by Richard Hall

When I used to work for a company in the oil industry, it was our custom and practise to “close out” every project with a Review. All sections of the operations team gathered to methodically go through the job from start to finish, celebrating what had gone well, identifying the areas with shortcomings, and suggesting improvements so that we could “work smarter” in the future.

Just for fun, and perhaps to keep a bit of debate going over the empty months ahead, I am carrying this practise over to the 2003 point to point season. Listed below are the things that I enjoyed, the things that I was impressed by, the things that niggled, and the things that positively annoyed. As it is very much a personal list, I hope it will spark comment. Hopefully it will prompt answers to some of the questions asked. Maybe, collectively, we can even initiate changes! Anyway, here goes;

Most Impressive Performance
Has to be Splash and Dash beating Rob Mine at Marks Tey. The latter had mysteriously run out with the race at his mercy at High Easter a week earlier, and had been hastily turned out again to achieve the victory that would qualify him for the Cheltenham Foxhunters by the set deadline. He had already defeated Splash and Dash at Cottenham on the opening day of the season, and few doubted that he would do so again. Andrew Hickman had other ideas. He rode such a confident race, travelling well within himself to lay up behind the favourite throughout. When given his head just before the last, Splash and Dash settled the issue within a matter of strides.

He has had one outing since then, winning a Hunter Chase at Stratford by thirteen lengths. He has only run six times in his life, has never been put under pressure, and has great scope for further improvement. At only eight now, he should reach his peak over the next two years. I believe he will be a potent force in Hunter Chases and, if entered, will carry my money for the Cheltenham and/or Aintree events.

Other performances worthy of mention are Silver Spider’s demolition of a field littered with previous winners in an Intermediate at Cottenham in February, and course specialist Helmsley Flier’s pillar to post assassination of the Restricted field on the same card. Unfortunately both these horses went wrong in their next races and were not seen out again. Hopefully they will recover in time for the 2004 season. Weaver’s Choice also impressed in routing a good field at Horseheath in January. He has not lived up to that in five outings since and I suspect he is very much a horse for a course.

Most Improved Performer
Plenty of contenders here;

Teeton Priceless who built on a victory in a poor Maiden at Horseheath at the backend of 2002 with a Restricted win at the same venue in January, and then followed it up with a victory in the hottest East Anglian Intermediate of the year at High Easter.

Watchowillie who has been transformed by the firm going, and easily picked up end of season Men’s Opens at Higham and Fakenham.

Endeavour who, although disappointing on his final run at Marks Tey, has added a level of consistency to his undoubted ability.

Bush Hill Bandit who began the season as runner up in a Cottenham Maiden and progressed to take a keenly contested Fakenham Hunter Chase.

Round The Bend who has progressed from being a “short runner” to record aggressive victories at both Market Rasen and Cottenham.

Royal Action who has been on the go all season but, in the early weeks especially, made the transformation from perennial “also ran” to a potent force in Men’s Open company. 

My vote, however, has to go to Cinammon Club, who’s only career victory prior to January this year was a Claiming Hurdle for Nick Gaslee in 1998. She began the season as a seemingly fortunate benefactor from The Red Boy’s early exit in a Confined at Higham early in the season, and then went on to beat that same rival comprehensively at Marks Tey. She has continued the season mopping up Ladies Opens for Amy Stennett and currently looks unbeatable in that arena. 

Best Performance by a Maiden
Three spring to mind, and they don’t include Cantarinho’s Horseheath debut.

Bunratty’s Sole made a big impression when comfortably opening his account at Marks Tey, following a promising debut third in a large Restricted field at Guilsborough.

Freteval didn’t come off the bridle when hacking up in a short Maiden at Cottenham, and went on to confirm the promise with a victory at Leicester’s Hunter Chase day next time out.

Without doubt though, the most spectacular performance of the year was by Paul Keane’s All In The Stars on his debut run at High Easter. He must have made up twenty lengths between the last two fences to catch the leaders and then, once he had passed them, positively sprinted to the post in the day’s fastest time. I have heard a rumour that the victory was taken away from him because a banned substance was found. Can anyone substantiate this? His only subsequent performance was in a hurdle at Market Rasen where he was noted making rapid progress in third place before running out at the last.

