Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Turning a full circle

"Turn full circle"
To return to the original or a similar position, situation, or circumstance where one or something started.

In 2002, my father bought me my second horse; a replacement for my outgrown first pony who had been passed on to my younger cousins.  They say that it's not the first horse that you buy a child which is the most important to nurture their love of riding, but the second.  Ponies are generally more amenable and particularly where I come from, a good first pony can go around several families in its lifetime, teaching numerous children how to ride.  My first pony was an ex-riding school pony; a point-and-go.  Stubborn to load, great to gallop.  Broke several cavaletti poles by simply deciding to stop jumping mid-jump.  We had a great time despite him getting on in years when he first came to me (I was 7, he was 27).

No, it's the second horse which is the make-or-break for a child's future with horses. You get too big for ponies and you venture into the world of horses.  It can be expensive to find a schoolmaster, so your parents try to compromise on some aspects in order to meet their budget; after all, you're of an age now where you as a rider need to develop with the horse.  My parents got it wrong.  In hindsight, they got it very, very wrong.  The compromise was too great, and what we ended up with was a split personality ex-racehorse whose riding career had probably consisted of being sat on a few times.  Of course, aged 13, I didn't know any better and I just got on with it.

Her name was Runnis Smokey.  She was an 8 year old black Standardbred mare by Rajah Lobell out of Columbia Square, by Cover Up.  She was only 14.3hh, but what she lacked in height she made up for with heart.  No more docile a horse to handle on the ground have I met before or since; no more unpredictable a horse to ride have I ever sat on.

I broke my elbow the first time she bucked me off.
I damaged both my ankles on subsequent falls.
I caused serious damage to my neck and back in my worst fall, which I will take some of the blame for as I was racing my friend at the time, but these are injuries which still plague me today in the form of chronic back pain, migraines and nerve damage.

But, we also had a great deal of fun.  We tried showing (no good, she bucked repeatedly in canter in her second and final local show in which we were placed last), jumping (we picked up numerous rosettes for low level jumping at local shows, were one of two participants who completed an XC course from a group of 5 - 4 of whom were on ready-made jumping ponies and not mad pacing hotheads, and spent hours jumping over home-made cross-poles made from fence posts and tyres), dressage (never mastered the canter to trot transition without a few strides of pacing, but otherwise weren't too bad at this) and hunting (BRILLIANT, endless stamina, could gallop as fast as any other horse and was great in traffic/amongst other horses).

Smokey & I at opening meet with the Irfon & Tywi, November 2003
 One summer our Pony Club entered two teams into the Area 10 Horse & Pony Care Championships.  Somehow, Smokey became the nominated 'practice horse'.  She spent hours being bandaged (all four legs and tail), plaited (forelock, mane and tail AND the plaits were sewn up with thread) and rugged by 6 very enthusiastic under-12s on overturned buckets, and 3 not-so-enthusiastic over-12s who dreaded having to take apart and put back together another double bridle.  It worked though, as we won and went on to represent our Area at the Nationals.

On the downside, Smokey's unwillingness in PC ridden events meant that we kept being moved down a group; whilst my peers advanced, I was 'kept back a class'.  After she was sold, I borrowed numerous horses and returned to my original class where I no longer struggled.  It's not like I'm a rubbish rider, I simply had a horse with a mind of its own.  And at times I loved her for it.  At others, I secretly hated her.  Note: these moments were few and far between.

She was sold in 2006 after numerous failed attempts to get her in foal after her first foal in 2004.  It broke my heart.

Smokey with her White Heat filly foal in 2004
In 2013, a transfer of ownership form landed on my desk at STAGBI.  Six months after she had been sold, a gentleman from the Midlands had purchased her to breed from.  He had owned her ever since, and was only then getting his paperwork sorted.  I tried to buy her there and then, but he wanted to keep her a little while longer.  He compromised by telling me I could have her back when he'd finished breeding from her.  I'll admit, I thought that may never happen.

But it did.

On Sunday 17th April, after goodness knows how many setbacks, I saw Smokey again for the first time in nearly 10 years.  My first thought was 'How on earth did I get away with riding a horse as small as that?!'.  She seems to have shrunk, or my perspective has been warped by having Missile and Star (16hh and 15.3hh respectively) as my two most recent mounts.

Smokey upon arriving in Scotland, 22 years young
Smokey is now living out her days in a field with our other 'lifers', the horses destined never to leave our ownership:  Dark Velvet and Shes Some Deal (Star), as well as Eternal Flame, Wild Bill Hikock and Crosshill Amethyst whose futures with us aren't as set in stone.

'That's a nice story', I hear you say, 'but what has that got to do with circles?'.  So I've got her back, big deal.  What's so special about her anyway?  Nothing she's ever bred has ever reached the racetrack; most of them were partbreds.  She herself never won many races or clocked any decent times.

