Saturday, 31 January 2015

Learning to live with Scottish mannerisms...

I apologise in advance if this post isn't deemed to be primarily about harness racing, as the title of the blog itself would suggest. It is however about the other element of the title - Scotland, and the little things that I have noticed and grown used to since moving here.

I've been thinking about the following for some time; particularly since meeting a lovely lady in Wales by the name of Sara Arthur whose other half has done my reverse journey. When I went to stay with Rachel at Wellfield Stud, I was tasked with sourcing a dozen 'well-fired' rolls and some square sausage to take down for this gentleman whom I'd never met; he was taking the opportunity to get hold of some home comforts. Now I don't do that whenever I go back to Wales, or when someone from Wales visits me. There aren't really Welsh 'things' that I can't get up here. Ok, so I'm partial to the odd welshcake but I'm not overly fussed if I go a few months without one. Wales doesn't seem to have speciality foods that aren't available outside of the country (I'm not sure where the rest of the UK stands on lava bread, but seeing as I've never had a full Welsh breakfast then I can't say whether I like lava bread or not. And I'm still not sure if it's classed as a Welsh food. In fact, I'm still not sure what it is - which doesn't say much for the four years I worked as a waitress in an independent restaurant that served it as part of the Welsh breakfast...).

The other reason that prompted me to write tonight is the book that I'm currently reading - Let's Talk About...Kevin Bridges. It's Kevin Bridges' autobiography. For those of you unaware of the work of Kevin Bridges, he's a young Glaswegian comedian who has not only introduced my other half to the brilliant world of stand-up comedy, but has helped me start to understand the man I'm living with. Obviously I understand Smarty; the accent was the first hurdle to be cleared, and quite early on in the relationship. Once I've tuned in to someone's accent I can generally get to grips with most of what they're saying. It's a skill that definitely helped me whilst working for STAGBI, especially when I didn't know where the next call would be coming from, and trying to decipher what somebody's query is when they don't really know themselves...well it helps to be able to at least understand what they're saying, even if I didn't understand what they wanted. The only accent I have yet to truly master is the Cork accent. It doesn't help that the people I know from Cork and the surrounding area speak incredibly quickly, but I can't quite put my finger on what else prevents me from understanding it fully. I once told Smarty of a gentleman I'm friendly with who claims to live in the Western-most point of Ireland, and the 'closest parish to America', who is fond of a drink or two when he visits Aberystwyth or Tregaron for the racing. I told him that when this man speaks to me, it's just noises: noises with inflection and intonation, but no clear words. The only words I have ever understood from him have been swear words, with which he invariably ends his stories. When I introduced Smarty to my friend, in a bar in Aberystwyth, after a few too many on both our parts (and a conversation that only he understood), he shook his hand and began one of his sentences of gibberish. When he came to the end of his story, he laughed, said 'fook it', and walked off. Up until that point, Smarty hadn't believed me, but we laughed about it a lot that night.

So no, the accent hasn't been a sticking point. The vocabulary...yes, that has. Sara and I briefly discussed this on my visit down south, but we only scratched the surface. For example, 'how?' means 'why?'. If I were to say to Smarty, 'we need to leave early tomorrow to get to Musselburgh', he would say 'how?' instead of 'why?'. For the first few months I tried to correct this. I tried to explain to him that the two words had different meanings, and that 'how' wasn't the appropriate word for what he meant. I find myself now, after over four years with him, answering the question 'how?' as if he'd said 'why?'. Is this an admission of defeat? Or am I simply adapting to a different culture? It's not only Smarty that does this, by the way. All of my Scottish friends are guilty of the same mistake. And I call it a mistake, which is insulting. I'm sure they would say the same of me if they knew that instead of using the word 'cuddle', I use 'cwtch'. Although in my defence, 'cwtch' is an actual Welsh word meaning 'cuddle', and not the incorrect use of a word.

Here's a short list of other words which have different meanings in my new country of residence:

Orange juice: I drink orange juice with my breakfast. It is the juice from an orange. Except orange juice doesn't exist in Scotland. If Iorder orange juice in a bar, the bartender looks at me in a funny way (not because it is an alien concept not for me to order an alcoholic beverage, thank you). Orange juice in Scotland is known as 'fresh orange'. Orange squash, is known as 'diluting orange'. So when I order my orange juice at a bar, they ask me if I want 'fresh orange' or 'diluting orange'. If I wanted 'diluting orange', I would ask for ORANGE SQUASH. Also, I find 'fresh orange' to be deceiving, in that it suggests that somebody is going to freshly squeeze the juice from an orange for me, not pull a small bottle of orange juice out of a fridge and unscrew the cap.

