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Penybont by Elizabeth Collingwood

Elizabeth had the following article printed in the Hoof Prints magazine (May 2005 issue). This well know publication has a wide audience around the world paticuarly in the United States and it is some achievement to get a feature on UK racing published - well done!

The first Wednesday in August is the best day of the year. You can keep your Hambletonians and your Jugs; in Wales, Penybont is the best race of all. Missing Penybont is like missing your birthday, except a hundred times worse because nothing much happens on birthdays anyway. A lot happens at Penybont. It is unforgettable and unmissable.

Harness racing in Great Britain nearly always takes place on grass. The night before the races, the sheep are moved off the field and a track is marked out with little white posts. For one day only, a large flat field is filled with activity as horses (generally pacers) hurtle around its perimeter and racing fans flock to the bookmakers, ice-cream vans and beer tents. By nightfall, the only reminders of the racing are a good number of prominent hoof-marks and some shredded betting tickets. Every week, the races are held on a different farm and every race meeting has a different character and atmosphere.Racing in Britain has a small and dedicated following, divided between the semi-professionals and the definitely-amateurs. Since 1921, Penybont has been by far the most prestigious meeting of the year for the amateurs (or, the Wales and Border Counties Racing Association).

The morning of Penybont races is a busy one for everybody involved in the horses. Every single one must look perfect and nothing must be forgotten.Eventually they are all loaded into the lorry: Golden Greek, the lovely, kind stallion; Donnisthorpe K (also known as 'Monster') whose character is, well, mixed; and the nicest and best of them all, Vintage Lobell. Most British horses are trained and driven by their owners, and often home-bred as well. These three are no exception. They are members of the family just like a cat or dog is. They race up to forty times a year and are hardy, tough and brave. They can adapt themselves to any track and any situation

We set off at last (late, of course). We are joined by our neighbour, Con, who enjoys the drive just as much as he enjoys the racing. Con lives on a farm perched halfway up the mountain, and the standing joke is that he comes to the races just to remind himself what flat land looks like. The conversation is always the same:

Me: 'So do you think I should go straight to the front and then just make sure that nobody overtakes me?'

Silence

Con: 'Nice fat lambs he's got there'

Silence

Me: 'Or do you think that I should try and wait until the end and then loose him?'

Silence

We pass a large, white farmhouse. It is probably very small by American standards.

Con: 'The man that lives there is a millionaire. He owns the land on either side of the road for three miles in either direction'

Silence

Me: 'Do you think that Greek'll win? What about Vinny?'

Silence

Con: 'He's left his hay out a bit late'

Silence, punctuated by more comments on every farm we pass.

The first half of the journey consists of narrow, narrow roads with high hedges on either side. There is barely enough room for two cars to pass, let alone two lorries. Before long, we reach open hills where the road fights for space with sheep, gorse bushes and scrubby trees. The first sight of the Penybont race track, far below us, sends our hearts shooting into our throats. This is it! There is the old wooden grandstand that is slowly and surely slipping down the hill. There is the bar, a corrugated iron shed that doubles up as a sheep shelter in the winter. There are cars and lorries and horseboxes, there are ice-cream vans and fruit vans and burger vans. And, somewhere, there is the track.

To get the 'paddock', we have to drive around the edge of the track. Under the grass that is already flattened by the lorries, we can see only too clearly how bumpy the surface is. But we mustn't think too much about the bumps. We must think about the speed and the excitement. As the lorries creep around the track, horses are being warmed up within feet of the engines. They don't bat an eyelid. A large horse ridden by a small child comes flying around the corner. His attention is attracted for a moment by the bouncy castle, but he doesn't miss a step and carries on unbothered. Many horses are warmed up under saddle since, for convenience, many are trained under saddle. There are even saddle races. Warming up at Penybont isn't easy. Part of the track is closed so that the cars can get into the middle of the field, but this means that the horses have to turn and go around the track the wrong way (trying to avoid crashing into other horses and lorries coming towards them).