Yet, because of Smokey I landed myself a job with Colin and Shirley Bevan working as a groom and rider when I was 16.  When I was 18, I was asked back to work for them for the spring and summer, and every subsequent spring and summer until I left Wales in 2014.  Because I was working for Colin & Shirley, I was at Tregaron races in August 2010 where I met Emma Langford, who introduced me to John Smart.  We'll have been together 6 years this autumn.  Because I met John Smart, I found out about the part time STAGBI admin job which was available shortly after I left uni.

Because of all of that, I'm a STAGBI director, living in Scotland with my racing-mad, horse-daft, other half, looking after 14 Standardbreds and racing from May until nearly November each year.

Runnis Smokey started all of that.

She was my first Standardbred.
I'll be her last owner.

Over and out,

#1 Groom
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. Alan Cohen
Read more at:

Friday, 15 April 2016

Florida: Part 3 - Pompano Park

Welcome back for the third and final instalment of our American adventure (minus the New York part, which at the time of writing still hasn't had the photos edited...oops).  If you've been with me from the start then by now you'll be aware of my sporadic posting and my inability to write contemporaneously.  Although if you read my previous post (click here), you may appreciate why.  Writing must always take a back seat because at its heart it is simply a hobby.  I'm not paid to bring to you all the news and views from harness racing in the UK, or photos of my own horses.  I do it because I enjoy it, and when I'm stressed out with everything else going on it has to take a back seat.  Anyway...

...we left off having just left Steve Wolf's place after a wonderful night out.  The following day, the Friday was dedicated solely to sightseeing, and in particular a trip to the Everglades with a swamp safari and a chance to get up close and personal with some native animals.  Racing at Pompano is Saturday - Wednesday so this was a totally harness racing free day for us (the only one during our stay in Florida).  And due to that, I'll not bore you with our adventures but suffice it to say, we had a great time getting lost in the swamp!  Although I will share some photos just to prove that I don't just take photos of horses all the time!

Day 6

Once again Smarty and I returned to the back stretch as Saturday mornings are dedicated to qualifiers.  We had wandered around our usual 'haunts' to see if anybody was free but it transpired that most of them were getting ready in the paddock for the qualifiers so we headed over to the race track to find a good spot to watch.

We'd only just made it to the rail when Smarty turned to me and said he'd spotted someone he recognised: John Ball Sr.  I asked him if he was sure and he told me he should be considering he comes face to face with him every summer when he's bookying at York!  So we walked over for a chat.

We ended up watching the qualifiers together on a bench on the corner of the track, not too dissimilar to the one at Corbiewood's stable bend (who am I kidding?  There are no benches like the Corbiewood bench), discussing winters in Florida (he'd been going there every year for 30 years), the horses he's exported to race in the States and also owned in the States, the horses he's due to race in the UK in 2016 (one of which [Samos] is currently stabled with George Carson, who I am pushing to work for Chris Oakes next winter) and the harness racing scene in the UK in general. Super Duke, the trotter I'd jogged only two days before was in a qualifier, finishing midfield but still sub-2 minutes (possibly the fastest horse I'll ever sit behind), and the fastest qualifier of the morning went an impressive 1.52.4 (Scott Rocks), which was the fastest time posted that we had witnessed ourselves.  As if qualifiers (technically a workout over there) go those sorts of times?!  And people moaned when I campaigned to get Amman Valley's outdated and frankly preposterous qualifying time dropped in line with the other half mile tracks in the UK...people don't know they're living!

After the last of the qualifiers we went for another wander, as Smarty was keen to look out a mare called Palm Beach.  We found out which stables she was in and upon locating them were told she was out jogging.  John Podres also had Sealark Hanover in his care, who had caught our eye whilst racing a couple of nights previous as she is the half-sister to a mare called Sandfly Hanover who was imported into the UK in December 2013 from Harrisburg sales along with our very own Vain In Spain.  Sandfly was purchased by the top breeders John & Grethe Wright of Rhyds Stud, and subsequently produced a American Ideal colt, Rhyds Ideal.  The colt fetched £48,000 at the Brightwells Sale in October 2014 and was sold to David Morton, Falkirk, Scotland.

Sealark Hanover - super friendly!
And with that, Palm Beach returned from the jog track.  The reason we had sought her out is because she is a half-sister to Eagle Luck, one of the more recent stallions imported by Mick Welling, Camden Stud.  Not only was this a British connection, but it was an important connection to us as at the time we were expecting an Eagle Luck foal from his first crop out of our Beach Towel mare.  At the time of writing, and as referenced in an earlier post on my blog, we have since welcomed an Eagle Luck colt into our herd.  Crosshill Costa, aka Cliff, happens to be the first Eagle Luck to be born in the UK and I must say we are very pleased with him.

