter part of the day, kicking things off with a win on board Millstream Stud's Rhyds Merlin in the ninth.  Steward Bob Lee had spent much of the day being shouted at by me, with the line 'BOB ARE YOU IN OR OUT?' being used on more than one occasion as he dithered in the middle of a photo opportunity with his back to the camera congratulating connections.  On this occasion he was most definitely IN, being mildly accosted by Stevie in the process!

Millstream Stud and connections celebrate victory

The two-horse 3YO race between colt Rhyds Rock Star and filly Greenhilldebateable was, as expected, won by the former and was his tenth win of the season setting him on course (in my opinion) to be voted BHRC 3YO Colt of the Year.  This was organisers Shane and Claire Fletcher's second winner of the day and thoroughly deserved for two people who support race tracks up and down the country, as well as work tirelessly to get the event at Wolverhampton off the ground each year.

Coalford Mystery, a former Scottish-trained horse with the unfortunate record of taking 22 runs to win his first race, surprised those who knew him in his previous home to romp to victory in one of the easiest wins of the day in the Novice with Stevie Lees on board.  Arguably the only horse who could be deemed to have won easier would be the winner of the C Class Drivers race, Ring of Fire, in the hands of teenager Joel Richards who was escalated to B Class status after this win.  He later remarked that he couldn't hold the horse in the closing stages of the race, and the 4YO son of Doonbeg was indeed a VERY impressive winner with an electric turn of foot passing the stands.

Joel Richards & Ring Of Fire win the C Class Drivers Pace
Joel's mum, Debra, collecting the flowers
The three-horse Battle of the Big Guns was unsurprisingly won by superstar 4YO Miraculous, fresh off the back of his Crock of Gold victory at Tir Prince.  Tarawood Messi put in a strong performance to finish second ahead of Ayr Majesty.

Miraculous heading to victory...again!
The gorgeous roan (and runner up) Tarawood Messi
The penultimate race saw a fourth winner for offspring of Doonbeg when Lakeside Paddy came home in front for David Bevan, trainer of saddle race winner John Barley (also by Doonbeg).  And the final race of the evening, under the floodlights, gave Stevie Lees his third winner on the day when T'es Trop Foot provided Millstream Stud with their second winner in the Gold Le Trot.  This was probably my favourite winner of the day simply because as the field turned for home with 2 furlongs to go, the supporters of the winner erupted into cheers and they kept it up the full way to the finish.  It's hard not to get caught up in that kind of emotion!

Connections of T'es Trop Foot celebrate victory in the final race
At the end of proceedings, Andrew Cairns and Steve Lees were tied for leading driver, with 3 wins and a second apiece.  Bob Lee (who loves a photo opportunity) presented Andrew and Steve's son, Stephen, with the trophy, which Andrew let Stephen keep (at least until the start of next season!).

All in, the auction which was staged between races 7 and 8 raised just shy of £10,000 which will be added to the funds raised by Jacqueline's friends who have run numerous half marathons this summer (raising £4000 in the process).  I think that is a phenomenal figure and something which the BHRC should ensure is publicised by the receiving organisations.  Harness racing is the subject of many misconceptions in the wider public, but when it comes to giving, as demonstrated when raising funds for the Great North Air Ambulance after driver Logan Fowler smashed his hip in an accident at Appleby, or for the family of Peter Wallace to purchase mobile defibrillators for use at harness racing tracks, harness fans are second to none at it.

Jacqueline Gill has also asked that I mention how much she appreciates everyone's love and support during what has been a very difficult time for her and her family and friends, and a truly heartfelt THANK YOU to you all.

Well I say, 'here's to you Jac!'

Well done to all involved on a very successful event!

Over and out,

#1 Groom

P.s. unless you hadn't figured, what with me being the official photographer, all of the photos in this particular post are my own!

2017 Season: Week 21 - Murdock Weekend @ Corbiewood

It is entirely appropriate to be revisiting a meeting which was staged over a month ago.

Or at least, it is in my world, where I am in charge.

As with the quiet abandonment of my Harnesslink reports mid-season, this blog could have wound up for the season without much notice.  And as much as that would have suited me, as short on time now as I ever was (what with the responsibilities of home ownership added to the never-ending list of things to deal with), it simply wouldn't be fair.

We all know how much Big Burd loves fairness in the world, and to wrap this up on the sly by simply ceasing to post about the remaining fixtures of the season would be to serve an injustice upon those who celebrated success, worked hard and for one reason or another, put a smile on my face in the closing weeks of the season.

On we must march, therefore, into the seasonal highlight at Corbiewood: The Murdock Weekend.