The day begins for real with the commentary, when Colin Davies picks up the microphone. Colin has been the commentator for years, and is now known as the 'voice of Welsh trotting'. His style is inimitable. He is certainly never lost for words! With the Vinnys of the Welsh trotting circuits dozing at the lorry, the Monsters stamping impatiently and the Greekis keeping their eyes and ears open for suitable lady-friends, Colin begins to call out the runners for the first race. One by one they file out of the paddock (an adjacent field). The rusty gate is pulled open by the old men leaning against it, and then allowed to creak back shut again. Colin urgently calls the late horses, and the bookies shout for attention. The horses parade up and down in front of the public, until Colin gives them the instructions to line up behind the starting gate.

The starter says to the driver of the car, 'Steady Jim, steady Jim'. He says to the drivers of the horses, 'Close up boys, come on Derek, come on Mel, close up'. He says to Jim, 'Alright now Jim, alright now'. Jim picks up speed. Colin roars, 'Close up with the horses trailing! Close up! Close up! Close... Three... Two... One... GO!' And they're off...

The first hazard is the 'blacksmith's bend'. On a track that is two and a half circuits to the mile, the corners are tight and frequent. On this particular corner, the ground is compressed by the cars that cross into the middle of the track, and as a result it is very slippery. These horses may not manage a sub-2:00 mile and none of the drivers are professional, but they know how to look after themselves and negotiate the sharp corners without accidents. The field now charges past the public.

Only a few feet separate the spectators from the hooves and the flying clods of earth. The homestretch is bumpy and rutted from decades of trampling from horses, and it also includes small sheep tracks zigzagging across it. In no time the horses have reached the second corner, which is dangerously close to a small river. If they don't turn in time, only a barbed wire fence stands between them and a ducking.

Round and round they go, faster and faster and faster. Colin's voice becomes louder and more frantic with every turn until the excitement becomes unbearable: 'It's Mahogany Duke, Ladies and Gentlemen, it's Mahogany Duke! But here comes Tyson! This Tyson's going a good pony! It's Mahogany Duke and Tyson! Mahogany Duke and Tyson together! And look at Young Brett, Ladies and Gentlemen, look at Young Brett! It's Young Brett coming on the outside!

Mahogany Duke and Young Brett! Mahogany Duke and Young Brett together! IT'S GOING TO BE YOUNG BRETT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! IT'S YOUNG BRETT, HE'S GOT IT WON!' A roar erupts from the connections of Young Brett, but before they've even had time to savour their victory, the runners for the next race are already filing onto the track. The cup has barely been handed over but already Colin is calling out the latecomers: 'Get your horses kitted up. I'm warning you all, we won't wait for you'. But he must wait, for all of five minutes, while owners and helpers swap knee-boots and gaiting straps and even whole sets of harnesses. Few horses have the privilege of entire sets of tack to themselves and sulkies are invariably shared. The pace of the work behind the scenes is as fast as the pace of the racing.

Unfortunately, Greeki, Vinny and Monster don't understand the importance of Penybont races and fail to rise to the occasion. Monster goes home satisfied after smashing yet another sulky to add to her splintered collection. Greek goes home lame. Vinny goes home refreshed after his long rest by the lorry and two easy races - but he wins the following week on a track more to his liking (three laps to the mile). Instead, the hero of the day is a young mare named Mahogany Jet from the depths of Cardiganshire who understands better than any other horse that Penybont is the day for pulling out all the stops.She has won here every year for three years, and fought bravely to the finish of every big race on whatever the track. No doubt she will continue in this way for many more years. But she is only one of the champions. A win at Penybont is glorious even if it's only a 'Baby Novice'.

After 19 breathless races in succession, everybody is exhausted. The sulkies are tied onto the backs of the lorries. The smashed remnants of Monster's one are sadly bundled up in old feed bags, tied at the top with binder twine (a familiar process by now).The winners stop for fish and chips on the way, and have plenty of help in 'filling the cup(courtesy of the beer shed). And those people who still haven't brought the hay in (like us) work until late into the night to get the job done before the rain sets in.

Elizabeth Collingwood 2005. Article reprinted courtesy of Hoof Beats

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