Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bad public image...AGAIN

I've lost count of the number of times I have referenced this topic not only in this blog but in various posts on different social media sites and on equestrian forums, but here I find myself again compelled to write about the subject of harness racing's public image.

Last night I was notified of a thread on the Horse & Hound Facebook page which included a video of a horse pacing in full harness with a sulky on a dual carriageway, travelling at approximately 30mph.  The video had been posted by Horse & Hound, a notable equestrian print and online magazine.  The reason it was brought to my attention (by a friend) was because amongst the comments posted under the original story were statements such as 'I hate trotting, it's completely cruel', 'the action is unnatural' and 'the horses are being forced to move like that by the straps around their legs'.  Now whilst I agreed with some of the remarks about animal welfare and the safety of other road users, I naturally took umbrage with those specific remarks noted above.  I found myself trying in vain to educate people about the Standardbred pacer and also about the equipment used, as well as differentiating between harness racing as an official sport, and illegal road racing.

Today I received my weekly email subscription from H&H featuring as its main story an account of the very same tale, with links to said video.  This was the point at which I realised that until the media stops protraying the sport of harness racing as solely the hammering of horses up and down main roads, amongst traffic, with no regard for the safety of anyone in the vicinity (including those driving, and more importantly the horses), harness racing's public image will never change.

So I contacted Horse & Hound.

Now, I have contacted H&H before and asked if they would give half a page to the sport of harness racing as an introduction to an equestrian discipline which is NEVER written about in mainstream media in the UK.  The reply I received was that it was 'too niche' an area to cover.  I know it's niche, but it's also bloody awesome, and I'm willing to do the groundwork FREE OF CHARGE, much like the rest of the work I do to try to promote this wonderful sport.  Not deterred, I realised there is more than one way to skin a cat and I began writing on here a lot more, and became a more active member on a large equestrian forum with my 'myth-busting' posts and insight into harness racing here in the UK.  Even I'm not stupid enough to think that that's enough to convince Joe Public though.

When I contacted H&H this morning it was to politely request that in the interests of fair and responsible journalism, they educate their readers and subscribers about the official sport of harness racing, which is NOT the same as the videos they insist on publishing of illegal road racing and its associated time trials/public workouts on main roads.  I had to explain to them that for every person I convince that our sport is a bonafide, genuine discipline which is staged worldwide, their insistence on drawing attention to a separate, albeit associated, 'sport' was convincing 10 people otherwise.  With all the will in the world, I just don't have the reach to convince the masses and I am up against the UK media - an impossible opponent.

Interestingly enough, 'Eleanor' from H&H replied to me.  She said she intended to write a 'follow-up piece' and wanted to speak to the BHRC as well.  She asked if I would be happy to speak to them as well.  'Of course', I said.

I'm a little concerned that 'Eleanor' is looking for someone to speak up and defend the actions of the individual in this specific video.  That won't be me.  I'm not defending something that I don't believe in nor am associated with.  And it's ridiculous enough in itself that I will potentially have to defend the sport of harness racing simply because the media has convinced everyone that this incident, and our sport, are one and the same.  However, I won't be cutting my nose off to spite my face.  This is an opportunity to educate a lot of people.  I can't hope to convince them all, because a lot of these fluffy types don't like any form of horse racing (but ironically keep their own horses so overweight many suffer from a whole host of illnesses and complications which prevent them from being ridden at all).  I can still get the word about harness racing out there though.

If the BHRC choose to take the opportunity to speak to a H&H journalist, whether it be to publicly emphasise their rules on individuals who road race and their ineligibility for licences under BHRC rules or to distance themselves from this type of media coverage, I will be delighted.  I sincerely hope they do not refuse to enter into conversation for fear of repercussions from some members of our sport who do indeed partake in illegal road racing also.

I'm not a spokesperson for our sport.  But I will speak up for it.  I know it annoys a lot of people that I get on my high horse about things and always seem to be sticking my nose into matters which don't appear to concern me.  Tough.  That isn't going to change.  The alternative is to sit back and do nothing, and that doesn't appear to have got us very far to date, does it?  We have a bad public image and it NEEDS to be altered because personally, I am sick of being attributed for horses left dying in ditches because they were run off their legs on the roads.  I don't do that, and just because I partake in a sport which looks a bit similar to the type of thing you see on the road, doesn't mean you can assume I would do it either.