In every standard year (classing last year's golden anniversary as an exception), the Murdock Weekend is Corbiewood's sole two-day fixture (I'm not referring to 'back in the day', when it was 'Musselburgh week' and you 'raced for 7 days straight and everyone was so drunk they couldn't remember anything and oh how we all wish it was like that again' - move on people, live in the present before it becomes the past and all).  The Saturday low grade handicap this year was for the Bob Kennedy Memorial, sponsored by the Kennedy family (who are the loveliest of people), with the Sunday high grade handicap being the Joe Murdock Memorial sponsored by, you guessed it, the Murdock family, which includes my former life coach (the artist formerly known as 'King of the Tubes').

Full results for the Saturday with links to the videos can be found on the SHRC website on the following link.  Personal highlights for me, aside from meeting my friend Netty's significant other for the first time and scaring him senseless over the course of the afternoon, were Dougie McLean's Yokalady winning the second heat of the Bob Kennedy Memorial handicap on her first start for new trainer John Kemp (and other than her unplaced run in the final the same day, she went on to be placed in every other start at Corbiewood until the end of the season on 15th October) and Cardigan Flash Man winning heat and final for Alf and Joy Swinbank.  The 4YO son of Doonbeg has had a long season running in all corners of the country, but has been consistent throughout with multiple wins to his name.  Also credit to Robhall who won the Dark Rum FFA in a time of 2.01.87, which I believe to be the season record at the track (more on Robhall to follow on a seasonal roundup post, as he is now being made the scapegoat for what some believe to be a flawed framing system at Corbiewood; personally I like to see the horse winning as he is one of Scotland's finest).

Cardigan Flashman winning the Bob Kennedy Memorial Final with Richard Haythornthwaite (Bill Cardno photo)

Onto Sunday, and you can find the full race results and links to the videos here.  I was a touch delicate after a few alcohol beverages the night before but had to be sharp as we had two runners from our stables.  I was (thankfully) ably assisted by Samantha, the Jockey's daughter, as the Gaffer was absent and Smarty is too busy being a bookie or something to help.  Ace didn't run so good (so we made the decision to turn her away for the year when we got home), however big old Cassius Clay ran a stormer to record our FIRST (and as it turned out, only) win of the season.  Breaking stride momentarily at the start, which is not like him at all, he sat two wide for a large portion of the race which might have looked a little foolhardy to some spectators, however Cassius is a big rolling horse who takes time to get up to fifth gear (and doesn't appreciate the pace being slowed down - which means the Jockey has been told numerous times to ignore his basic instinct to jack the pace when in front).

The victory was that little bit sweeter for two reasons; one, Darren Owen was present to call the race (personal goal of mine); and two, the Jockey's family were also there.  Along with his youngest daughter (and my chief helper) Samantha, was his partner Mary, his eldest daughter Nicky, her husband Billy and their son Lewis.

Cassius Clay heading to victory with The Jockey (Bill Cardno photo)

Celebrating with family and friends
Samantha and her new favourite boy!
My other highlight of the day was seeing No Brakes win heat and final of the Joe Murdock Memorial Handicap.  This was a massive achievement for a 3YO in aged company and came off the back of some tremendous performances all season to the delight of owners Bob and Linda Thomson.  Winning the £4000 final pushed No Brakes well clear at the top of the earnings table at the track, with him finishing the season on £5,200 at Corbiewood alone (not taking into consideration his multiple successes across Wales and England).

No Brakes & Grant Cullen win the Joe Murdock Memorial Final (Bill Cardno photo)
Well done to all winners over the course of the weekend; also special thanks to the following people who made Saturday night (and indeed the entire weekend) so much fun:

Both my former and current life coaches - King of the Tubes and West End Cod
Lisa 'Ladyford Lad' Farelly & Karen 'Evenwood Ruthless' Kennedy (although no thanks for the cross-country hike to the pub!)
Darren Keegan (for the shots)
Hayley, Rachael & Netty
Jonjo McMeekin - for giving me one dance seeing as I was no longer top bidder for the meal with him!
Abbie Cairns - for listening to my advice about boys with a straight face

Over and out,

#1 Groom

Thursday, 12 October 2017

2017 Season: Week 20 - Crock of Gold Night @ Tir Prince

I am aware that I have now let so much time pass that the epic-ness of the 2017 Crock of Gold has all but worn off, but I have to revisit it for the simple reason that IT WAS EPIC.

I managed to scramble around the day before and the morning of the event to put together a small something for one of the UK's leading harness horses over the past 20+ years: Stoneriggs Mystery.  In it I made reference to the potential fairytale ending to his illustrious career should he win the Crock of Gold for the third time on his final career start, and the Lord only knows how much I was willing him on that night.