Training Performance of The Year
Firstly the Turner family must be mentioned for keeping virtually all of their string going throughout the year, and continuing to run them regardless of the extremes of going. I am sure that it is more than just good fortune that they all managed to keep sound!

Mike Bloom also deserves a mention for keeping Always On The Line going throughout the season, finishing (with a victory at Marks Tey on, to all intents and purposes, the last day of the season) in the same way as he had begun at Cottenham’s opening meeting.

The winner, though, has to be Diane Pyper and Alex Harvey for bringing Denis Compton back, at the age of twelve and after a four year absence, to win a Maiden at Cottenham and a Restricted at Fakenham.

Best Riding Performance of the Year
Stuart Morris receives a number of nominations (notably for Gallant Glen at Horseheath), as does James Owen, whose patience and self belief were justly rewarded in the final weeks of the season. Jenny Gordon also warrants a mention for her handling of Bitofamixup on two visits to Higham. The first, when she coaxed this “bit of a monkey” around the three mile circuit (probably against his will), earned her a fine from the stewards because he finished too fast. The benefits of this tender handling were there for all to see on the next visit, however, when, filled with a renewed enthusiasm for the sport, horse and rider led a similar grade field from pillar to post.

My vote, however, goes to Paul Cowley for the ride he gave Corrie Mor in a Maiden at Higham. He correctly anticipated that Rowan Cope (on the leader Miss Toski) would try to push him out through the wings of the final fence as he delivered his challenge. He responded by coolly holding his mount a length behind, and jumping across the fence to take the inside berth (plus the initiative and the impetus) on the run in. To use a boxing analogy, he ducked his opponent’s right hook and, whilst he was off balance, landed him the knockout body blow.

Best Supporters
I know I’ve said it many times before but it has to be the Turner family. Without them the sport in our region would be considerably poorer.

The Bookmakers
As a general rule, and certainly compared to some other areas in the country, the East Anglian bookmakers are not too bad. In races with eight runners or less, where the form is largely exposed, the over rounds tend to fluctuate between 110% and 140%. Where the ordinary punter does have to be careful, though, is in races with eight or more runners (mainly maidens) containing some unexposed types – margins here, on occasions, do start to reach unacceptable levels. On one bleak afternoon at Horseheath, just after the bookies had been hit by the victory of Dooks Delight – the only horse in the race they took any money for (backed from 5/1 to less that half those odds) – the next two races were priced up at well over 200% over round!

The bookies may operate a cartel – as long as it is policed so that margins stay within acceptable levels, who cares? One wonders, though, if it wasn’t the adverse publicity given on the EA website just after the Horseheath rip off, how far they would have trimmed themselves back, if at all? Is it a question of every now and then just pushing at the boundaries to see if and when the golden goose starts complaining?

The Players
In general, a great bunch. What stands out for me is the enthusiasm everyone seems to possess, and their willingness to share it. Just look on the websites, for example, at the banter (albeit a little puerile at times) between Messrs Hickman and Fowler. Nick Pearce is another example. I remember watching him at Cottenham. He didn’t have a ride in that particular race but, kitted out in preparation for the next one, he was in the grandstand watching. He was chatting away to what seemed like complete strangers. He told them what horses he still had to ride that afternoon, how he thought they would run, how he was feeling, what he’d for breakfast. You name it, he would talk about it. If you could bottle up that kind of energy and commitment you would make a fortune!

This spirit isn’t just limited to the jockeys, nor just to those who experience the successes the sport can offer. It goes all the way through; to owners, trainers, grooms, hunt supporters manning the Totes and car parks, spectators, virtually everyone.

Perhaps those who don’t succeed show the greatest spirit of all? In one of my early season reviews I realised I may have been particularly unkind (albeit in a jocular sort of way) to Caroline Eagle. I had lost money the previous year backing her mount, Senso, in Ladies Opens. No matter what Caroline did, she had this instinctive ability to get beaten. At Ampton she had even jumped the last in front, only to fall off on landing. Seeing that she had dropped down to Novice Rider company for the first Ampton meeting of the season, I decided to have one more go at getting my money back – after all, the horse clearly had ability, and the rider must have learnt something from the previous year’s experiences?  I got on at 5/1. What happened? Horse and jockey part company at the first fence. I mentioned this in my review, and perhaps got a cheap laugh at her expense. I was then criticised on the websites, and rightly so.