If you're reading this blog and you have absolutely no idea what harness racing is and you want to find out more, email me on and ask me ANYTHING.  What I don't know I can find out, or I can point you in the right direction to find out.  Don't listen to Jean from the livery yard who went to Appleby in 1983 and saw someone in a sulky sat behind a 12.2hh black and white pony which was too small to pull the driver's fat backside around who has declared that all sulky racing is cruel and should be banned.  Don't watch a video of some idiot dicing with death on a motorway and read Sally's comments about how we trotting people force our horses to move in an unnatural way by tying their legs together and beating them.  Don't assume everybody in harness racing is a gypsy and don't assume all gypsies are bad people.  Ask questions, open your eyes and your mind, learn something new.

Spread the word people.  If you tell one new person each day, and they tell someone, and they tell someone else...well as Smarty says, 1 + 1 = 11.

Here's a video compilation of harness racing as I know it:

Peace out,

#1 Groom

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

BHRC & STAGBI Awards Dinner 2016/17

And there we have it ladies and gents, the second annual BHRC & STAGBI awards dinner is officially OVER!

Can you actually hear the delight in my voice at being able to say that?!  Normality can now resume!  Chance would be a fine thing...

Before I go any further I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my fellow event organisers who all played a huge part in staging the event - Jim McInally, Gwenan Thomas, Darren Owen and Kirsty Lee.  It was a lot of work in so many different ways, but we pulled it off together.  Everyone involved is that keen they're already talking about next year.

I'm not.  I'm not talking about next year for a good couple of weeks, minimum!

So instead I'll talk about this year, or last year, whichever way you want to look at it.

The evening was to celebrate the achievements of the people and horses involved in our sport, as well as to look back on what a success the 2016 season was.  There were around 140 guests there; some STAGBI award winners, some BHRC award winners, and some both.  Before the evening kicked off with a three-course meal, Darren Owen (respected Thoroughbred racing commentator and ambassador for harness racing) recapped the season, touching upon some of the highlights from across the UK and Ireland.  I then followed it up with this video (DISCLAIMER: this only features SOME of the highlights; it does not give a fair representation of the number of trotting races staged, nor does it feature races from some of the smaller racetracks; indeed, it only shows 2 races from Corbiewood despite the track staging 22 meetings last year.  Five minutes is all I had).

After the meal, we began with the BHRC equine awards, to be presented by Vice Chairman Jim McInally in the absence of my good friend, Chairman Roy Sheedy who could not be present.  The first of these was for '2YO Filly of the Year' which went to Rhyds Mystique, winner of 8 of her 9 starts as a two-year-old for owners Marc & Viccy Elvin, trainer John Gill and driver Vicky Gill.  She will return in 2017 to attempt the same domination of her age category.

Jim McInally presents driver Vicky Gill (centre) and owner Viccy Elvin with award for 2YO Filly of the Year

Next up it was the '2YO Colt of the Year' award, which was awarded to Tyrion Hanover, winner of the Vincent Delaney Memorial Final last year.  Owner John Howard and trainer/son Samboy Howard nearly lost the horse during the winter and said that had he not been as good as he was, may have been put to sleep rather than operated on (having been given a small recovery chance by the vets) but with the help of numerous veterinary professionals, Tyrion is back on the road to recovery and is expected to make a return to racing in 2017.

Jim McInally presents owner John Howard with award for 2YO Colt of the Year

It was then time to celebrate last year's champion two-year-olds who ran on as three-year-olds to cement their names in the record books for years to come, becoming '3YO Filly' and '3YO Colt of the Year' respectively.  First of the Arts Conquest-sired duo was filly, Jessies Conquest, who has captured the hearts of the racing community along with her namesake, Jessie Jones, daughter of owner/trainer/driver Marc and his wife Jenny.  This filly is phenomenal.  Even when things go wrong in races, she shows such determination and heart to overcome the odds and get home in front; when things go right, she's almost untouchable.  In years to come, she will remain the benchmark for the quality of fillies I will be trying to breed.

Jim McInally presents owner/trainer/driver Marc Jones & wife Jenny with award for 3YO Filly of the Year

Marc Jones being interviewed by Darren Owen
Jenny looks on as Marc talks about their superstar filly

Following her was quite frankly one of the most appropriately-named horses (how could his breeders have known?!) ever to have graced a racetrack: Miraculous.  The son of Arts Conquest is something to behold.  If Jessies Conquest sets the benchmark for fillies, he sets the benchmark for colts and geldings.  His only defeat in a stellar season came to his female counterpart in their sole meeting; in all other events he was unbeaten.  At Portmarnock, where he is unbeaten on every visit across the Irish Sea, he set his personal best of 1.55.9, only 0.7 seconds off the all-age track record.  I could go on, but I would literally end up writing an essay about him.  He was also awarded 'Leading Horse' by number of wins.

