by Richard Hall

Flushed with punting success at Higham last Saturday, and armed with a few dark horses uncovered during hours of study on the Racing Post website, I approached the day in an upbeat and confident mood. An acquaintance, not in attendance, believed Horseheath to be an advert for the old adage of “horses for courses”, but he rarely won and I easily dismissed his advice. It wasn’t yesterday’s winners I was looking for!

The opening race on the card, a Confined, boasted two previous course winners; Tom de Savoie, the 11/8 favourite, and the enigmatic Endeavour who, at this meeting last year, had thrown away certain victory by jumping an imaginary fence when in a clear lead on the run in. He was well supported from 3/1 into 2/1. Neither of these appealed to me, the latter very much had two styles of running and the former had never won on his seasonal debut. I went for the ex Irish chaser Minono, now with Wilf Tolhurst, who was available at lipsmackin’ odds of 14/1. They didn’t look quite so attractive just after the starter raised the tapes. The horse froze to the spot and let the field gain a twenty length advantage before consenting to chase after them. He made this up after a mile, however, and went out onto the second circuit in a closely packed group that also contained Rupert’s Choice, the talented Sporborg horse having his first run for two years, and the two previous course winners. Six fences from home Rupert’s Choice faded away and Tom de Savoie kicked on. The other two covered the move and, as they climbed towards the third last, he was the first to be beaten. Endeavour, under the evergreen George Cooper, then made his move, swooping into lead with a definite change of gear. Minono tried to go with him but his earlier exertions had taken their toll and he had to be content with second, some ten lengths behind the winner. Tom de Savoie was a further twenty lengths behind in third and will invariably come on for the run. 

The PPORA club race contained three previous course winners; Caroline Bailey’s Contingency, the Turner horse Pampered Gale, who had disappointed at Ampton the previous Sunday and was still without regular pilot Andrew Sansome, and Weavers Choice, who just had beaten Pampered Gale in the Maiden on this card last year. I went with the lightly raced Jack Hackett, an 11 year old winner of his last three races in 2002, and who, I reasoned, was capable of further improvement. Money for Gary Hamner’s Freestyler (at 2/1) meant that 7/2 was freely available.
What looked like an open race in the formbook turned into an absolute procession and produced one of the boldest displays of front running I have seen since Noyan regularly used to toy with the Ladies Opens at Higham. Weavers Choice, ridden as if defeat was out of the question by Richard Barrett, pulled further and further away to eventually win by a distance. If able to repeat this form, he will be a strong force in whatever grade he chooses. Contingency, who could not go the early pace, plugged on for second to earn his jockey, Rowan Cope, a £50 fine for excessive use of the whip. Pampered Gale kept on for Zoe Turner to snatch third on the run in from the Neil King trained debutant Nousayri, who went well for a long while for veteran pilot Tony Humphrey. Pampered Gale took a few outings to get going last year and looked as if this run, very close to Ampton one, would bring him on. I suspect he will be winning again soon, a remark that may also apply to Jack Hackett who faded badly a mile from home. He needed his pipe opener last year too. Freestyler, on the other hand, never had a horse behind him and was pulled up for the third successive time. From a betting perspective, he should be left well alone. 

The Men’s Open attracted eight runners but, in my book, had only four possible winners; Real Value at evens, who would have surely won the Open at Cottenham but for falling two out, Rob Mine at 3/1, the eyecatching Cottenham Club Race winner, the course specialist Fair Exchange at 9/2, and Naomh Padraig, Richard Hunnisett’s recent purchase from Ireland (and my “dark horse of the day”) at 10/1.
Fair Exchange, carrying one of my “saver” bets, is nothing if not enthusiastic and set off at a good pace to make every post a winning one. He led until four out when lack of fitness told, but still managed to come in third. He will be a force to be reckoned with around undulating courses again this year. This left Rob Mine and Real Value to fight out the finish. Rob Mine got first run and, despite Andrew Hickman’s brave urgings on Real Value, managed to cosily hold on for a two length victory. The runner up made several jumping errors, which could have been the result of jaded confidence since the Cottenham fall. Obviously still talented, I would not want to take too short a price about him again until he has demonstrated that experience to be behind him. Naomh Padraig showed himself to be woefully one paced and was a remote fourth.

Betting for the Ladies Open was unusually available some twenty minutes before the off time. Spring Gale opened at 1/2 and generated a flurry of inactivity – clearly this wasn’t the opportunity of a lifetime that the bookies thought they were offering. Money instead came for the Heather Silk trained Dooks Delight, ridden by Caroline Holiday who had won the race last year aboard Mr Miller. He was backed at all rates from 5/1 down to 7/4, with Spring Gale drifting to 11/8. It was these two who fought out the finish. Spring Gale had kicked clear five from home but was showing signs of tiring along the home straight. He jumped the last four lengths clear and Zoe Turner, seeing no danger over her left shoulder, looked to coax him home. Dooks Delight, however, was being produced on her inside and, by the time Zoe saw the challenge, it was too late. Miss Holiday had got up by a head. 

