Hardy racegoers who braved the incessant rain at Cocklebarrow on Sunday – many thanks to the organisers for the heated picnic tent, which allowed spectators to both shelter from the weather and watch the action on TV – were treated to quality and well as quantity. 69 runners faced the starter across the seven races, and the victors included a horse who has graced the Cheltenham Festival enclosure twice, one who may do so this year, and a rising star from one of the most enduring pointing bloodlines.
The feature race, the Smith & Williamson Lord Ashton of Hyde's Cup Mens Open Race over three miles, six and a half furlongs – the first of 2020's four point-to-point "classics" – saw ten go to post and was taken by a potential Cheltenham Foxhunters candidate in the shape of Alex Dunn's Sausalito Sunrise. Always handy, he moved into third at halfway before taking the lead six out and going clear jumping the final ditch. After that, he was unchallenged to score by ten lengths from The Dapper Fox, who came late (as always) to take second on the run-in by a further two from Fixe Le Kap.
While Alex holds a professional licence, the 12-year-old is a true family horse, being owned by her mother Katherine and ridden by brother John Smith-Maxwell. The trainer, a grand-daughter of legendary lady rider Pat Tollit, and no mean jockey herself – riding horses of the calibre of Double Mead – confirmed, "It's lovely to own a classic winner. We're an old-fashioned pointing family and there are 20 of us here." She went on to thank the meeting organisers, saying, "I brought a horse here two years ago and was impressed with the course and the fences – it's a good place to come with a nice horse."
While Alex wouldn't be drawn on plans for Sausalito Sunrise, saying only, "He'll win Hunter Chases," the winning jockey, assistant-trainer to his sister and notching a twentieth career success, was less coy. "That's my biggest success by a long way," he smiled. "We've got about 60 horses in and he'd be among the best. We'll go straight to Cheltenham now." Despite racing prominently, John came back caked in mud and confirmed that conditions were arduous. "It's bottomless," he said after washing his face in a water bucket. "They're going straight through it."
The testing going, officially changed from Good to Soft to Soft during the afternoon, proved no barrier to odds-on Barney Dwan in the three-and-a-half-mile, six-runner, Skinner's Ladies Open. The ten-year-old, placed at the Festival in 2017 and 2018 when in the care of Fergal O'Brien was making his pointing debut. Sonneofpresenting tried to make all, but Hannah Lewis always had the leader in her sights and moved effortlessly into pole position going out on the final circuit.
After that, she was never troubled and came home by an easy 20 lengths. Second favourite Diamond King could never get in the race and was 25 lengths away in third.
Winning trainer Sally Randell, who – along with Barney Dwan's former handler to whom she is assistant – has recently moved from Naunton to a new yard near Andoversford, was delighted with this success. "He's tiny, isn't he?" she asked rhetorically of what was her fourth winner of the season. "He's got masses of ability, but just lacks the size for the big time. His new owners – Matt and Sally Burford – are proper pointing people and Paul and Clare Rooney, who had him under rules, will be pleased too." Sally has no ambitious plans for Barney Dwan, who she believes has benefitted from the change of scenery. "100%," she confirmed when asked if the move had made a difference. "He's been flying on the gallops."
Meeting Secretary Christopher Marriott and his one-horse trainer wife Fran were responsible for the most popular winner of the day when their Pomme De Nuit took the opening Knight Frank Members race. Nine lined up for this event – probably the largest field any such contest will see this season. Christopher and Fran have bred many useful horses from their foundation mare Windfall VI and their most recent stable star Dabinett Moon, who is Pomme De Nuit's aunt, opened her account when landing this contest in 2015. The seven-year-old, who started at 14/1, was not expected to follow suit – "No chance" was her owner's succinct pre-race verdict – and may have had luck on her side, with fancied pair Cheltenam De Vaige and Tulsa Jack running no sort of race and Pauls Hill unseating when clear three out, but she could do no more than win, taking the lead at the last to score comfortably by nine lengths and four from fellow outsiders Cadeau George and Sentimentaljourney.
Pomme De Nuit had shown little form for Charlie Longsdon and Christopher admitted, "We put her under rules too early. We've had her back for about a year and Will Biddick, who rode her (on her pointing debut) at Larkhill, said she'd win a race." Christopher rides her in all her work at home, with Fran laughing, "She's too wild for me." The trainer echoed her husband's comments, telling me, "We knew she had ability but didn't think she'd win. We just wanted her to have a happy race and come back with a smile on her face, which she did! I thought she'd be swallowed up but she kept galloping. Liam (Harrison) gave her a peach of a ride."
Liam Harrison took the mount on Pomme De Nuit after Claire Hardwick – who rode Dabinett Moon with such aplomb – for whom he has been schooling, fractured her ribs this week and he doubled up in the very next race, taking the Red Savannah Restricted on Risky Gold. This ten-runner contest looked competitive on paper and it provided the closest finish of the day. Risky Gold was prominent for much of the race, disputing the early lead with Tinnehinch and tracking the latter before taking control two out. He looked to have the race won at the last but Tinnehinch rallied and got to within a neck at the line. The fast-finishing favourite Family Man (try saying that quickly a few times!), a head back in third, was arguably unlucky having missed the break and made a slight error at the last.