Jim McInally presents trainer Sally Teeboon with award for 3YO Colt of the Year; syndicate members Dave Beadle & Alan Dickinson also on stage
'Mare of the Year' went the way of leading lady, Shades Of Grey.  A popular fancy for holidaymakers when racing at Tir Prince with such a literary name, the grey mare has held her own at the top level when racing in primarily male company, winning at Musselburgh, Wolverhampton and Pikehall in mixed races, as well as the STAGBI Future Broodmare at Tir Prince.

Owner Claire Fletcher & driver James Haythornthwaite presented with the trophy for Mare of the Year

Darren Owen interviews driver James Haythornthwaite

Whilst owner Claire Fletcher and driver James Haythornthwaite collected for 'Shades', it was Claire's husband Shane and James' father Alan who came up on stage to collect for stablemate Sports Trick who was named 'Pacer of the Year'.  Having won in 4YO stakes races at Tregaron (Senior Welsh Dragon) and Tir Prince (NWHOA 4YOs), the son of Sportswriter also won the low grade heat and final at Appleby and went on to win the high grade heat and final at Musselburgh (The Famous Musselburgh Pace) later in the season.

Jim McInally presents owner Shane Fletcher (centre) and driver Alan Haythornthwaite with award for Pacer of the Year

Moving to a different gait, owner/trainer/driver John Foy, who has represented Great Britain internationally in trotting races, collected the award for 'Trotter of the Year' for his chestnut Trotteur Francais, Sulky Du Blequin.  This horse has won over all manner of distances, on all manner of surfaces.  He appears to be a 'jack of all trades', but in a break with the traditional saying, he's also a master of all as well!!

Jim McInally presents owner/trainer/driver John Foy with award for Trotter of the Year

The final award in the first segment of BHRC awards was for 'Overseas Horse of the Year', which was awarded to Crock of Gold Final winner, Porterstown Road.  Connections of the horse were unable to attend from Ireland, so the trophy was presented to Gwenan Thomas, who amongst her varied repertoire of roles, stands Porterstown Stud's stallion Doonbeg at her AI Centre in South Wales.

The next part of the evening turned its attention to the breeding awards presented by STAGBI.  Whilst the largest portion of the trophies and monetary prizes were awarded to the breeders of winning horses, the trophies for STAGBI Future Broodmares Race winners were awarded to the winning owners.  The purpose behind the creation of these races is to provide races for aged mares once they graduate from the stakes circuit, but also to provide racing for them on hard tracks where they can try to set career records which will enhance their breeding credentials.  Although I'm breaking with the chronological order of how the awards were presented, I wanted to begin with this one as I'm rather proud of my creative skills!!

Connections of the STAGBI Future Broodmares race winners
The Breeders Premium prizes are monetary prizes awarded to the breeders of the top 3 horses bred in each region (England, Scotland and Wales) based on number of wins.  The fourth category, the Brightwells prizes, are awarded to the top 3 horses (by number of wins) from any of the countries which were sold through a Brightwells Standardbred Sale in any year.  The award amounts for the regions are set at £600/£400/£200, however the Brightwells prizes are calculated depending on the total sale value at the previous October's annual sale - with last year being a record year, the prizes won by the top 3 breeders were markedly higher.  A nice little return for the breeders of horses who may have been sold several years ago!!


In 2016, STAGBI also introduced the British Breeders Bonus Scheme, which awarded monetary prizes to the breeders of British bred horses which won pre-selected races.  These races will change each year, having been selected at the AGM in the December prior to the following season.  For 2016, the races were the Vincent Delaney Final, the BHRC 3YO Derby, the Senior Welsh Dragon, the Appleby Whit Monday Final and the Penybont Grade A Final.  The first two were split for the sexes, so it was agreed that the money would be split equally if two British bred horses won each division; in the event that only one did, they would receive the full prize.

Tyrion Hanover and IB Coyote won the colts and fillies VDM Finals respectively.  It doesn't take a genius to work out that Tyrion Hanover isn't British bred, but IB Coyote was bred by IB Stables in Co Cork, Ireland.  At the time that the scheme was set up, horses bred in Ireland were still registered with STAGBI as the IHRA had not fully established its own stud book and register.  So the Murphy's won the full £500 (although weren't able to attend on the night to collect their award).

