RONAN and Rachael Norton certainly put Killashee, Co Longford, on the harness racing map in 2023. The couple, who got married in the closed season, were in a rich vein of form throughout the year.

Iron Paddy won Trotter of The Year. Fair Play Briolais won five races including the Maven Trot at Lyre and the pacer Ayr Harbour picked up two.

Rachael was the usual driver on ‘Paddy’ while Ronan took the sulky seat on the other two. Ronan will drive all three in 2024, because the newlyweds have a little harness racing driver on the way! The baby will be company for Ronan’s two daughters, Emma (9) and Allana (7).

Ronan grew up with driving horses. Rachael began with show jumpers. Ronan (42) is a farrier while Rachael is a school principal.

Harness racing thrives in the main pockets of Dublin, the North and West Cork. How does it feel to be the only trotting stable for miles around?

“You’d be surprised how many locals follow our progress in The Irish Field,” explains Ronan, “I shoe for a local thoroughbred trainer, Paul Flynn, and he is always encouraging us.”

“We’re delighted to have our three main horses back in work for 2024. We had one young horse on the go, but we have laid him off for now. I’d be tempted to buy another French Trotter in the organised sale.

“Rachael and I were blown away by the scale of the sport in France. We travelled to an awards event with Mark Flanagan (chairman IHRA) and we are convinced that these Trotteurs Français are the way to go.”

Exceptional year

The Nortons are realistic enough to know that last year was exceptional. The horses are always well turned out and wear the minimum of equipment which is a sign of pure gaited and sound stock. Iron Paddy and Ayr Harbour are still improving.

Ronan is aware that Fair Play Briolais will be in with the big boys this term. “Briolais is now an A+ Grade, he earned it. You’d be hoping they run some free-for-alls because he’ll be giving away acres of a start in a handicap.”

Britain was recently affiliated with the UET (European Trotting Union). “We wouldn’t be scared to have a go in England or take on the raiders here if we can arrange some challenge races.”

Rachael and Ronan’s enthusiasm is infectious. Like all good horse people, they treat each of these three animals differently.

Iron Paddy (Ire)

6yo g (Rachmaninov Seven – Vincennes de Gohel)

I suppose he’s the stable star. You can’t do better than winning Trotter of The Year. Six wins and seven seconds tells its own story. His greatest quality is that he is so straightforward. He always pulls out sound and is easy to drive.

We’ll head for the Richard Phelan Memorial, it’s turning into some meeting, and then on to The Red John.

Fair Play Briolais (FR)

9yo g (Oxford du Rib – Nuit de Godisson)

Another consistent type. He is the toughest horse in our yard, but he can be caught out on a track with tight bends. He is something else in the final 200 yards of a race, he has some finishing kick.

You can drive him like you stole him, he will always get you out of trouble. He’ll be aimed at the high-grade trots. I think there’s still a good season or two in him yet.

Ayr Harbour (GB)

4yo g (See and Ski – Ayr Wing)

Our only pacer. He was bred by the O’Neills, hence the Ayr prefix. I think we haven’t seen the best of him yet. We bought him on the recommendation of Martin Loughran.

He really only turns four in May. He’s not even 15 hands. He had a wind problem when we got him, and we had his palate cauterised. He paced 2.02 as a two-year-old so there’s an engine okay. He was unlucky in his final run of 2023 in that he got a puncture in the sulky.

Big excitement around Tattoo Artist

THE Irish Harness Racing continues to promote its ‘Invest in Ourselves’ breeding programme.

Already some two-year-olds and yearlings are on the ground by Cattlewash, Betting Line and Heston Blue Chip.

The latter stallion was owned by a true maverick and lover of harness racing, American businessman and bloodstock agent Eric Cherry.

Eric has arranged for Tattoo Artist p, 1.47.1 s $2,822,098 to cover mares on these shores in 2024 by artificial insemination.

Mark Flanagan of the Irish Harness Racing Assiciation, stated: “Eric has arranged some limited breedings at a discounted fee of €4,500 to help the Irish breeding industry.

“We owe him a huge vote of thanks ‘’

The stallion raced from the age of two to six which should mean he produces durable types.

His sire, He’s Watching, won the Meadowlands Pace and his dam, Stylish Artist, won a Breeders’ Crown.

Tattoo Artist won an impressive 40 races.

Co Antrim breeder Kevin Corey likes the horse: “He’s a phenomenal racehorse, they don’t come along too often. He was iron tough year on year.”

The 2018 Delaney Fillies winner Oakwood Starcam is among the first mares booked for Tattoo Artist.

There are fine stallions too numerous to mention individually available to Irish and British breeders: Sweet Lou, Foreclosure, Henry Hill, Bolt The Duer and Bloodline all have their different followers.

However, the Invest In Ourselves programme is the only venture which ploughs all the profits back into prize money.