Ken: Ken is a guy I know who lives in the village down the road from my parents farm. Or is he? Turns out he's not. It actually transpires that ken means 'know', as in 'do you ken where that is?'. For the first few months of dealing with Smarty's accent and the fact he spoke too fast, when he asked me things such as 'do you ken what I mean?', I mistook him for saying 'do you care what I mean?', because that was the closest English word I could liken 'ken' to. This resulted in a lot of nodding on my part, when internally I hadn't a clue what I was agreeing to or with.

Long lie: This one has been particularly prompted by Kevin Bridges, as he uses the term in an early chapter of his book. Smarty often uses the excuse when I'm away to my work that he's due a 'long lie', which is the equivalent of a 'lie-in'. As a farmer's daughter, a lie-in, long lie, or whatever you want to call it, is an alien concept to me but something I have been grateful to be introduced to nonetheless. I will always refer to it as a lie-in though.

Mind: To me, the one part of the trinity known as 'mind, body and soul'. To Scottish people, the word used instead of 'remember'. For example, 'I must mind to do that'. I can explain this one in part, as I believe it's a shortened version of the word 'remind', and it is used in place of the word 'remind' more frequently. It still grates on me all the same.

There are so many more examples I have come across over the years, however those are the most frequent.

Then there's the food. I've touched upon the 'well-fired' rolls (bread rolls which have basically been over-cooked and are an alarmingly dark shade of brown and appear burnt) and square sausage (which arguably isn't even sausage - it's a block of beef steak meat, allegedly, cut into slices which aren't technically square, and when cooked turn into hard blocks which could be used to take out someone at close range with the correct aim). Haggis, in comparison, seems relatively normal. Irn Bru, which tastes like a liquid version of Turkish Delight, is actually quite nice. Cold meats...this one may be just an older generation thing. Cold meats for me would be cooked chicken, or ham. When I go into Smarty's gran's fridge, I often find tongue. That's right, tongue. I can't tell if it's been cooked or not, but I'm not eating it either way. It doesn't even specify from which animal it originates, which in light of the not-so-recent horsemeat scandal, must breach numerous food labelling laws (whilst on this subject, I bought some meatballs the other week, which were labelled as 'Scottish spicy meatballs'. I studied the packaging closer, and was unable to determine which animal these meatballs were sourced from).

This next one takes the biscuit. I like Scotland by the way, I really do, and none of the above should be taken as a slur against the country I have chosen to live in. I like the people, I like where I live, I'm hoping I'll like where I'm starting my new job on Monday...that said, and the statistics are there to support this, Scotland is faced with an obesity problem. Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, so is Wales. In fact I believe Wales is the most obese country in Europe according to the most recent EU study on obesity levels. Anyway, Scotland can't be far behind. I see it with my own eyes on a daily basis. With this in mind, I was amused at best, and slightly concerned at worst, to discover that in Scotland when you enter a fish and chip shop and order a single fish supper, you get two battered fish and chips. Obesity problems aside, the word single does not denote two of anything. That would be a double fish supper. You can literally get anything battered too. I had a pizza crunch one night, which is a pizza which has been battered. I'd never heard of that before.

Finally, and this probably only applies if you move to an area in or around Glasgow, there's the whole Celtic/Rangers thing. When I was a child, my brother used to collect these football shirts that were pencil toppers, plastic things you shoved on top of your pens or pencils. He had one for every team in the Premier League, as well as Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibs. We used to lay them out on the kitchen table and take turns to pick one each. Obviously I always picked Liverpool first, and he picked Manchester United, but after that I simply went on the colours I liked. He explained to me that I could either have Celtic OR Rangers, Hearts OR Hibs; green was my favourite colour so I would pick Celtic over Rangers. As I grew up I read stories here and there about the rivalry between the two teams, and put it down to football hooliganism at its worst (as a rugby fan, where when you attend a match, club level or international, you can be seated anywhere and next to anyone, even a supporter of the other team, I always looked down on this behaviour somewhat). It wasn't until meeting Smarty that I began to understand the background behind it all. It's not something I'm going to comment on, but I've learnt to say little and not get involved in any arguments between friends. Suffice it to say, it's a minefield, more so than the independence referendum was (although I came under fire for that without saying anything purely for being a non-Scottish person with a vote).