Smarty, George [Carson] and I had travelled down to Tir Prince with two horses to race - Crosshill Ace in the BHRC 3YO Fillies Oaks over 1.5 miles, and Valentine Camden in the Low Grade OPH.  I knew Ace wasn't going to suit the trip and she proved me right when finishing a well-beaten fourth.  A huge WELL DONE to the connections of Greenhilldebateable, and to the filly herself who has finally joined the open handicap ranks after the win in the Oaks wiped away her 'Novice' status.  She must have been one of the richest novices in the country's history, with earnings of the guts of £12,000 against her name before the race.  A competitive prospect for the 2018 season.

'Val' was a victim of racing luck, and ran well to finish fifth in somewhat of a bunch finish.  It was hoped the run on the bigger track would bring him on for his return to Corbiewood, however to date he's only managed one placed run and I've been told the stable has been finished up for the year.

We've been going racing long enough to not let something like our horses failing to pick up rosettes dampen the evening so once both horses were settled back on the box, we were able to wander over to the main part of the track to watch the penultimate race of the night: Crock of Gold.

Before I talk you through it, blow-by-blow, I must make one quick point (which I have sent by email to the BHRC office for dispersal to Council members and the promoter in question).  There is insufficient lighting in the paddock area at Tir Prince.  This is applicable in fact to all race tracks, however Tir Prince is so affected due to its nighttime fixtures in the latter part of the season when the nights are drawing in.  Whilst we were able to tack/untack/wash Ace in half light (race 5/10), by the time Val raced (race 7/10) we were forced to use torches on our phones to tack/untack/wash him.  I did see people wearing headtorches of their own accord and cursed myself for not thinking to bring mine (I will the next time I'm racing there in September), however for the purposes of insurance and health & safety, relying on people bringing their own lighting equipment is not sufficient.  The floodlights from the track only exacerbated the situation by casting dark shadows on the far side of everything.  My suggestion was to have external lights fitted to the barn which is located between the gravel lorry park and the grass lorry park, and perhaps to erect central floodlighting (in the grass area particularly) to cast light in all directions.

A certain portion of people reading this will notch the above down to another classic example of me sticking my nose in where it's not wanted or needed.  Sorry, but safety comes first.  Just because things may always have been like that doesn't make them right.  After all, working class men and women in general couldn't vote once upon a time.

Without further ado, let's go back to the main event - THE CROCK OF GOLD FINAL 2017.

Before the draw was made, commentator (and ambassador for the sport) Darren Owen ventured around the paddock to interview some of the trainers and drivers who were fielding runners in the Group 1 event.  The video is conveniently situated here for your viewing pleasure.

Eight of the best pacers in the UK and Ireland faced the starter, with the draw as follows:

2 - PARTYATTHESPA - A Haythornthwaite
7 - MIKEY CAMDEN - W Greenhorn
8 - MIRACULOUS - P Kane Jnr

This had been billed as the first head-to-head between superstar pacers Evenwood Sonofagun (aka Gunner) and Miraculous (aka Ted).  Both having reached the lofty heights of Grade 12 (the highest grade achieveable in the handicap system) via two very different routes (Gunner as a maiden/novice/up through the grades from G1-12 and Miraculous as a successful stakes campaigner notching up the largest chunk of his earnings to enter the handicap system so high aged only 4).  Many were quick to point out that this was not a two horse race (to paraphrase one person - "we could have an Imperial Commander situation on our hands" {if you don't know what that means, Google Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander and just do a bit of reading}) and that horses such as Coalford Tetrick and Mikey Camden could 'spoil the party'.

Neither of the protagonists had landed easy post positions and plenty of people told me Miraculous simply could not win from the far outside.  I remained quietly confident; from the 8 hole his driver would need to take back and although in top company you wouldn't want to concede any ground to your rivals in the early stages of a race, Miraculous had already proven his unbelievable engine in the closing furlongs on previous occasions.  With speed merchants Porterstown Chris and Coalford Tetrick on his inside, it was Evenwood Sonofagun who potentially faced the stiffer task.

And that is exactly what happened.  Patrick Kane Jnr (who was subsequently berated on social media by people who should know better than to stir) immediately dropped in to land on the rail before the first bend, where he remained until just before the half when he tipped out and took cover for much of the remainder of the race.  Evenwood Sonofagun found himself parked early up front and had no choice but to tough it with no cover.

