British Invasion

by Debbie Little

Five lads from Great Britain are looking to take the U.S. by storm next weekend.

As part of a tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II, amateur drivers Grant Cullen, Jaimie Davies, Richard Haythornthwaite, Marc Jones and Lee Morris will cross the pond to race against the GSY Driving Club on Friday, Nov. 4 at The Meadowlands.

“In addition to the friendly competition, we will be honoring the memory of the late Queen and her support of racing and the ethical treatment of horses,” said event organizer and GSY club president, Dave Yarock.

This competition has been in the works for months and was originally envisioned as a way to recognize the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, commemorating her 70 years on the throne. But when the Queen passed on Sept. 8 at the age of 96, it turned into more of a celebration of the life of a world-renowned and beloved monarch who loved horses.

Yarock relied on Dein Spriggs, president of the Florida Amateur Driving Club, to coordinate with Morris to get drivers for the competition.

“In 2016, I hooked up with Lee and we put together a U.S.A. versus U.K. competition at Pompano,” said Spriggs. “It was really great and we went the following summer (2017) and raced in the U.K.

“So, I spoke to Dave [Yarock] and he wanted to do something for the Queen’s jubilee, this was before she passed away, and I said sure, I know the guys, and actually one of the guys moved here to the States with his family in February and I’m in touch with him all the time. So, we got Lee Morris and he started working on putting guys together.”

In addition to racing a small stable of horses, Morris is a blacksmith at Tioga Downs and currently resides in the Southern Tier District of New York.

“I said I think we can make it work,” said Morris. “It would be great to have people celebrate the Queen, especially with what sort of person she was as far as horses go.

“Being obviously British, the monarchy is a big thing back home. Growing up, all I’ve ever known is the Queen. And I think, basically, that she was just such a fantastic woman, but not only that, she was such an avid supporter of horses in general.”

Queen Elizabeth II, an avid horse fan, owner, breeder and ambassador, owned many horses over the years, some that were her personal riding horses and others that were racehorses which won top races, including Ascot’s Gold Cup and the Epsom Derby. She was inducted into the British Championship Series Hall of Fame in 2021 in a new “special contributor” category.

Morris believes that the team he has assembled to honor the late ruler are all very capable drivers and are superb representatives for the British way of racing.

“Everyone that’s coming, their families are involved [in racing],” said Morris. “They’re all second or third generation. They’ve all been working with horses all their life.”

Anyone who watched the funeral for the Queen knows that her favorite riding horse was part of it as well as her personal bagpiper that played to wake her nearly every morning.

As a nod to that tradition, champion piper John Bottomley, director of piping at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, will be on hand to play the British National Anthem, “God Save The Queen”.

This event would not be possible without the support of Meadowlands’ president/chief executive officer Jeff Gural, chief operating officer/general manager Jason Settlemoir, and the entire staff at The Big M.

In addition to the festivities on the track, there will be some traditional British favorites offered as part of the Pink buffet, including Fish & Chips and Shepherd’s Pie, while Gin and Tonics will be the special cocktail of the evening.

Yarock could not thank Morris, Spriggs or the Big M’s Rachel Ryan and Scott Warren enough for all their hard work and dedication in putting this complicated event together. And what started out as just races at The Meadowlands has grown to include stops at Monticello [Nov. 3] and Freehold [Nov. 5] Raceways.

“I hope everyone will come out and support the event at all the tracks,” said Yarock. “Not just because it will be good, competitive racing, but also because it pays tribute to the late Queen.”

Even though Davies, Haythornthwaite and Morris have all raced in the U.S. before, they never raced at The Meadowlands, and, in fact, none of the British competitors have ever raced on a mile track since they don’t have any back home.

“There are three permanent tracks [dirt tracks], one in
York [in the Northeast of England], one in North Wales,
called Tir Prince and one in South Wales, called Amman Valley,” said Morris. “Other than that, it’s in a field where they lay out some white pegs and make a track, so you go around a grass field.

“I think the biggest difference is [in the U.S.] it’s an industry, it’s a job, it’s a way of life. And I think people do it back home in England because it’s a passion. It’s a hobby and they don’t rely on it for a job. They can’t make enough money off it as a job to survive as a living.”

By trade, Cullen is an electrician, Davies is a sheep farmer, Haythornthwaite is a carpenter and Jones is a farrier. All love harness racing and are extremely excited to compete in the U.S., especially at The Meadowlands.

“If you ask anybody in England where they’d like to drive, it’s always The Meadowlands because it’s the biggest name in racing,” said Morris. “It’s the place that everybody dreams to just drive around, whether or not you win is another thing. For us back home when you race around a grass field, it’s something you can only dream about really.”