by Mal Davies

An earlier than usual start to the North West area, with the Wheatland Hunt, normally held in May, being brought forward to a chilly February Sunday. The Hunt Committee will have been delighted with 92 runners in the 7 races, and the added bonus of seeing some decent raiders from out of area, which tends to be more of a feature of early season meets. Hopefully this change will be permanent- the May meeting has tended to clash with the likes of the FA Cup Final in the past. The crowd was very good for the time of year.

Going was changed to officially soft, and that looked to be a correct call, though, by the end of the meeting, the ground was nearer to heavy.

Top trainer Paul Nicholls was in attendance, though this time wearing his outsize owner’s rather than trainer’s cap. ASK THE NATIVES was a massively impressive winner of the Ladies’ Open in the capable hands of Chloe Roddick. Sent off a generous 5-4, albeit in a very hot race, the 10 year old Be My Native gelding oozed class, and if connections are minded, could well make up into one of this season’s top hunter chasers, and could give the likes of Lord Atterbury something to think about. The only slight question mark over the form would be the proximity of the worthy, though exposed, Cascum Lad (Sarah Holmes), 10L back in second.

Jackie Jarvis helped make a fast run race of it, and though not making the placings, she’ll come on for the run, and looks an exciting recruit for the North West area. She probably didn’t appreciate the pretty soft ground, and will be seen to better advantage on a sounder surface. Eurobob just touched off Pennyahei for third place. Out the back, the formerly very useful Irish horse Slaney Native who looked in need of the race, was hunted round by Michelle Mullineaux, and will strip fitter next time. Certainly, I wouldn’t write him off yet.

Pennyahei and Sam Beddoes enjoy a fractional advantage on the first circuit from Hannah Lewis on Nashville Star.
Photo by Mal Davies

There was another eye-catching pointing recruit unveiled in the shape of the Mens’ open winner BAY ISLAND. The 8 year old had won a trio of chases for Heather Dalton, and seemed surprisingly good value at around the 5-1 mark. He jumped well, and was 8 lengths too good for Sam Waley-Cohen on Irilut, the 7-4 favourite. Very interesting in third was the Alistair Crow ridden An Capall Dubh, who has bits of form in Irish Hunter Chases. He can certainly improve, and will do well in this sort of ground.

One to watch.
An Capall Dubh is booted home for third in the Mens’ Open;
Alistair Crow doesn’t seem to be riding any shorter these days……
Photo by Mal Davies

Eventual Winner Bay Island (Adam Wadlow) puts in another measured leap to lead from Irilut (Sam Waley-Cohen) on the final circuit of the Mens’ Open. Jemaro (Richard Burton, yellow cap) is starting to struggle in third but the ex-Irish An Capall Dubh (green, red cap) is making stealthy progress under Alistair Crow.
Photo by Katy Davies

Waley-Cohen had earlier been in the winners' enclosure following an attritional Intermediate in which only 3 of the 11 runners made it round. His father's MEL IN BLUE had not been seen out since his racecourse debut, when he won a very decent looking Newbury bumper in March 2002 (last Saturday's Great Yorkshire Chase hope Rodalko was well down the field that day). The 6 year old gave a super round of jumping, and was two and a half lengths ahead at the post, from Finder Keeps, with Arctic King back in third.

Eventual winner Mel In Blue (Sam Waley-Cohen, orange and brown) just head runner up Mister Moss (Gary Hanmer) in the Intermediate, and have the rest of the field hard at work. The pair eventually finished a distance clear.
Photo by Mal Davies

National champion Richard Burton had to make do with just one winner, another Dalton horse ASHGAN (trained by Andrew, who was doubling as starter) in the hunt race.

The Restricted race was probably not up to standard, though winner JIMMY CRICKET ran a super race, and was excellently piloted by Nick Oliver to score by a distance from the James Diment ridden Sutton Courtenay. One to note for the future is Highlands II, who jumped particularly well under Tom Greenall, before finding the ground too testing; he’ll win an ordinary Restricted.

10-1 shot Jimmy Cricket and Nick Oliver making their way back to the unsaddling enclosure after trotting up by a distance in the Restricted.
Photo by Katy Davies

The best finishes of the day came in the two concluding maidens; short on class, long on excitement. In each of them, the bookies were very reluctant to price up those horses they seemingly saw as ‘in for money.’ Division 1 potential steamers were the Donald McCain Jnr trained Bless Yourself and the Dalton horse Welcome Back. Just for the record, the opening show on one of the boards I noted was 6-4, 6-1, 4-1, 3-1, 5-1, 12-1, 6-1, 12-1, 6-1. 8-1 and 2-1.

That amounts to a 213% book, which is nothing short of grand larceny. Given that most boards can and will put up a £1k or £500 winning limit, there is no excuse for this; its just fleecing those who don’t know better. I would have backed Welcome News, ridden by the underrated Ben Shaw, but 5’s was my minimum price thus at 2-1 I avoided a narrow defeat, the 6 year old mare going down by a neck to the ever-excellent Sam Beddoes on HOME TOR. The fact that serial maiden Ironbridge was third probably says all that needs to be said about this race as a pointer for the future.

In the last, there was again a conspicuous lack of a chalked up price against the McCain trained MASTER CLUB ROYAL. He wouldn’t have been qualified for a maiden but for having lost a handicap win at Sedgefield in 2002 for testing positive for a banned substance, and accordingly went off very well backed. Given a positive ride by Gary Hanmer, he looked booked for the win when setting out on the final circuit, but then tied up badly, allowing the Ben Shaw ridden Benbow to get within stalking distance and then move away from his seemingly toiling rival up the rise into the final turn. Benbow jumped the second last seemingly coasting home, before unexpected final drama in which the Gunner B gelding wandered badly, hung badly was passed over the last and on the run in by the McCain horse. A lucky victory perhaps, but at least the winner kept on when headed, and was able to take advantage from Benbow’s shortcomings.

If the quality (and quantity) of the Opens is any pointer, this meeting seems to have found its niche. I can’t imagine the likes of Paul Nicholls, or owners such as the Waley-Cohens would be here for a May meeting, and with a really good array of trade stands, there is little to criticise; a very well organised early season meet.