Learning to adapt to a new culture is difficult; learning to adapt to a new culture when you didn't expect there to be one is even harder. There aren't any language books or guides on how to get to grips with Scottish culture, and why would there be when the national language is English and the country is part of the United Kingdom? Except the national language is something I call 'Scottish English', a language I can now add to my repertoire as a translator, and despite being part of the United Kingdom, Scotland is still Scotland.

My last word on this topic is this - adapting to life in Scotland has been made easier by the people I have met. People who I may have met briefly before moving, but mainly people I've met since. Had it not been for the vibrant harness racing scene in Scotland, I wouldn't have made many friends. My life is so consumed by the sport, and the horses, that I think I almost find it difficult now to find common ground with people outside of harness racing. Or it could be that there are so many characters within the game that people outside of it seem a bit...'normal'. And for me, normal doesn't quite cut it anymore.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Planning my 'fixture list'.

Tonight I've had seriously itchy fingers but unfortunately my brain wasn't forthcoming with anything to type about, much to my general disappointment. Having spent the evening trawling through the STAGBI stallion list in an attempt to update it, I think I've managed to completely fry my brain in the process.

However, do not despair dear readers, as I have managed to conjure up something that I felt was half worth writing about. This is something that both Smarty and me would class as fun, although I suspect that the majority of the British population would roll their eyes and disagree. Every year for Christmas, Smarty gets me a diary for the year, and I take immense pleasure in filling it up with dates for the forthcoming racing season. The two reasons that I like to do this are:

1. Around about now I begin to really look forward to racing again. Not just for the actual racing, but for the travelling around the country, meeting up with my friends, having a few drinks and getting the shorts out (even when the weather is unsuitable for such attire); and

2. Having left my family and friends behind in Wales, I need to know which weekends between May and November are classed as 'free', and which ones feature race meetings that could potentially coincide with a quick trip home.

So here we have it, my own personal harness racing fixture list. To emphasise the extent of the travelling involved, I've put the country the track is situated in in brackets (E = England, W = Wales, S = Scotland and I = Ireland):

03/05 - Tregaron (W)
04/05 - York (E)
10/05 - York (E)
14/05 - Haugh Field (S)
16/05 - Tir Prince (W)
17/05 - Presteigne (W)
21/05 - Corbiewood (S)
24/05 - Appleby (E)
25/05 - Appleby (E)
31/05 - Appleby (E)

05/06 - Corbiewood (S)
07/06 - York (E)
10/06 - Walton (W)
11/06 - Haugh Field (S)
17/06 - Cilmery (W)
18/06 - Corbiewood (S)
20/06 - Tir Prince (W)
21/06 - Hellifield (E)
25/06 - Haugh Field (S)
27/06 - York (E)

02/07 - Corbiewood (S)
04/07 - Aberystwyth (W)
05/07 - Aberystwyth (W)
09/07 - Haugh Field (S)
11/07 - York Sire Stakes (E)
12/07 - Allensmore (E) / Wolsingham (E) - will decide once the cards are published
16/07 - Corbiewood (S)
18/07 - Tir Prince (W)
19/07 - Allensmore (E)
24/07 - Haugh Field (S)
25/07 - Musselburgh (S)
26/07 - Musselburgh (S)
28/07 - Tir Prince Breeders Crown (W)
30/07 - Corbiewood (S)

01/08 - York (E)
02/08 - Bellsfield (S)
06/08 - Corbiewood (S)
08/08 - Portmarnock Vincent Delaney (I)
09/08 - Portmarnock Vincent Delaney (I)
11/08 - Tir Prince (W)
13/08 - Corbiewood (S)
15/08 - York (E)
16/08 - Haugh Field (S)
17/08 - Scorton Feast (E)
20/08 - Corbiewood (S)
23/08 - Boughrood (W)
27/08 - Corbiewood (S)
28/08 - Tregaron (W)
29/08 - Tregaron (W)
30/08 - Tregaron (W)
31/08 - Appleby (E)

01/09 - Kilnsey Show (E)
05/09 - Wolsingham (E)
06/09 - Haugh Field (S) / Lampeter (W) - will decide once the cards are published
07/09 - Wolsingham (E)
08/09 - Tir Prince Crock of Gold Final (W)
12/09 - (going without Smarty to this one as it's a W&B meeting at my parents' local show) Beulah (W)
19/09 - York (E)
20/09 - York (E) / Almley (E) - will decide once the cards are published
26/09 - York (E)
27/09 - Wolsingham (E) / Almley (E) - will decide once the cards are published

03/10 - York Sale Day (E)
04/10 - Corbiewood (S)
10/10 - York (E)
11/10 - Corbiewood (S)
17/10 - York (E)
18/10 - Corbiewood (S)

And every subsequent Sunday at Corbiewood until the entries dry up and the season finishes, which may be well into November.