Palm Beach, half-sister to Eagle Luck (Camden Stud)

That night we did indeed meet up with JB, and I left Smarty and him dissecting each race while I decided to have a go at gambling, the American way.  I'll be honest, when I first started I didn't like it.  And compared basically with the gambling I'm used to over here, I still don't like it.  The main issue I took with it initially was that when I backed my horse, I wasn't getting the odds at the time.  So I could bet a horse which at the time the wager was placed was 5/1, but which could potentially return after winning the race at evens.  I would receive my winnings based on the odds the horse returned at.  No no, this wasn't for Sarah.  I have grown up to stand in the betting ring not only watching 15+ bookie boards but also punters in order to snap up the price before the big money comes in.  A pointless exercise you may argue considering I bet no more than £10 a time; however I would counter that for a small time gambler like myself, there's a big difference between small changes in prices.  I'm trying to make as much as I can from my small stake.  My bet won't force a bookmaker to slash a price, and therefore the bigger gambler can still 'get on' after me.  The same cannot be said if he gets there first.

In its defence, the American way of gambling, or wagering, does have its assets.  The exacta/trifecta/superfecta options available carry good prize money if you can pick the first 2/3/5 etc. home in the correct order, and for a small stake these can really pay off.  For someone who gambles in small change for a bit of fun, this is the way to do it.  If I had been there for longer I'd have really given it a go (but at this point I was still trying to get to terms with all of the information in the race card).

Saturday night saw the first heat of Pompano Park’s Late Closing Pacing Series for mares, which had been the talk of every stable we had been in during the week.  Wally fielded a mare called Godiva Seelster; Chris Oakes a mare called Velocity Vespa; Scott Schwartz had Classic Carpet and Jamie Macomber was fielding Sandysgoldenhour.  We had plenty of horses to support.

In the first of the two divisions, Smarty picked out a gorgeous chestnut, which as it transpired turned out to be Totally Rusty, the chestnut mare we had seen at South Florida TC on the Wednesday before.  She was as stunning on the track as off it.  Her performance matched her looks and she was the worthy winner of the race.

In the second division, a mare called Showrunner beat Velocity Vespa, who Chris Oakes had told us was a couple of runs away from being in peak form as he'd given her some time off to prepare for the series.  (Writer's note:  Velocity Vespa went on to win the final in a track record for mares).

As far as the betting was going I was having no luck whatsoever, until Katch Kanna (remember Katch?  The beautiful trotter stabled with Doo Wop Hanover and Boston Red Rocks) stormed home.  I think I picked up all of $16 from my $2 stake, but I headed to the winner's enclosure to cheer him in, only for his caretaker Scott to call me in for the photo.  For most of the evening there had been a small group of people sat next to me at the outdoor bar and they too were in the photo.  You know one of those moments where you're looking at someone funny and they're looking at you funny and you know that as soon as you all return to your seats you're going to have to talk to each other to find out what just happened?  That happened.

Turns out the folks next to us included the wife of the winning driver, and the mother of Ricky Macomber Jr, which led onto a conversation about me wanting to speak to Jamie again before we headed to New York.  I was told that she would be at the track the following night as she had two drives in the Sweetheart trot and pace races for lady drivers (seeing as it was Valentine's Day and all).

And that rounded off an enjoyable evening at the races, with Katch giving me my first win on US soil!

Day 7

Our final day in Florida was spent sightseeing on the coast, heading down to Hollywood Beach and around Fort Lauderdale by water taxi.  That night we headed to the track for our final visit after a day in the sun.

After bumping into John Ball again, I left Smarty and him to discuss local trainers, horses' form and driver ability whilst I tried to pick some winners.  There were 11 races and in 9/10 of these I had some connection to a horse or owner in some capacity, and within 15 minutes I'd selected my picks in every race.  This is where the American system of betting works - I was able to place all 11 of my bets before the first race, safe in the knowledge that I couldn't miss the best price as I was going to get what I was given and that was that.  This meant I was free to sit at the bar for the remainder of the evening enjoying the last of the day's warmth instead of going back and forth through the casino to queue to place my bets before each race.

Sunday night was a good night for our friends.  Although Jamie had no luck in either of the ladies races, her husband Ricky drove Bluehourpower to victory in the top grade pace, and Scott's Cadillac Phil was another winner for me (having been told he was a certainty!).

Here's the full write up from the night, and you'll note the winner of the Sweetheart Trot, Back To Peace, was the first horse we met all that way back on the Tuesday when we didn't know anyone or any horse at the track!  Just a shame I missed to back it...