Risky Gold is a first horse for winning owner-trainer Linda Delahooke, based at Naunton and sister in law of James Delahooke – who owned top-class pointers such as Aintree Foxhunters hero Border Burg – and is another ex-Fergal O'Brien inmate. "I look after horses trained by Fergal who need a rest," explained Linda of how she had come by Risky Gold. "That's just his second run for me – he was going well when hampered at Larkhill. He's big and backward and I don't know whether we'll keep going with him in points or send him back under rules."
Second-season jockey Liam, 17, was an obvious choice for the mount as he works for Fergal O'Brien and expressed himself delighted with how his fledgling career is progressing. "I've had five winners under rules this season, ridden some nice horses and had a Cheltenham winner in October," he confirmed. "I've no real ambition to be champion amateur but I plan to turn conditional at the end of the pointing season. Liam, whose double won him the £500 Dubarry voucher for Outstanding Performance of the Day, got into pointing after he watched pony racing and fancied a go, and his great-uncle – William McGrath who was responsible for AGA's involvement with pointing – sponsored him on the circuit.
Azure Fly was a comfortable winner of the Kings Head Novice Riders race, which had 12 runners. Always prominent under Paige Topley, the Dibby Brown-trained 12-year-old got to the front after the first fence on the final circuit and was never headed thereafter. Darius Des Bois set off in pursuit, getting within a couple of lengths at the final ditch, but always looked held and eventually gave best by ten lengths. Cheltenham Mati was a never-dangerous fifteen lengths third.
Azure Fly looked a handful afterwards, dragging his trainer round the winner's enclosure, so I spoke to the successful owner, Scylla Phillips, representing the Kilkenny Racing Partnership. "He's ex-Charlie Longsdon," she confirmed. "He was useful but lost his way and Dibby's sweetened him up – she's been training him on our hills at home as the gallops have been too wet and he ran well for us first time at Larkhill." Asked why her son Nick – who is Clerk of the Course at Cocklebarrow and usually rides the stable's runners – didn't find a race in which he could take the mount, Scylla said, "He needed a run this weekend and the only options were the Ladies Open and this one."
Successful jockey Paige Topley, who works for Ben Pauling, had yet to get off the mark until the previous Sunday at Bangor-on-Dee and has now had two winners in a week. "It's all about confidence," she laughed as she explained how she came by the ride. "Dibby and Nick came to school at Ben's and I texted Nick afterwards and asked. I went to Kilkenny Farm to ride him on Friday and he pulled me round the field – he was keen again today, but they went off quite quickly, which suited him. I took it up quite early, but rode the second horse last time out, so knew I'd have to keep an eye on him." Paige, 22, trains two pointers at home near Evesham with her father David and is in her "First proper season pointing," having had ten rides this campaign after just two in the 2018/2019 season.
Trainer Dibby Brown almost had a double, but the fast-finishing Smoking Pigeon failed to catch The Golden Rebel by half a length in the Carter Jonas Maiden race for four, five and six-year olds over the shorter distance of two-and-a-half miles. Odds-on shot On The Platform looked the likely winner until unseating three out (a second such mishap of the day for jockey James King after Pauls Hill in the opener), but this left Sam Lee and The Golden Rebel – who had quickened clear with the favourite four out – in front and he had enough left to hold on. Early leader Worth Knowing plugged on for a 30-length third.
"It's been a long time coming," sighed a relieved Julie Wadland afterwards of The Golden Rebel, a half-brother to Willie Mullins' useful True Self, who she trains for owners Roger Freeman and Don Gardner. "He's been very slow on the uptake. Sam gave him a great ride and I'd like to thank Jack Andrews (busy riding a treble at Thorpe Lodge) who's done all the work with him at home. He didn't jump well at Cottenham but Jack said he'd win next time. He'll get three miles." Julie currently has five at her Leamington Hastings, Warwickshire base, including stable star Golden Tobouggan who is back cantering after suffering an injury last season.
The concluding Wurzel High Speed Broadband Maiden for seven-year-olds plus, over the full three-mile trip, was run in the gathering gloom and I'm indebted to the excellent commentator Mike Crolla for telling the crowd what was going on. Rules trainer Olly Murphy was present to saddle Doncesar De Pretot for his mother Anabel and the favourite looked to be going well when hampered by the fall of long-time leader Spivey Cove at the final ditch. This left Cranbrook Causeway in front, but he was quickly headed by the other well-backed horse in the race, Panic And Run, a first runner as a trainer for former jockey Willie Twiston-Davies. Panic And Run was in no danger thereafter to come home over a fence clear and only the two finished.
Panic And Run's was another popular victory and a first for jockey Finn Lambert. As the rain came down harder, Willie told me, "I bought the horse through Warren Marston and told Finn that, if he looked after it, he could have the ride – it was to make him work harder! I do pre-trainers and breakers with (fellow former rider) Ryan Hatch – we've got a few youngsters in but this is the first we've run." Willie, of course, cut his teeth between the flags and in Hunter Chases and I reminded him that the last time he was in the winner's enclosure as an amateur was after taking the Aintree Foxhunters on Baby Run. "This is just as exciting," he laughed.