by Richard Hall

The end of the 2002 point to point season in May coincided with, or maybe even prompted, an erosion in my interest in horse racing. Over the summer, through autumn, and into winter, I became more and more cynical. The everyday package of moderate horses, large fields, non triers, tired trainers, and unfathomable form lines consistent only in their contradictions, is bad enough. Add to this the insulting early morning odds, at 150% over-round, that invariably contract still further by the time you actually get to bet, then even the most thick skinned of us start to feel we are being ripped off. Put it all in the cheap packaging of insincere TV presenters telling you, in a bored “know it all” monotone, that every winner is a “good horse that should be followed”, and urging you, at 60p per minute, to connect ludicrously simple cartoons to racehorse names for the chance of winning a fiver, then you have a recipe for terminal illness.    

During the seven month gap I had forgotten how refreshingly different ptp was. The annual pilgrimage to Cottenham on the first Sunday of the year bought it all back to me. It has everything a sport should have; enthusiasm, character, sincerity, and a will to win within the rules. It is a spectacle, not an everyday circus. There are no clowns prostituting themselves for cheap laughs. There are no blank faces going through the motions whilst wishing they were somewhere else. Cottenham was cold, but it was also a breath of fresh air.

Armed with this injection of interest I eagerly waited for Higham the next Sunday. I picked up the Entries from the site on the Thursday, and spent most of the Friday and Saturday evenings researching the formlines (on the excellent Racing Post database) for each of the one hundred and fourteen horses entered. As it happened, Jack Frost had other ideas, but he only delayed it for six days. The rearrangement to Saturday 18th January gave East Anglian enthusiasts a weekend double header, with the Dunston at Ampton already scheduled for Sunday 19th. .

Higham kicked off with Division One of the Open Maiden, a tricky event with at least six of the thirteen runners having a realistic chance of victory. As I was queuing to combine some of them in Dual Forecast permutations a fellow punter marched brusquely up to the adjacent window demanding “twenty pounds win on number nine”. I looked at my research; Paddy’s Dream, pulled up behind Whichway Girl at Cottenham, and placed at Fakenham last year. It should be at least 12/1. Why do it on the Tote, there was no way that the far from capacity crowd would put more than £300 into the win pool? No, no chance. This was a mug punter. Stick to my research, I’d invested too many hours to just throw it away.

You’ve already guessed the outcome. Paddy’s Dream won, finishing strongly to out stay Trinity Buoy (well backed at each way odds) on the run in. Obviously the Cottenham outing had sharpened him up. The third, Storm Rising from the Hickman yard, was always up with the pace, travelling well to go two lengths up on the winner two fences from home, before lack of race fitness told and he faded between the last two. He should be winning soon. Run Monty, the favourite sweated up before the start and went out quickly at the business end. Mr MacKenzie, a five year old debutant, ran a race full of promise before coming to grief six fences out. Tom Barry was well backed but did not settle or jump fluently.                      

Division Two divided again. My notes suggested that Star Glow was the form pick for the first leg, but, on the strength of Paddy’s Dream’s win, I opted for Pharout, a horse that had already had an outing this year and may have had a fitness edge. Pharout ran as expected, from the front, but when Star Glow cruised up alongside with a mile to go the result was never in doubt. Pharout faded and Star Glow pulled away to win cosily, although he did have to be ridden out to maintain a safe distance from Kustom Kit Katie who came from a long way off the pace to get within three lengths on the run in.

The second leg saw one of last season’s most disappointing horses, Sydney Hobart, installed as favourite to finally lose his maiden tag. My hours of study had thrown up the seven year old Itsmyturnow as a likely improver, having been well backed in his two outings last year. My confidence, however, was going, and, when I saw him freely available at 6/1 I nearly faltered in favour of Court Award and the Gardiner/Ayers combination (successful with Paddy’s Dream earlier). My nerve, however, held, which was just as well as Chris Gordon led virtually throughout on my selection to win with something in hand. Sydney Hobart, who was travelling well before finding himself outpaced when Itsmyturnow picked up a gear four from home, stayed on again to claim second ahead of Court Award in third.

I spent a good fifteen minutes around the paddock before the PPORA Members for Novice Riders race, looking for something to back against what I believed would be the odds on favourite, Manavite, who had been well touted on the East Anglian website. The horse was only eight, had been placed over hurdles, and had won Irish points. Against him were a combination of moderate and chronologically disadvantaged rivals. My struggle to find something was unnecessary. Manavite opened at 6/4, not my price normally but this was a good thing!

At the first fence I was realised why my selection was not odds on. The rider, a Mr Shand-Kydd no less, nearly fell off. I had got so wrapped up in the form of the horse I had neglected to even consider its jockey. Never mind, he had survived the blunder and he must have at least schooled it successfully. He looked to keep his balance well as the horse jumped the second just in front of me. My fears were being pushed aside. He was still intact as they went over the third. Perhaps the first fence was just a case of over exuberance? At the fourth, however, horse and rider parted company. Sentences containing the words “over privileged kid, too much money, silver platter, and no talent” spun round my brain. Probably unjustified, but there all the same.

Naughty Dandy made the early running, but was a spent force a mile out when Step In Line relieved him of the lead. Wrekingale, given a great ride by Amy Stennet, covered the move, as did Wibbly Wobbley under owner trainer Thomas Ellis. When Ms Stennet kicked for home three out she looked to have the race at her mercy. Wrekingale tired between the last two, however, and Wibbly Wobbley stayed on well to pass her, with Richard Morgan Evans on Step In Line third.