I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where my other half doesn't miss many meetings because of his work. He's known for rocking up at meetings in the middle of Wales after a six or seven hour drive, which baffles a lot of people, but when you're self-employed and you're good at what you do, you try to do as much of it as you possibly can. And of course I'm not going to turn down the opportunity to go racing, even if that means hitting the road at 5am!

I will be trying to write up as many of the meetings as I possibly can, because some days I leave a track having witnessed something so spectacular that I can't help but want to share it with people. I have sat and lamented the meetings last year which went without mention anywhere other than the results page on the BHRC website, and with the greatest respect to the governing body a list of names, times and finishing positions often doesn't do the horses justice. I've seen such great feats of triumph on the racetrack that now, months and sometimes years after they happened, I still smile when I think about them, and tell as many people as possible about them. The night Laneside Lexus overcame the outside draw in the Crock of Gold final to beat six of the best horses in the UK and Ireland; the night Infinatey sat off the pace for 3/4 of a mile and came four wide at Amman Valley to sprint past the field to win the Welsh Cup; the day Rhyds Fivestar won his fifth start from six at Musselburgh (second on the other occasion to Stoneriggs Mystery) as a 16/1 outsider.

Nobody pays me to do this. Nobody needs to. I don't just love being able to train and race my own horses, I love being a part of what I believe is the best, and most underrated, sport in the world. If I can convince one person from outside of the world of harness racing that it is worth getting involved in, then my writing is worthwhile. And if I can't? Well I'm enjoying myself nonetheless, and I hope anybody who reads my posts enjoys it too.

Over and out,

Overworked and underpaid #1 groom

Sarah :)

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A weekend away at Wellfield.

Good evening folks!

Where do I begin? After a near six-hour drive from central Scotland to south Wales, my friend Annette and I arrived to glorious wind and rain (having left the mother of all storms that destroyed both my garden shed and half of my yard fencing, and subsequently flooded poor Netty's house) at Wellfield Stud. Rachel was there to greet us, along with her friend Sarah G who owns a Thoroughbred mare called Ballyhollow (who won today in a 3m hurdle race at Ludlow - this is as close to a tip as you'll ever get from me so keep an eye on this mare).

Wellfield Official & Annette
Rachel didn't hang about getting us to work either - I was in my waterproofs and boots straight away to fetch Netty's favourite horse, Fish (Wellfield Official - Village Connection x Naughty Shady Lady x Falcon Seelster) from the field, and bring him in to the barn that is currently housing eleven horses in training. As if having eleven horses in training isn't enough, Roy and Rachel have a further nine horses split across another two barns. For anybody that doesn't class addition as their strongest point, and because I simply want to reiterate this for dramatic effect, that's twenty horses currently stabled in preparation for training. Admittedly, not all of those horses will remain at Wellfield throughout the summer, but that is still a tremendous number of horses to feed, muck out and exercise daily. I can understand why Rachel wanted to make good use of an extra two pairs of hands over the weekend! Of the twenty horses stabled, 19 of these are pacers and the odd one out is a French Trotter (Trendy du Closet) purchased by Roy as part of the Le Trot series that was formed last summer.

