22 October 2014

Following in footsteps from the past

Mark HURRELL driving 'Sammy the Bull'
Last Saturday was a very big day for my 16 year old son Mark. It was the day he had been waiting on for so long. After six months of driving fast-work he was finally getting to drive in an actual race. It wasn't a totalisator race though, just a workout race, but that didn't worry him. It was his first ever real race and that was all that mattered.

Mark has been keen on harness racing since he was just a young boy. My husband Ross is also a big harness racing fan and has spent many years following the horses. Back in his younger days he even bred and raced a few himself. We have close friends who breed and race horses so his interest in racing has never waned. And now he has passed this love of the horses and racing on to our son. 

Harness racing is the absolute number one favourite thing in Mark's life. Nothing else is as important to him as the horses. He had no real interest in school, and despite the fact I wanted him to stay at school for another year, all he wanted to do was work with the horses. No amount of convincing him otherwise was going to change his mind so last month he left school and began his harness racing career. He has worked part-time in a local stable for the past year but now he gets to spend as much time as he wants there, without the interruption of having to go to school. In the past six months he has learnt so much and has gained so much experience working with and driving numerous different horses. He is now ready to begin the next phase of his career to become a fully fledged race driver. 

Harness racing is not a career path chosen by many. But looking back into my family history I have found several branches of my family involved with harness racing. One branch in particular though, on my maternal side, was right into it in a big way. Let's step back in time to early last century, and it is at this point in time I have found three of my great grandmothers brothers who were all involved with the harness racing world.

William WALLIS (1884 - 1968), Joseph WALLIS (1894 - 1972) and Thorley WALLIS (1901 - 1973) were all harness racing trainers and drivers, each achieving their own fair share of success. They lived and breathed harness racing, much like their great great great nephew Mark does now. Harness racing was only in it's infancy way back when they were training and driving, but looking closely at these photos of them below, not too much has changed. The gear the horses wear is still quite similar, although now days most horses wear some "added extras" that help them out that wee bit more (things such as blinkers, murphy blinds, ear plugs, shadow rolls, nose flappers, spreaders and boring poles). Perhaps one of the main differences is the fact that the harness the horses wear is no longer made of leather, but is instead made of a plastic coated nylon which is much easier to keep clean and doesn't needed oiled, therefore a lot less work.

William WALLIS, pictured with 'John Dillon', date unknown

Joseph WALLIS, pictured with 'Indian Child', 1922

The shape of the carts these horses have on from almost 100 years ago are also very similar to what is still used now days by the majority, although some trainers are now beginning to use 'speed-carts' based on American designs which do look quite different. 

But I guess the biggest difference is the fact that the horses now days are no longer ridden. In early harness racing in New Zealand almost all horses were ridden. Back in the 1920's when the WALLIS brothers were starting out in their harness racing careers, most race meetings would be half ridden races, half cart races. But carts quickly became the norm and ridden races were eventually phased out completely by the late 1950's. It was only earlier this year that I saw for myself for the very first time an exhibition "saddle-trot" (a ridden race) at a local race meeting. It was run to show the spectators the way that harness races used to be run way back in the past and was very interesting to see. 

Thorley WALLIS, pictured in the winners circle with 'First Glance', 1922

 As well as my WALLIS family and a branch of my EGAN family who were all trainers and drivers, my own father and grandfather (Ron ENGLISH and Robert ENGLISH) were huge, huge harness racing fans. Although Dad or Grandad didn't actually work in the harness racing industry, they followed the horses almost religiously and one of their favourite past-times was to attend race meetings all over the countryside (and have the odd wee bet). They both passed away before Mark was born and I wish with all my heart that they were still here now to see him drive. I have no doubt at all that they would be extremely proud and absolutely chuffed with what Mark has chosen to do with his life. And I bet they are looking down from Heaven with huge smiles on their faces, thoroughly enjoying watching their grandson living his dream. 

"The biggest adventure you can take
is to live the life of your dreams."
~~ Unknown  ~~

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