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Accidental legend
Thursday, March 06, 2014 - by Frank Cotolo

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Contemporary Thoroughbred racing in America has had a great influence on Thoroughbred racing in Great Britain (GB), though it took centuries. By the mid-1980s, there were elements of American racing creeping into the stoic and sometimes stodgy platform of racing British runners.

I experienced the disparity between racing the runners on both sides of the Atlantic personally.

When I was in England writing about Thoroughbred handicapping for turf magazines in the U.S., I clearly saw the differences in the sport, spread out over Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England proper. But when I met Steve Cauthen, the Triple Crown-riding jockey from Kentucky who had gone overseas to continue his career after peaking before he was 20, I learned that the sport was in true transition.

Though Cauthen was learning the GB academics of Thoroughbred racing, his American style was influencing local riders. As Cauthen and his career matured, the GB jockey community was learning to rate horses differently, based on tactics and style that Cauthen displayed. In GB it was all turf racing then but dirt racing was not far from becoming common on the isles. So much so, that the first synthetic dirt surface was invented in GB.

As I watched other changes, like American-breds excelling in steeplechase events and other U.S. jockeys being imported from the colonies, I started a search for Standardbreds on the isles. I was shocked to find no one I asked in the Thoroughbred industry, including punters and the legal bookmakers, confirmed that any Standardbreds existed.

At Ripon Racecourse, I met an older man (let’s call him Delaney) who was willing to acknowledge the breed. Delaney said he was disconnected from turf journalism for many years, but knew about harness racing in GB. He said, and I paraphrase, “No one takes the Standardbred seriously here and you may think it quite strange the British don’t care to take credit for creating a new breed. After all, Thoroughbred Messenger was imported to America by Sir Thomas Benger at the end of the seventeenth century and, of course, one of his great grandsons was Hambletonian and that changed racing a bit, eh?

“Personally, I feel that Messenger was not imported as much as he was exiled because no one thought he would be a good stallion and his connections could get a steal of a price for him in Pennsylvania, so they sort of unloaded him, feeling as if they had gotten more than what the horse was worth, if you ask me. Of course everyone was wrong about Messenger as a sire of runners because he produced very good ones. But when Messenger became responsible for a whole new breed, it was rather embarrassing to have had evaluated Messenger so poorly. There was pride at stake, if you will. At least that’s the way I have always seen it.”

I learned more about harness racing’s GB existence when I returned to the states. I will write about that in future blogs.

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