It’s always great to engage in discussion with someone passionate about horses, so it was all the more interesting to catch up with Hugh O’Neil a couple of weeks ago when he dropped off some gates at Waxwing.

The name of Hugh O'Neil and Sons is familiar within farming circles throughout Scotland as leading suppliers of gates, fencing materials and other agricultural equipment. Remarkably, it is one which should also be well-known to equestrians, as this family are leaders in their field both on and off the harness race track.

Heading up the family firm is 'Old' Hugh, who had an early love of horses which he passed on to his sons Hugh, Ryan and Tom. They are all active members in the business as well as partners in Ayr Standardbreds, which combines their racing and stud name and which is situated very close to the A77 near Ayr.

Both Ryan and Hugh drove competitively in their youth, however it is Hugh's son, Hugh jnr, who has taken up the reins and highly successfully at that. Hugh's wife, Elizabeth, is key to the team, as is his other son, Michael, who helps out with stables and stud work which is also a special interest to Hugh and Ryan.

Unquestionably the Cinderella of equestrian disciplines, it is perplexing to know why so little is widely known in Scotland about harness racing, along with its enthusiastic breeders and drivers as well as their beautiful and exceptionally athletic horses.

My own boyhood recollections of the sport are limited to my dad's friend, coal merchant and haulage contractor, Willie Moore, who trained a few 'trotters' and had stables and a practice track in the middle of Kelty, a well-known mining town in Fife. I remember talk of sales in America and attending a 'trot' in a grass field somewhere near Stirling.

In recent years, I have watched the harness racing which is staged as evening main ring entertainment at the Royal Welsh Show. It is never short of thrills and spills but exciting nonetheless, despite its lower league status within the sport.

Harness racing in Wales enjoys much support within the farming community where a large number of rural grass tracks are to be found, Tregarron being the biggest.

At the other end of the spectrum, the O'Neils operate at the highest level in both competition and breeding – and for the record, they have pacers, not trotters. Although both registered as Standardbreds and compete at the single two-time gait of trot, the pacer engages its legs laterally (on one side) while the trotter engages its legs diagonally (opposites sides); the latter is largely recognised as the common version of trot for most breeds.

Just as the Hackney horse is born with a high knee action, pacers naturally find their rhythm through lateral action but this is maintained throughout the race with the help of hobbles, which are leather loops strung round both fore and hind legs on each side.

Established in North America, the history of the Standardbred is relatively short, unlike European breeds which developed over many centuries. It was first recognised as a breed in1880 at much the same time as the Victorians were creating their stud books in Britain.

Breeders in New England had brought together various European breeds over the years although it was the Thoroughbred, Messenger, exported to Philadelphia, in 1788, which would exert the greatest influence on the modern pedigree. He may have been unsuccessful on the flat but as a sire he was exceptional and it was his grandson, Hambletonian, which was consequently recognised as the forefather of the Standardbred.

Widely exported round the world, the pacer is extensively found in North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, while the trotter is the favoured racer in Continental Europe.

While a few races exist under saddle, most races involve pulling a high performance two-wheeled vehicle known as a sulky, which is so well balanced and light that it barely influences the racing capability of the Standardbred.

Races are run over a mile with a moving start which involves a motor vehicle carrying a long control bar at the rear; when it reaches racing speed the vehicle moves off the track and the race formally starts.

Handicap races take account of form, age and gender and the fastest horses give others a start before racing themselves. Harness racing is fast and furious, favouring the best tactical drivers as well as the brave!

Average speed of a Standardbred trot is 30mph, compared to the average speed of the Thoroughbred at gallop in The Derby at 35mph. (Interestingly, Usain Bolt travels at 27.8 mph over 100m, but unlikely to be able to maintain the 15 mph which Roger Bannister achieved when he broke the record as the first runner to run a mile in under four minutes.) Remarkably at 5m, the length of stride of a pacer at trot is only 1m short of that of a Thoroughbred at gallop.

With the fastest time recorded for a Standardbred in Britain over a mile being 1m 53.7s, it is all the more credit to the O'Neils that their current racing star, Ayr Empress, achieved her all-time best of 1m 58.5s when she recorded a win at York Harness Racetrack in September, 2020.

This was a qualifier for the prestigious STAGBI (Standardbred and Trotter Association of Great Britain and Ireland) Golden Girls Group 1 final staged in North Wales, last weekend, in which this brilliant mare lived up to expectations when coming a creditable second in a top-class field.

Empress, a bay five-year-old by the leading sire for six seasons, Hasty Hall, is out of the home-bred mare, Ayr Queen, which was purchased in utero when her dam, Dear Me, was purchased at the Harrisburg Sales, in Pennsylvania, in foal to the legendary sire, Albert Albert.

Bringing the best to Scotland, admittedly at huge cost, has paid dividends for the Ayrshire enthusiasts, who having reaped the benefits both on the track and in the sale ring. It says much for the skill of her young trainer/driver, Hugh jnr, that he has taken the mare to the top but equally he has been most fortunate to have a mare which has the ability to allow him to compete among the best in Britain.

At home the facilities are among the best, however there is the added bonus of the beach at Troon which provides an excellent all-weather surface, as well as sea water which provides a great tonic for the limbs which are so important and crucial to success.

In a sport dominated by enthusiastic, yet skilled amateurs and hobby breeders, many of whom hold down everyday jobs, the O'Neils are the sole commercial breeders in Scotland. Their list of this year's home-bred winners both at home and over the borders of England and Wales is extensive and their record at the sales impressive.

Placing their faith in the bidders at the premier Brightwells Standardbred Sales, in 2017, their yearling filly, Ayr Elegant (full sister to Empress and a record for the Stud) made £15,000, while last year, the colt, Ayr Camelot, by Hasty Hall, made £12,000. Needless to say, there is much anticipation for the forthcoming sale of their yearling colt, Ayr Emperor, another full brother to Empress, when he came under the hammer at York on Thursday, October 14.

The O'Neils would be the first to recognise the camaraderie and skill of their fellow racers whom they meet at weekends at their local track of Corbiewood. It is situated near Bannockburn, established in the 1960s by haulage contractors, James and Daniel Taylor, who built a stadium on the site of their own training track.

It is the longest continuous running harness racing venue in the UK and Scotland's only dedicated hard track for harness racing, and has been host for more than 50 years to the Scottish Harness Racing Club, a non-profit organisation run by those directly involved in the sport for mainly local members.

While this venue hosts the majority of meetings throughout the harness racing season in Scotland from May to October, others include the grass tracks at neighbouring Haugh Field and Musselburgh.