The bookies were, naturally upset. The fine of £125 imposed by the Stewards on Zoe Turner for “failing to ride out a finish” did little to placate them. They took their anger out on the punters. In the next three races they offered over round odds approaching two hundred percent! Nobody can sensibly bet in a thirteen runner field where the biggest price on offer is 14/1, the third favourite is 7/2, and the sixth favourite is 6/1. It was a pathetic sight. Not wanting to get caught out, they were reducing prices without taking a bet, purely on the strength of someone backing it with their neighbour! This gutless attitude will win them few friends and, if the apparently cosy cartel they seem to operate between them is allowed to continue, it will eventually see the paying public desert the sport. New legislation threatens that bookies will soon have to pay ten per cent of their profits in tax. They should not be allowed to pass this on (in trumps) to the public by acting as one to increase margins to an unacceptable level.

The Restricted bought together several promising types in Parsonhumfrywebber, Will Hill, Solar King, My Best Buddy, and Jim’s Gift, a winner of his only point start in Ireland. The latter unshipped Richard Barrett on the way to post and travelled a full circuit before being caught. He jumped indifferently for the first couple of miles but made steady progress thereafter to eventually finish third. Solar King looked like the winner three from home but went out very quickly and was allowed to finish in his own time. He will need an easier track. Will Hill once again demonstrated that he is not the gamest horse in training, and found little under pressure. Parsonhumfrywebber was up with the leaders early on, but was badly outpaced in the middle third of the race. He ran on again in typical fashion to take fourth. My Best Buddy finished second and, in so doing, suggested that he may be one to follow. He sweated up badly in the paddock but was in the leading group throughout and, at the business end, only one went passed him. That was Teeton Priceless, a winner of a poor Maiden at the course last year but with little form since. She was always going well and pulled clear up the final hill, under the very competent handling of Paul Cowley, to win as she liked. I doubt if this was a fluke and I expect her to win again.

The Maiden for horses under eight had mediocrity written all over it, but produced a double on the day for Heather Silk when Stuart Morris piloted her China Box to victory. Patrick Millington, in his truly unique manner, rallied Ravens Worth on the run in to pip the Caroline Bailey debutant, Denvale, for second. The latter was not given a hard time by Rowan Cope, and his jumping improved as the race developed. He will have learnt from the experience and time may well prove that he was the best horse in the race. Gunner Be True, having only his fifth race, stayed on at one pace for fourth. He will never be a world beater but he is showing gradual signs of improvement and could find a Maiden before the end of the season.

The Maiden for those over eight was equally limited in terms of class, but Caroline Bailey’s grey, Nelsun, had finished second at the course last year and, albeit too late, inspired me to follow my acquaintance’s advice and back those with course form. He carried my money in what had become the “getting out” stakes. For a long while it looked as if I would do just that. Nelsun went clear early and held a commanding five length lead turning for home. It completed a frustrating afternoon for Caroline Bailey (horses placed in six of the seven races) when Carlton Brae, with Phil Hall in the saddle, came from nowhere to sprint clear on the run in. Having missed last season the winner was having only his fourth outing and has clearly improved for the absence. He won easily enough and could be anything. Tall Hat did what he did at Cottenham, in keeping going when all those behind him had given up, to finish third of three finishers.

During the long (and note-less) journey home, my over-riding memory of the day had little to do with any potential winners I may have spotted. Quite the reverse in fact. With most of the discussion on the jumpingforfun message board last week centring on the plight and criticism of novice riders, I made a point of seeking out Caroline Eagle and wishing her luck for her ride on Senso in the Ladies Open. She said that she had become fed up with hitting the deck and had almost considered giving the ride to someone else, but trainer Paula Twinn had persuaded her not to. She also revealed that she had bought another horse that she was hoping to ride in the Restricted, straight afterwards. 
Senso gave Caroline a great ride in the Ladies Open but he tired badly after two miles and any realistic chance of victory went. He then fell at the sixteenth fence. Although Caroline got up the horse stayed down for a long while and, after fifteen minutes, those of us watching feared the worst. Caroline tore off her colours (which were to be carried by Monsukh in the next) and gave them to Paula Twinn, who raced with them to the main arena where she found a willing deputy in Rachael Barrow.
As Senso got to his feet, apparently just winded, to begin the long walk back to the horsebox, Caroline Eagle took the hand of her partner and, in the company of a first aider, they too began a long, lonely, walk, this time to a medical room. I wonder how long it will be before we see her riding again?