Smarty and I were in the winner's enclosure for both Blue and Phil's victories, however despite trying to get hold of the photos from the official photographer, I haven't been successful. I did however manage to get photos of them myself:

Bluehourpower winning with Ricky Macomber Jr
Cadillac Phil parading before his win
And that was indeed that.  We walked out of Pompano Park race track for the last time during our stay, having celebrated success with some great people.  We told John Ball Sr we'd see him back home; in the absence of York, we'd meet again at Tir Prince at the beginning of the season.  I barely had any winnings to count, what with my winners returning at such short odds, but then I have never really been a gambler for the sake of making money...more just enjoying the feeling of success!

We spent the remaining three days in New York where we unfortunately didn't make it to Yonkers on the Monday night due to having been up since 4am to fly there. In hindsight it was a wise decision as the meeting was abandoned halfway through due to the adverse weather conditions.

This is where I should be writing some sort of summary of the trip.  I could write a lengthy description touching upon the highlights, but that would be a duplication of everything I've written in all three posts.  Every part of the holiday was a highlight.  We experienced new things, met new people, said 'yes' to every opportunity that came our way.  From eating alligator tail to jogging royally bred 2 year olds, we did it.  I cannot wait to go back.

Over and out,

#1 Groom on Tour (but now back home)

Friday, 1 April 2016

The 2016 Team

So we are at that stage in the year whereby our stables are now housing their inhabitants for what we hope will be the whole of the summer.

Last year we had a successful season with our three charges, Wild Bill Hikock, Young Stephen and Shes Some Deal, notching up 8 wins between them as well as countless other placings at tracks in Scotland, England and Wales.

For the 2016 season, only one of the trio returns to resurrect his campaign: Young Stephen, aka Stevie.  Shes Some Deal, aka Star, has been retired from racing for the final time and plans for her future are currently undecided.  It was hoped that she would go to the stallion however with the uncertainty surrounding Corbiewood's future, the closure of York and both Smarty's and my increasing work commitments, for now she is quite happily doing what she does best: being a horse.  We already have a small band of 'lifers', horses that don't race, aren't bred from nor are ridden, and do nothing other than churn up our fields, eat us out of house and home and terrorise dog-walkers and joggers as they pass the field, so adding Star to the band isn't going to do us much harm.  Wild Bill is also in the field, for no reason other than the fact that 'The Gaffer' only has time to train one horse, and thinks Bill (like Eternal Flame off of the 2014 season) will win races whenever he races, whereas the horse he's actually training this year needs to prove himself as he's somewhat of an unknown quantity.  He doesn't seem to mind feeding horses that he knows can (and will) win races in the future, but he's not happy to hang on to an unproven horse indefinitely.

And on that note, I should probably introduce you to The Gaffer's horse for the season, Cassius Clay,  a five year old son of Hasty Hall out of Mattys Romance, making him a half-brother to Eternal Flame.  He is by far and away the biggest horse The Gaffer has ever trained, standing at 16.1hh currently (I do need to confirm this with my 'new' antique measuring stick I got for Christmas off the parents, although of everyone in our camp I'm the only one capable of measuring a horse's height accurately just by eye.  The Gaffer and Smarty left to their own devices would have you believe that every horse we own is either 15hh or 15.1hh, which is why all of the rugs pre-Sarah times are 5'6'').  He raced lightly at 2 but was struck down with a virus just as the stakes race programme was gearing up so missed that, then came out as a 3 year old but was all height and no strength so was turned away to finish maturing.  I think we're all hoping that he's finished growing now!  The Gaffer has had to finally invest in rugs bigger than 5'6''....

Alongside Stevie and Cassius, we have my baby and the horse I refer to as Star #2 (or occasionally Big Ears #2), Crosshill Ace.  The first product of Smarty's and my breeding programme, the foal brought into the UK in utero inside Vain In Spain (aka Rita) in December 2013.  Born on St Patrick's Day 2014, my mother wanted to call her 'Irish Gold', but in keeping with her sire Cams Card Shark's name, we opted for Crosshill Ace.  We started breaking her in in November last year but were halted by the bad weather and work commitments, so made the decision to send her to Mark Kennedy (husband of SHRC super-secretary and one of my drinking partners, Karen) over at Corbiewood to finish the breaking in process and get her going ready to begin fast work when she returned to us.

She is entered for the Vincent Delaney Memorial (and prep races), BHRC Futurity, SHRC Futurity, Breeders Crown All American Fillies, Junior Welsh Dragoness and possibly the Aberystwyth 2YOs.  I hope that she makes it there.

Here are some photos of her from our last visit:

Crosshill Ace (Cams Card Shark-Vain In Spain-Artsplace)

We're planning to go over on Sunday to see her again, followed by a visit to the livery yard where Missile is now residing to see how he's getting on as well.  Hopefully I can bring a positive update after seeing them both!

Over and out,

#1 Groom