As I've already mentioned, Netty's favourite is Wellfield Official, or Fish, a winner of a heat at Appleby last May and second in the final, and also second in both heat and final of the Famous Musselburgh Pace in July. He is still a full horse, but a perfect gentleman nonetheless and a gentle giant with wee Netty. Every person who is friends with Rachel always seems to adopt a Wellfield horse, and in the same way that Netty has Fish, I have my boy Bruce (Wellfield Bruce - Village Connection x Atout A Leuhre x Handsome Sum), and I have also taken the grumpiest horse at Wellfield Stud under my wing - the gorgeous grey Wellfield Ghost (Village Connection x Newtown Alysia x Direct Current). He was the heat and final winner at Aberystwyth last summer, and the main reason Rasus (the Welsh language harness racing programme) visited Wellfield to record Roy, Rachel and Gramps (Roy's 86yo father who still jogs the horses, and even warms them up at the races if we're not fast enough to stop him) and the horses. As well as Trendy, Fish, Bruce and Ghost, there is also Alfie, Theo, Shadylady, Ruby, Posh, Dylan, Survivor, Earl, Benny, Busted, Baby, Dancer, Scary, Sporty, Annie and Rosie (all with the Wellfield prefix) stabled and potentially going into training this year.

We spent the remainder of Friday afternoon putting horses on the walker, mucking out, feeding and giving hay to the horses. We also found time to sit down with Roy for a cuppa and a catch up. I envy any yard that has somewhere with armchairs and a kettle situated within the same barn as the horses and the walker, I really do. It's my version of heaven!

Wellfield Ghost & me
For anybody who hasn't made the connection, or paid attention to my last post, Roy is the current BHRC Chairman. Since taking up the position I don't think his phone has stopped ringing or his computer stopped notifying him of new emails. He was good enough to sit down with me on the Saturday morning however and discuss some proposals that Smarty and I had written together. This also managed to get me out of mucking out duties, which I've definitely had enough of at home! The proposals included handicap changes, licence fees, championship race days and the make up of the BHRC, and true to his word Roy took all of the suggestions on board. I also discussed with him the possibility of British racing featuring more on, as I have been contacted by a gentleman named Steve Wolf about writing for the British section of the website. Roy was enthusiastic about this and contacted Jim McInally (the Vice Chairman) to notify him of my plans to write about them. It's really good to have the support of the people at the top, and in return for their support I'm putting myself forward and doing one of the few things that I'm actually good at - writing, and in turn generating publicity. All they asked each and every one of us for was to offer up our services, put forward our strengths and talents and all try to chip in to take the sport forward. So here I am, trying to lead by example. Join the revolution people!

Saturday night saw us celebrating Rachel's birthday with a meal and drinks in her local pub. Roy joined us later in the evening and despite what he may tell people, he instigated a level of drinking I haven't experienced since 2014...the party moved back to the yard and I kicked out the last person at 5am (that last person was Roy). I declared myself last man standing, for which he owes me £1.05, and went to my bed. Unfortunately I didn't see much of Sunday as a result of this...but you only live once right?! I am making an official public statement here though that I will not be drinking for the immediate future; I simply cannot go through that level of self-inflicted pain and suffering again.

Wellfield Bruce
On Monday morning when we ventured out to sort the horses, Roy appeared on the yard and declared that I was banned from Wellfield. No doubt the next time I see him, and every other time after that, he will make reference to this weekend just gone. In the same way that he refers to Rachel and me as his minders, and claims to be the safest man in south Wales because of us. Which is only slightly less insulting than Mr Fettah calling us the Pontypool front row...

We departed Wellfield Stud in the same wonderful wind and rain that we arrived in, and came back to the same wet and windy Scotland that we'd left. It's a trip I hope to make again next year!

Over and out,

#1 Scottish groom (although Netty gave me a real run for my money over the weekend),


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Change is afoot...

So when I said I wouldn't be posting until after my return from Wales this weekend, clearly I lied because here we are again. I have been prompted to write due to sitting down for an hour or so last night with Smarty discussing proposals for me to hand over to Roy Sheedy, the new Chairman of the British Harness Racing Club (BHRC) when I visit Wellfield Stud (you will recall I'm going to stay with Roy's groom, an annual tradition to celebrate her birthday, collect my Christmas present which can never be posted for some reason, and help out with the ever-increasing number of horses that Roy has in training). It wasn't so much the proposals that compelled me to write, but more that so many changes have taken place within the sport over the last few months, and so many more major changes are in the pipeline that if I wait until everything is resolved in some manner, then I'll end up writing for days and you'll be left reading the world's longest blog post. Ever.