I'll not talk you through it anymore.  Just watch the video.  When I watched this back on social media in the days after the event, it was the first time I had heard Darren's commentary.  I was stood just past the finish line (somehow surrounded by about 10 children, all shouting on different horses and drivers) and I cannot describe the noise in the place for the last quarter of the race.  It was deafening.

Miraculous got the better of Evenwood Sonofagun in the stretch but 'Gunner' came back to him in such a display of determination and guts.  The fractions that were set in the first half of the race should have led to the total collapse of Evenwood Sonofagun in the final furlongs; he defied the logic of all that we know from what has come before him.  And Miraculous...people forget he is only 4.  To be racing in the pinnacle of FFA races at the end of a 4 year old season having sustained a minor injury and posted numerous sub-2 minute performances already in 2017?!  Honestly, in the immediate aftermath of that race, there was not a place on Earth I would rathered have been.  I could not have seen better harness racing at any track, in any country, than what I saw in the one minute fifty six point two seconds prior to that.

The judge couldn't split them.  It was a dead heat, in a track-record equalling time of 1.56.2.

In what had been billed as the ultimate head-to-head, the two titans could not be separated.

Miraculous (outside) & Evenwood Sonofagun head to the wire together (Graham Rees photo)

And look here, what's this in the background?!

Well it's only Mikey Camden putting in the performance of his life to land himself third place!! William Greenhorn kept him out of trouble for the entire race and produced him for a place at the finish - textbook drive and brilliantly executed.  Mikey Camden finished realistically in the best position he could and for some, much closer to the front two horses than expected.

And then, as if my nerves could take any more, Stoneriggs Mystery was walked back to the winner's circle.  I'm not ashamed to say I cried.  I cried without abandon.  At this point, I felt as though anyone judging me for being emotional in the aftermath of such a tremendous race and in the face of a true legend of our sport being stripped of his harness for the final time must have a heart of stone (or just be terribly judgmental).

I wasn't there the night dual-Crock of Gold winner Scootaround was ceremoniously unharnessed at Tir Prince, but I had heard about it from several people and I knew it would be a fitting tribute to a warhorse such as Mystery.  What touched me in particular was that Alexis Laidler, trainer of Evenwood Sonofagun and former trainer of Stoneriggs Mystery, was leaving the track to head back to the paddock after the Crock of Gold but stopped, perhaps 50 yards from where current trainer Sheelagh Lord and her daughters Kelly and Catherine were helping driver Mick unharness the horse.  As the audience gave him a round of applause, so did Alexis.  People forget that he took Alexis and Rocker to the lofty heights of winning the Crock of Gold a long time before Sonofagun's joint-victory that night.

I haven't been able to source the professional photos so all I have to add to this are a couple of grainy pics from my phone.  I think you'll get the message from them nonetheless.

Handler Kelly & Mystery

Driver Mick follows his charge off the track
Farewell, Mystery; thanks for the memories!

The final race of the night happened to be the richest harness race in the UK's history; the £30,000 purse Gold Le Trot Final for 3YOs.  I have to admit, I missed all of the race bar the closing strides as I had my face buried in the Crock of Gold with one set of winning owners trying to figure out (a) how they were going to decide which set of connections was getting to keep the trophy and (b) how to distract those in possession of it long enough that I could run away with it and pretend I owned the best FFAller(s) in the country!

Based on previous form and previous races, the final was a two-runner race between the Rhys Evans-trained Equilea Du Hauty and the Jody Foody-trained Ecume De Mer.  Right enough, the two were going at it hammer and tongs at the finish but it was the Mound family's Equilea Du Hauty who stayed on to land the £15,000 first prize.

I also must mention trainer/driver Rhun Wilson, a lad (I say lad, I think he's older than me) who in the early stages of the season regretted making the move from W&BCRA to British Harness, struggling to get in the placings let alone win a race.  He only went and won the Silver Final with Eldivina d'Esge which landed owner Joby Randall with a cheque for £10,000.  I bet if I'd said to him in May that he would win a race for £10,000 on a trotter in September, he'd have laughed at me.  Honestly.

Also well done to the syndicate, the Globe Trotters (which includes commentator Darren Owen) as their horse Emirat Du Levant won the Bronze Final (netting them £5000) in the hands of Richard Haythornthwaite who is a massive fan of the horse.

It was a long drive home; we got back to the stables at 4.30am and gave the horses an early breakfast so that we could have a lie in.  We were exhausted the following day at Corbiewood. But on nights like that, nights when you cheer in the next generation of top Free For Allers and wave goodbye to the old guard, no distance is too great to miss it.  I still say this is the greatest sport on Earth.

Over and out,

#1 Groom