A former boxer turned horsebreeder has staked it all on turning a racetrack near York into a success. Chris Berry meets Mick Welling, an enthusiast for the sport of harness racing who hopes it could take off in the UK as it has across the Atlantic.
How many race tracks run a full programme of meetings through the year in Yorkshire? For those who follow National Hunt and Flat racing the answer is reasonably straightforward and most will answer “nine”, but in the heart of the county there is a course that caters for a completely different genre and which is the premier track of its kind in the UK.
Tucked away off the A59 between York and Harrogate on the road leading to the cul-de-sac village of Nun Monkton is the York Harness Raceway. It is one of Yorkshire’s true hidden gems and is a sport that was so intoxicating to Londoner and ex-boxer Mick Welling that when the opportunity came he bought the course.
That was six years ago and if Mick – who once fought Lloyd Honeyghan in a title match-up in the 80s – has his way, the track will not remain as largely unknown as it is presently. He has already invested time, money and copious amounts of energy into its running and he’s passionate about its future. The new harness racing season started just two weeks ago and Mick is looking forward to what he hopes will be the best-supported set of meetings since he took over.
“This was where I fell in love with the sport. It is the first harness racing track I ever came to. I was intoxicated by the speed, the excitement and the atmosphere. It’s such an adrenaline rush being the driver of the sulky behind a great standardbred horse and aiming to be first past the winning post.’
“It’s a speed thing in the same way as having a fast car and once you’re hooked you start setting aims.
“Once I’d bought a couple of horses I thought that getting five wins would be great. Then you get 10 winners. I remember wanting to win a heat, doing just that, then wanting to win my first final. I did that too. The big races become your next goals, like the Breeders Crown and the Sire Stakes. I became an A class driver and won at that level.
“Then you want to import a horse from America, and not just any horse but a real good ‘un. I did that. My next ambition was to breed a foal that would get on to the track and win.”
Within half a decade Mick had achieved all of this, fulfilling many lifetime ambitions along the way, and he now also runs the Camden Stud where he has 60 brood mares and four stallions.
Last year such was his growing commitment to York Harness Raceway that he sold up his scrap metal business in London, packed his bags and moved lock, stock and barrel to Nun Monkton to pursue his personal dream of the course reaching its full potential.
“I’m throwing everything into making the track the success it deserves to be. This place has my heart and soul and I am determined to make it work as a realistic business. When I first started racing in 1993 it was only a hobby for me but it has now taken over my time and I’m here 24/7. When I was a kid I was brought up with horses and carts so it’s really in my blood. This place holds so many happy memories and the people who come here are salt-of-the-earth families. I’m certain that if more people came to see what we offer they would be hooked in much the same way I was.”
Before Mick purchased the track and adjacent land the York Harness Raceway was run as a club. Since he took over he has cut down the number of race meetings to 14, starting the season in May and running through to October.
“We have to face facts and we’re still in a recession right now, which means that people haven’t the money to go racing every week with the cost of fuel. The first year I took over we had 23 meetings and I lost £21,000. You can’t go on for very long like that.
“I’d love to build the race meetings back up again but it’s a case of one step at a time. I’ve made a huge investment in bringing everything up to scratch here including the grandstand, the course, the bar and the café. I’d really like to try some midweek race meetings during the summer but we need sponsors to be able to do that.”
Mick also realises that the course offers greater potential than simply being home to harness racing. The 27 acre site has attracted significant interest from the Caravan Club and in August the venue will be host to the York Dog Show.
“We’re open to any suggestions from those who want to put on events here. Our facilities are ideal for many functions and special occasions, and so far as I’m concerned the more activity that takes place here the better it will make it for the track.”
The British Harness Racing Club tells of the sport having been around since Newmarket Heath hosted its first meeting in 1750, but it has never made the same impact as flat and steeplechase in the UK. Over in the United States, France, Sweden and Australia it is not uncommon for crowds to be in five figures for the big meetings and certainly around 5,000 spectators for regular weekly attendances.
York Harness Raceway attracts a loyal following of around 500 per meeting and has yet to break through to the masses, who are more likely to experience it at Kilnsey Show on grass, without knowing that there is a circuit on their doorstep.
“This track was started because there was a need for a fast, hard circuit as you find in the US and Canada where every race is televised and the sport has commentators as well known as we have for football. It’s big business over there and everything is geared up for breeding and gambling.
“We’re quite a long way behind in terms of public knowledge about the sport and my own belief is that if we were picked up by Sky Sports or some other sports interest channel the racing in this country would take off.”
Mick imports mares from Canada and the US. Last year he imported six including one that was a world champion as a two year old. He started Camden Stud, based in various sites throughout Yorkshire, in 2007 and it is now one of the leading standardbred studs in the country.
“Breeding standardbreds and selling them is something you have to be careful about. Up until a year ago I was still racing as well as owning the track and the stud.
“When you have five yearlings to sell you have to be prepared to sell all five, including the one you consider to be the best otherwise you can seriously damage your relationship with the buyers.
“If you hold on to the one you want and the five yearlings you have all go racing against each other, with yours coming in first, then everyone thinks you’re taking the mick.
“I’ve now quit racing and my concentration is focused wholly on the track and the stud.”
Mick has just one phrase in mind for anyone who is considering going to the races at Yorkshire’s 10th racetrack. It’s a phrase also used on their promotional video.
“We’ll see you soon!”
BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO HARNESS RACING
The horses used are standardbreds. They look similar to thoroughbreds but are generally regarded as tougher and have calmer temperaments. They have longer bodies than thoroughbreds.
There are two types of harness racing – pacing and trotting. A pacer is the faster of the two and the horse moves its legs laterally – right hind and right foreleg together; left hind and left foreleg. It is the same gait as a camel. A trotter moves its left foreleg at the same time as its right hindleg; and right foreleg at the same time as its left hind leg.
Races are usually conducted over two circuits of the track.
The horses line up behind a slow-moving, hinged gate mounted on a motor vehicle, which then leads them to the starting line. At the line, the wings of the gate are folded up and the vehicle accelerates away from the horses.
The sulky (also known as a bike) is a light, two-wheeled cart equipped with bicycle wheels. The driver (not a jockey, as in thoroughbred racing) carries a light whip chiefly used to signal the horse by tapping and to make noise by striking the sulky shaft.
The next race meeting at York Harness Raceway will be held on Saturday, June 15.