The easiest place to start would be a recap of the situation in British harness racing from 2008 - 2014 (I can't comment on anything prior to this because I wasn't involved in any way in the sport). During this time, the BHRC Chairman, Vice Chairman, and as far as I am aware the Council (made up of, at least in part, regional stewards voted on by clubs around the UK) remained unchanged. The state of harness racing however, did not. I so wish that I could be sat here telling you that in those years I watched the sport I love become recognised on a national scale, in the same manner as Thoroughbred racing, greyhound racing, or even pigeon racing (which probably has more followers, more money, and is heard of in more places across the country). I wish that I could tell you that the prize money increased year on year, that the number of licence holders and horses in training increased, that sponsors were falling over themselves to get involved in the sport. But none of that would be true.

More alarmingly, the polar opposite was the reality. The worst example I saw of reductions in prize money was at Allensmore, a track that held a two day meeting when I first started racing, with a final for thousands which attracted the top trainers across the UK. Last summer, Allensmore held four one-day meetings, with prize money as low as £150 to the winner. People were selling up and leaving the sport in their droves; the handicap system was such that an alarming number of horses were becoming uncompetitive very quickly, causing more and more people to leave the sport and more and more horses to fall by the wayside, destined for racing with Wales & Border Counties or riding homes if they were lucky, and the slaughterhouse if they were not. Obtaining sponsorship money became increasingly more difficult. From my own personal experience on the committee for Cilmery races, we actually stopped running fundraising events as we were simply tapping the same people for money, as were other committees. Those who gave the most were already in the sport already, and had costs of their own to consider simply to race their horses.

In 2013, John Menzies from Scotland ran against the existing Chairman in an attempt to bring about change within the BHRC, but was unsuccessful due to a number of reasons. The biggest factor however was the way in which those in power at the BHRC had created a system to protect their positions, and they worked together to keep each other in place. In November 2014, a public trainer by the name of James (Jim) McInally convinced Roy Sheedy to stand with him as a Chair and Vice Chair combination. They travelled the length and bredth of the UK meeting with clubs and licence holders to put forward their ideas to help the sport should they be successful in their bid. They were well received everywhere they went, including with stalwart supporters of the existing regime. The votes from the clubs began to come in one by one, and it appeared that the tide of support had turned. Before the AGM could be held for the Council members to also cast their votes, the Chairman resigned (with a very flamboyant and creative reason) and was swiftly followed by the Vice Chairman. Roy & Jim took up their official positions, with the remaining Council around them, at the AGM at the end of November.

All was quiet until word came to Smarty and me, from an undisclosed source, that a meeting had been held in December to make changes to the current handicap system. Some twelve days after the meeting, no official statement had been made by the BHRC regarding the decisions made at the meeting, so I asked Smarty to publish the email he had received on two public forums. Jim & Roy had promised transparency in the event of their success, and we both felt that failing to notify people was a breach of that promise. Within 24 hours an official statement was made by the BHRC and published across a variety of platforms. The feedback regarding the initial lack of transparency was clearly taken on board, as two new proposals which have been put forward (one by Huw Evans, owner of Foolaround and the Chair of Tregaron Trotting Club, and the other by Roy Sheedy himself) have been published today on the BHRC website ( & I too have a list of proposals to take to Roy, ranging from the handicap system to the BHRC Classic races to the make up of the BHRC itself, and hopefully in due course some of these will be put forward by the BHRC for consultation with members.

With the loss of the Rasus coverage by S4C (the Welsh language channel which provided the sole coverage of harness racing in the UK - albeit only live coverage in Wales, with some pre-recorded segments from elsewhere), I am pleased to read this evening that George Harrison, another individual who previously put himself forward for the Chairman's position, and a very successful businessman with a number of well bred horses used for racing and breeding, has met with BBC Sport to discuss potential TV coverage. This is most definitely a step in the right direction.

Change is definitely afoot. This is a marathon, not a sprint; a mile and a half race not a mile, if you will. The 2015 season won't suddenly be drastically better than the 2014 one, but with the return of Tir Prince and the Crock of Gold series, the continuing growth of 2 and 3 year old stakes races in Ireland and the UK, and the impending arrival of another consignment of French Trotters for the Le Trot series, hopefully we are well on our way to improving the sport for all existing participants and, I hope, new ones also.

Here's to a prosperous season for us all.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Happy New Year!

Firstly, may I wish anybody who reads this a very Happy New Year :)

(I am led to believe after today that it may be more than just one person, as somebody approached me at the races to tell me how much they'd enjoyed my previous blog).