I sought her out at the next meeting to apologise. She held no grudge at all, and even complimented me on my dry sense of humour! We have subsequently chatted a few times, and I have built up an enormous respect for her. In many ways she personifies all that is good about the sport, and the people in it. I certainly wish that I had her spirit, her determination, her self belief, her courage, her self deprecating sense of humour (“my horses have picked up enough letters in front of their names to play scrabble with”), and her positive attitude. She was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She cannot afford to just nip over to Ireland and acquire the best horses available. She has to buy cheaply, and put in the time, work and knowledge to make the best of it. Every penny she has accumulated has been worked for, and her two horses consume a large percentage of them. Vets bills, food, farrier fees – anyone who has kept a horse knows that the list of associated outgoings can be endless. Aside from the money, comes the time invested; up at the crack of dawn, drive to the yard, “do” them, then off to work, and back again to sort them out for the evening. At least four hours a day, seven days a week, come rain or shine.

Then, at the weekend, comes the highlight - a chance to compete and have your worthiness judged. Hopes raised, only to be dashed again. Firstly the physical effects; a fall, a bruise, a broken bone, a lost tooth. Then, more deeply, the mental damage; failure (again), the self doubt, the seemingly endless tunnel with no visible light at the end. On top of that some idiot, who has never ridden a horse in public in his life and who’s total investment in your cause is tenner lost into a bookies satchel, tells the whole world how incompetent you are! Never mind. Pick yourself up. Have another go. You can do it. Your only option is to admit defeat. Tell yourself you will not give up. Try again. Build up belief. Build up hope. Next weekend will be different. You can do it.

You are not human if you cannot respect, or be humbled by, people like that. In many ways they are the biggest winners of all.

Whatever Happened To?
– for me the most exciting horse on the EA circuit in 2002. He recorded his first victory of 2003 (under new pilot Andrew Braithwaite) in a Hunt Race at Horseheath in February and has not even been seen in the Entries since?

The relationship between the Turners and Andrew Sansome?

Mister Ringa – the much touted novice from the Sporborg yard. He had one schooling outing as a five year old in 2002 but has not been seen at all this year?

Tim Lane and Richard Morgan Evans – are they well on the road to recovery?

Chrissie Elliot – no runners this year  (in East Anglia anyway)?

Five Things I’d Change (if only I could)
1. Double Headers
– avoid them like the plague. They don’t double the revenue, the interest, or the number of runners. They merely spread it out more thinly. Limit meetings to one a weekend (including Bank Holidays), and preferably time them so that they don’t clash with meetings in the South East. To accommodate the inevitable, weather induced, cancellations why not start the season earlier (the first Sunday after Boxing Day) or finish it later (end of May – like the rest of the country)?

2. Entrance Fees – generally these are pretty reasonable in comparison to the rest of the country, but why not introduce a season ticket scheme for regulars to reward their loyalty? Either that or a “pay for five meetings and get the sixth one free” scheme?

3. More Honest Appraisal of the Prospects – We could have been warned in advance, for example, that Horseheath was as hard as the M25 for the Puckeridge meeting, could not be watered, and was therefore unlikely to attract many runners. What made matters worse was learning that such a similar scenario had happened a few years earlier. Similarly, it would have been more realistic to point out to the paying public that there was a strong possibility that both Easter Monday’s Marks Tey Meeting and May Day’s Northaw one may suffer a shortage of runners. The long term damage of over selling the positive and ignoring the potential negative (in terms of credibility and in casual visitors not coming back again) by far outweighs any short term gain in gate money.

4. Hunt Races – to be limited to riders (as well as horses) who regularly ride out with the Hunt and (perhaps) have not previously ridden more than (say) two winners.

5. Bring back the old hut/tent and trough toilets (for men at least). Portaloos have their place, but not on a crowded racecourse. To stand in a queue for up to fifteen minutes at a time is just ridiculous. Horseheath and High Easter do it, why can’t Higham and Ampton?