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 email@example.com 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:
Wednesday, 8 March 2017
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|
|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|
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ius55lcwff8
|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,
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