The afore-mentioned Miraculous and Jessies Conquest won the BHRC Derby and BHRC Oaks respectively, so the breeders of both horses received half the monetary prize each.  Sports Trick won the SWD, however he was imported as a yearling so was excluded as not British bred.  Master Plan, bred by Steven Gilvear of Scotland, won the Appleby Whit Monday Final, and Ithon Inmate, bred by Brynfawr Stables in Wales, won the Penybont Grade A Final (which was the selected Wales & Border Counties race).

STAGBI President Ryan O'Neil presenting Jenny Jones (Jessies Conquest), Sally Teeboon (Miraculous) & Logan Fowler (Master Plan) with awards for the British Breeders Bonus Scheme

The evening then moved back to the remaining BHRC awards.  We celebrated an individual who was thoroughly deserving of the 'Special Contribution' award for her efforts in staging one of the crown jewels of British racing at Aberystwyth: Heulwen Bulman.

She is a force to be reckoned with!

Before we moved on to the final five awards, we took a moment to reflect upon those we have lost from the sport in 2016.  This is one of those rare occasions when I can't find the right words to sum up something; somehow nothing I could say would be a sufficient tribute.  Just watch this and know that an immeasurable amount of passion and knowledge has disappeared.

Back to the BHRC human awards.

'Leading Owner' went the way of Claire Fletcher, whose winning horses include the Mare and Pacer of the Year (mentioned above), as well as Porcelain Seelster, Party At The Spa and Indie Hanover.  Claire and Shane came up to the stage together and I particularly enjoyed their interview with Darren in which they talked about how harness racing brought them together.

Jim McInally presents leading owners Shane & Claire Fletcher with their award

The Fletchers being quizzed by Darren Owen

'Leading Trainer' landed in the hands of a Laidler for the tenth year in a row, this time to William 'Rocker' Laidler who was at the reins for most of the victories.  A man of few words but with a great memory, he kept the plans for 2017 firmly under wraps (and nearly left without his trophy, which I reunited with him at around 2am!).

Jim McInally presents leading trainer 'Rocker' Laidler with his award

'Leading Driver', and one of the most popular awards of the evening going by the noise that came from two of the Scottish tables, was awarded to William Greenhorn.  Great guy.  For someone who holds down a full time job and has a family, with both sons following their own sporting ambitions, this man drove a funny number of miles and a funny number of hours, often on his own, to drive for people all over the UK and Ireland.  He pulled me out of a hole when I found myself short of a driver for the VDM heats and final and went on to win the SHRC 2YO Futurity for me with Crosshill Ace.  Unlike most of the top flight drivers, he isn't backed by a major stable.  He doesn't hail from a major training establishment.  The wins came for trainers with small numbers or catch drives.  I think it's testament to his attitude and approachability and talent that when he drives for you once, you ask him to drive for you again.  That's what we did, and he didn't let us down (she says, as she glances at her two trophies on the mantelpiece...)

Jim McInally presents leading driver William Greenhorn with his award

Finally, to the culmination of the night's celebrations - the two awards which were to be announced LIVE: Drive of the Year and Horse of the Year.

The Drive of the Year award was sponsored and supported by none other than Tim Tetrick, who sent over a pair of signed gloves, a baseball cap and a beautiful letter for the winning driver.  A poll was run at the beginning of February in which people from all over the world could, and did, vote for their favourite drive after watching the six shortlisted drives on Youtube.  Over 600 votes were cast and a staggering 40% of these were for the eventual winner, 16 year old John Henry Nicholson, for his drive on Cochise in the Red John Memorial Hurricane Pace Final at Musselburgh.  I can admit now that he got my vote!

Here's the race that won it:

John Henry Nicholson presented with his prizes from Tim Tetrick

A worth winner indeed
The Nicholson family - Georgine, John Henry, Savannah & John

The 'Horse of the Year' award format had been amended following a previous suggestion by Huw Evans, promoter at Tregaron.  Rather than the category be an open nomination like the other equine awards, it would become a 'Champion of Champions'-type award, with the winner being voted on from the winners of the other categories.  Having been granted a vote for the Dan Patch awards last year, I now know this is how Trotter of the Year, Pacer of the Year and Horse of the Year are established across the pond so I'm glad the BHRC have followed suit.

For me there was only one winner, and the majority of voters across the UK felt the same way.  The following video, by Elizabeth O'Neil, features the nominees and rounds off with the winner: the one, the only, Miraculous.

The connections of Miraculous return to the stage for the final award of the night

There you have it.  A long, but enjoyable, evening of celebrations.  Once the presentation segment of the night was over and the DJ kicked into action, I partied the night away with friends.  Which is the way it should be!

Over and out,

#1 Video Editor
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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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ( 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,


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!


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