2015 is already shaping up to be a very different year for both me personally and Team Smart. I am starting the year unemployed, for the first time since leaving university in 2011, but I am not disheartened as there are opportunities galore and something will soon come along. In the meantime I am back working as clerk for Smarty on the racecourses and point to points, having spent today at Musselburgh and plans to return there on the 16th and Haydock on the 17th. The rest of my time seems to be filled up looking after all the horses, with four yearlings stabled, our newest acquisition on boxrest and the remainder dotted around the fields surrounding Allanton.

Anyway, enough of the boring stuff. The reason I felt compelled to write tonight is due to a night out I had on Saturday just gone. The biggest difference I have found between the harness racing scene in Wales and the harness racing scene in Scotland is the centrality of the people involved. During the 'off season' in Wales, I was only able to see my two best friends, Emma and Rachel, once each due to living over an hour and a half away from each of them (and free time on the weekends was hard to come by with hunting and working part time for STAGBI). Arranging a night out with my friends up here is somewhat less difficult. The first reason for this is that all of my friends live in or near the Stirling area, so I am able to see them all in one go. The second reason is due to the fact that when arranging a night out, there is only one possible place for us to go (not because there is literally nowhere else to go, but because there is only ever one place we want to go) - McQues, in Bannockburn. It's like an unofficial harness racing HQ. It's kind of like...home. It feels the same way my 'local' pub in Wales always felt, like you could fall asleep on one of the benches and nobody would mind. I'm yet to do that though, and I have no immediate plans to do so either.

On Saturday I went out with a group of people that to outsiders would look like a very strange bunch to throw together. My friend Nicola actually commented on it the following day - you think it shouldn't work, but it does. The reason it does is because we all share one common interest - harness racing. It's not like saying you enjoy the same TV shows as your friends, or you all enjoy reading. We all enjoy something that consumes our day to day lives. We don't just go racing every now and again for a day out if the weather is nice; we go every time there's a meeting on because there is very little else we'd rather be doing. Every single one of us sat around the table on Saturday night spends hours every day, even during the off season, doing something that is directly connected to harness racing. There were six of us in total; three over the age of 35, and three under the age of 25. A mother and daughter combo, two with young children, two not long out of high school, a random Welsh lass who ended up the night being nicknamed 'Big Bird' really shouldn't work, and under any other circumstances I'm sure it wouldn't.

Our shared obsession is so strong that whilst having a competition to see who could drink a jagerbomb the fastest, racing puns and comments didn't take long to rise to the surface. Lauren took the first round and victory was declared to Ladyford Lad (the horse she rode to victory at Appleby in 2013 in the first saddle race for a number of years, and subsequently a number of other saddle races in Scotland). By the time the second round came along I'd noticed she was removing the shot glass before necking the drink, which is the equivalent of her being a gate horse and the rest of us going off 20 yards, however I still beat her. Carol, her mother, was disqualified for not finishing in one go. Round three saw Lisa drink some of the energy drink before Lauren returned to the table in order to try to beat her, which resulted in another DQ. Karen won round three, although I lodged a stewards enquiry as Nicola (designated driver for the night) was accused of driving the start car too slowly and giving Karen an unfair advantage drawn wide on the gate (by this point it wasn't making much sense). Carol fell (failed to finish her drink in one go a second time) and as her shoulder touched the ground she wasn't allowed in the re-run. If anybody on the neighbouring tables had overheard any of this, they'd have worried for our mental health. At some point later in the night when Lisa misread a 'pull' sign on a door for a 'push' sign, I felt the need to shout 'pull them up drivers, pull them up'. Simple things, and all that...

All of this resulted in a lot of laughing, and one of the best nights out I think I've ever had. There were very few people in the pub that night, but it didn't matter. I barely registered anything going on outside of our circle. Come the start of the new season we'll be rivals on the racetrack again, but even that doesn't stop us piling in to each other's winner's photos. Rivals we may be, but we all enjoy sharing the joy of victory with our friends. To help pass the time until the season starts in Scotland on May 14th at Haugh Field, we've decided to make our nights out a monthly thing. Roll on 31st January for round two of our 2015 'season' ;)

Next time you hear from me will be after my return from a weekend trip to Wales this coming weekend, where I'll be staying at the newly-appointed BHRC Chairman's farm, Wellfield Stud. Roy Sheedy is an old friend, although it's his groom and my actual friend Rachel that I'm going to stay with, along with my new friend from up here, Annette. Harness racing has no concept of distance.

Over and out,

Top Scottish groom (on my yard at least),