The Men’s Open promised to be a cracker. Ballinure Boy, one of the regions most prolific winners between the flags last year, lined up against Brother Of Iris and Majadou, top class chasers in their time but badly out of sorts last year. Also in the field were Powernglory, an Open winner from the West Country, and Caroline Bailey’s admirably consistent Shanovogh.

I divided my stake four ways, having two units on Majadou at 9/2, a unit on Shanovogh at 6/1, and the remaining unit on Powernglory at 8/1. Minimum return equivalent to 8/11 winner, maximum return as good as a 7/4 winner.

Shanovogh and Powernglory quickly put daylight between themselves and the pack. Powernglory however, did not jump well and, despite several strong urgings (some may say beatings) faded to leave Richard Hunnisett, riding his own horse, at the head of affairs. On the second circuit Shanovogh was joined by Brother of Iris, who was jumping well and looked to be travelling easily. He went out like a light, however, when Shanovogh kicked again three from home to quickly open up at ten length advantage, eventually coming home, unchallenged, to record his second course victory within a year. Ballinure Boy tried to give chase but a jumping error four out took it’s toll and, probably in need of the race, he plugged on at one pace in vain pursuit. He was overhauled for second by Paul York’s highly promising Jackie Jarvis, who had been hunted round for the first couple of miles. This six year old had been given an easy time last season and his bare form suggested he would struggle in this grade. He is definitely still improving and must be one to follow this year. 

The Ladies Open turned out to be a real tortoise and hare affair. I had invested on Bitofamixup at 5/1 (on the strength of the earlier win of stablemate Itsmyturnow), with a saver on Catherine’s Way at 10/1.  The latter, together with Round The Bend, another dubious stayer, went off at a good gallop. After a circuit Bitofamixup was virtually tailed off and allowed to hunt around in his own time - an obvious effort to try and recapture the enthusiasm he once held during his career under rules.  Six fences out Celtic Duke closed to join the two leaders. Five out Catherine’s Way began to tire. Hoodwinker was only six lengths away in fourth. At the penultimate fence Celtic Duke was within a length of Round The Bend, Hoodwinker had joined Catherine’s Way for third some four lengths away.

Celtic Duke jumped the last alongside Round The Bend, and looked all over the winner. Hoodwinker was three lengths down in third, Catherines Way a further two behind in fourth, with Bitofamixup running on six lengths behind.

At the post the Hoodwinker was declared the winner, a neck ahead of Celtic Duke, with Bitofamixup a further neck away in third. An incredible result considering there positions some two hundred yards earlier!

Not surprisingly the stewards held an enquiry into the running of Bitofamixup, eventually fining Jenny Gordon under rule 128 for not putting her horse into the race early enough. A fair decision perhaps, and certainly one that was punter friendly, but I wonder what would have happened if Ms Gordon had resorted to beating her horse up when she found herself fifteen lengths behind her closest rival with a circuit to go? Perhaps her tenderness had improved her horse’s position? It will have certainly done it good in the long term.

The Confined saw the return to racing of The Red Boy, a horse who had been off for over a year but who’s exploits in 2001, when several times unlucky in running, had put him in many notebooks. The stable had a winner with a similar type (Rob Mine) at Cottenham, and a quick paddock inspection confirmed him to be fit enough if good enough. He was my bet of the day, but 5/4 was the best price I could get. Remembering Manavite earlier, I had a small saver at 8/1 on Cinnamon Club, who, despite his twelve years, was lightly raced and had run promisingly at Cottenham a fortnight earlier.

The Red Boy managed to remove Andrew Braithwaite at the first, confirming his reputation for being able to snatch defeat from certain victory. He is definitely one I will not back again until he has actually translated promise into achievement! Wise Advice and Alpha Two made the running for the first circuit but were passed by both Cinnamon Club, with Stuart Morris on board, and Pangeran, under Neil King, as they headed out for the second. Although Kentish Bard tried, nothing else could get in the race from that point, the pair pulling well clear. Four fences out Stuart Morris kicked and his mount quickly established a five length lead. It was enough. Pangeran could not close and, half a mile later, the two passed the post with the same distance between them. This may be reasonable form and, because of his age, Cinnamon Club could well start at attractive odds again.

The closing Restricted had a field of nine, but my homework gave only three a chance of winning. Each had a similar progressive profile and each had left last season promising more for this one. I dismissed Crackrattle on the strength that he had not run well on a left handed track before, and Miss Toski purely because, at 6/4, she didn’t appear to offer any value. Corrie Mor, at 5/1, was a far more attractive betting proposition.

Call the Tune led for a couple of miles but from then on my three “principals” dominated the race. Crackrattle was the first to give way, three fences from home, leaving Miss Toski a couple of lengths ahead of Corrie Mor who had been given a gentle ride on the outside by Paul Cowley. Coming to the last Corrie Mor tried to draw alongside to challenge. Rowan Cope on Miss Toski, however, was having none of it. He edged his mount out towards the wing, thus leaving his rival with nowhere to go. Paul Cowley had to virtually snatch his mount up and tuck in behind to jump the last. Once over, he switched to the inside and got his head down for the race to the line. He got up by a length, to record an impressive victory. Still only eight, he is one to follow until beaten. I suspect too, that the second and third will not be long in reaching the winners enclosure again.

Counting the pound notes in the car park afterwards confirmed that my homework had paid off. They had raced elsewhere that afternoon, as Cornelius Lysaugtht reported on the radio when I drove home. I didn’t care. I didn’t bet at the circus that afternoon, no would I again for quite a while. With the point to point season stretching into May, I had a few months of the real thing in front of me.

Home, a run on the treadmill, something to eat, then study form for Ampton tomorrow.