Formal Pony Racing in the UK began just eight years ago and has now become one of the country's most popular and fastest growing equestrian sports. Pony Racing was established with the aim of encouraging young riders to have a go at something a little different. Training days are organised by the Pony Club and Pony Racing Authority (PRA) to educate children in race-riding technique and race day etiquette.
It is hoped that through their involvement with Pony Racing talented young riders will go on to become involved in the sport of horse racing and the industry surrounding it. There are many different career paths open to those with a passion for the sport from stable staff through stud staff to more administrative roles such as bloodstock agent, nominations executive and even veterinary officer.
As ponies and their riders become more experienced, they may step up from Pony Club race days to Point-to-Point Pony Races. Competitors must qualify to take part in these events and there are a number of races culminating in championships at the end of the season in early June.
The Pony Races are featured as the warm up before the card of steeplechases commences at Point-to-Point meetings and are a real crowd pleaser.
Our last local Point-to-Point meeting was blessed with a beautiful sunny Spring day with hazy sunshine and a fresh breeze whipping across the race track and stirring the Union Jacks atop the sponsors' marquee. The weather brought racegoers out in force and the showground was packed with happy, smiling families browsing the trade stands, picnicking and soaking up the holiday atmosphere. The more serious punters thronged the beer tent, studied their race-cards and critically eyed the entrants in the parade ring before heading to the line of bookmakers to make what they hoped was a worthwhile investment.
Fifteen minutes or so before the first race the ponies were brought to the parade ring by their handlers, (usually anxious-looking parents of the jockeys!). There were six entrants for the first race and each looked every inch the mini racehorse; spooking at the crowds standing four deep around the ropes and jig-jogging with anticipation as the public address system requested that the jockeys come out. Upon closer inspection however, one little roan pony, number 6, was markedly more rotund and somewhat hairier than his fellow competitors having obviously overwintered very well and dodged the clippers. In contrast to his companions he was very laid back, trundling calmly around the ring and stopping occasionally when he spotted someone leaning on the ropes holding a candy-floss or a hotdog that was within reach. I idly wondered what odds the bookies had given him.
Then the jockeys arrived. All pilots were Pony Club members, aged between 12 and 15 and a mixture of boys and girls. All wore jockeys' silks and expressions ranging from quietly confident to completely petrified. A few last minute instructions were imparted from connections and then the bell was sounded for the jockeys to mount up.
As if on cue, the crowds of spectators hurried across main arena to the racecourse to grab a good vantage point while the ponies and their young riders were escorted down to the start by two magnificent hunters, the huntsmen resplendent in their hunting pink, (scarlet coats). Pony Races are held on the flat over six furlongs (three quarters of a mile) and starting stalls are not used.
This particular course begins with a short straight into a sweeping bend alongside a lake and then into the long finishing straight with the finish line adjacent to the VIP parking area where the privileged were enjoying chilled bubbly and gourmet picnics from the back of their gleaming, private-plated Bentleys and Range Rovers.
Following a short delay, Mr Starter mounted his rostrum, dropped the flag and they were off. Five of the ponies set off like scalded cats, burning up the track and flying through the first four furlongs in the blink of an eye. One seemed to have been caught napping at the start however and was rather a long way adrift as the others hurtled off the bend and into the final straight. The crowd began yelling them home and the ponies dropped their heads and stretched out gamely as their young riders urged them on toward the line. It was nip and tuck all the way with barely a neck between them all. Then, in the shadow of the post, the leader stumbled slightly sending his jockey head over heels onto the turf, presenting the fortunate rider in second place with the prize. There was a tremendous cheer from the standard ticketed area and a demure tinkling of champagne glasses from the VIPs as the ponies crossed the finish line in a brilliant blur of jewel coloured silks.
Hang on a minute; there was one missing. I looked back down the course. And there was number 6; tail swishing, ears flat back, entering the final furlong ... at a trot, having chucked the towel in several furlongs before! The poor pink-faced little jockey was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at her reluctant mount but he was having none of it and eventually crossed the finish line at a walk; much to the delight of the crowd who gave her the biggest cheer of the day.
And that's why I just love Pony Racing!