by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent

I left home just after eight thirty to be sure of making Cottenham in time for the first race. It was an early risers special, with an eight race card dictating an eleven o’clock start. As the rest of the world enjoyed the last lay in of the holiday break, I benefited from the light traffic and completed the seventy mile journey just before ten. I was far from the first there, however; the cars were already parking three deep from the fence!

As I sipped coffee from my flask, the sun obligingly broke through the clouds to illuminate the scene. It was as if spring had come early, and the world had broken from hibernation. People were smiling. All around me there were greetings, handshakes, nods of recognition. I even spotted a few “mm” mm’s” of pretentious ladies offering both cheeks for “pleased to see you” pecks. The wait was over. We were back again and raring to go. The slate was clean and all dreams were alive. Each unraced maiden was potentially the next Kingscliffe, and each attempted coup would undoubtedly be landed. There was no place yet in our hearts and minds for disillusionment or readjustment. They would undoubtedly be accommodated later. For now the prize was everyone’s to take, and everyone was eager to grasp it.

Proceedings began in much the same manner as they did last year; with Sporborg yard and Andrew Braithwaite taking the opening race on the card with The Red Boy, thus emulating the victory of stablemate Rob Mine twelve months earlier. This horse is something of an enigma and has, in his short career, been described by the use of a variety of words; “unlucky”, “unfortunate” and “undoubtedly talented” being a few of the more polite ones. He has usually travelled strongly in his races, but has not always found much when asked to come off the bridle. Today, for probably the first time, he was enterprisingly ridden up with the pace throughout. This coupled with the good going (the first two races were run in times under six minutes) and the tight, right handed, course (which favours front runners) obviously played to his strengths. He jumped impeccably throughout and never had to be asked for that additional effort. For a moment it looked as if the favourite, the Polly Gundry ridden The Kings Fling, who had been hunted up on the first circuit and smoothly bought within three lengths of The Red Boy four fences out, would play a bigger part in the outcome. Spectacular leaps from Andrew Braithwaite’s mount at the third and second last fences, however, soon dismissed those ideas. Miss Gundry had to content herself with second place, with the Andrew Hickman ridden Pendle Hill putting in a resolute performance to take third. He was the only other of the eight starters to finish. Pick of the paddock was the Ruth Hayter’s recently acquired Colonel Conca. This imposing chestnut ran in snatches, but looked to have every chance when moving up alongside the eventual winner at the start of the second circuit. His effort was short lived, however, and he possibly “went wrong”, dropping of the pace very quickly and eventually pulling up.

Polly Gundry is nothing but a quick learner and emulated Andrew Braithwaite’s tactics on Fertile Valley in the second race on the card; the Restricted. She had her mount in the first three of the fourteen strong field throughout. George Cooper’s Jim’s Belief set off at a hectic pace from flag fall but had nothing left to give when Fertile Valley drew upsides six out and kicked for home. One horse did emerge from the pack as a threat, however. That was the David Pipe trained, Ashley Farrant ridden, odds on favourite, Oneminutetofive, who was an easy winner of his only race last year. He looked to have been given a peach of a ride as he began to close significantly to within three lengths as they approached the second last. An indifferent jump and a stumble on landing (his first mistake) put paid to his chances however and, although he reduced the deficit to four lengths on the run in, the result was never in doubt from that point. Jim’s Belief, running his best race to date, came in a distance behind in third with Hessac (who had also been in the front group throughout) staying on to take fourth. One other performance worthy of note came from Jenny Tice’s Teeton Fizz. She travelled well until five out and will be better for the run. I suspect that the first Horseheath meeting might be her day?

David Pipe’s compensation was not long in coming, however, when his eight year old Tictac, who had last run in France in 2000, annihilated the opposition in the Novice Riders race under Tim Eades. He led from the first circuit and never looked like being troubled thereafter. The winning margin was officially fifteen lengths but it could have been much more. Crackrattle and Augmor River enjoyed a titanic tussle for second place before the former (who’s rider had survived losing his irons at the first fence) came a cropper at the last. Storm Forecast was the only other finisher. A big disappointment for me was the dispirited performance of Pampered Gale, purchased out of the Turner yard at the tail end of last year. I had (optimistically) hoped that a change of scenery would have rejuvenated this previously impressive performer. That was one dream that did not survive the day. He trawled round in last place, without showing even a glimmer of enthusiasm, before being kindly pulled up by Nicky Barnes.

The most poignant moment of the day (and probably of my whole point to point experience) came unexpectedly. I was standing by the paddock looking at the runners for the Mens Open. The Public Address system asked for a moment’s silence in memory of two men who, in the close season, had died without reaching their three score years and ten. Like most of the crowd, I had never been introduced to either Gurney Sheppard or David Turner but, having read Michael William’s Point-to-Pointing in Our Time, was aware of the great impact both had on the sport from 1970 onwards. The requested tribute was observed voluntarily (and impeccably) by everybody in attendance. There were no exceptions. Hats were removed, heads were bowed, mouths were silent, and limbs were motionless. Even the parading horses were set into a statuesque pose. It bought home the closeness of the point-to-point community, and was a measure of the esteem and respect in which both men were held. 

In the Men’s Open race, Gallant Glen, who had been ridden to all his 2003 victories by Stuart Morris, was (mysteriously?) piloted by Matt Mackley. I would like to have been standing near Mr Morris’ as he watched Gallant Glen being carried out by the loose Shelia McKenzie whilst leading after the first circuit. As the commentator pointed out, it was a possibility that should have been anticipated when the pairing allowed it to race alongside on the inside berth as they approached the sharp bend into the straight.

After many changes of leadership race went to Mark Walford on his family’s Guilsborough Gorse, who had looked plenty fit enough in the paddock. He swooped late to collar Cape Stormer before the last. Hotters was third and Silver Lake, returning from a long lay off, fourth. 

The Ladies Open was won in impressive fashion by Jane Williams on the ex Nicky Henderson inmate, Dusk Duel. Although the opposition was largely well passed their collective “best before” date, and the task made easier by the departure at the eleventh fence of David Pipe’s Colquhoun, the nine year old was not extended and gave due notice that he will be extremely hard to beat in this grade. One hopes that he will be allowed to take on Upham Lord at some stage in the season? Winter Gale ran a good race to finish second, a fair way in front of Garolo (tapped for toe a mile out) in third and Buckland Lad, who ran through beaten horses, in fourth. 

The Eight Year and Over Maiden was attacked from the word go by Nicky Tinkler on Minster Sunshine. He took up the lead at the second fence and from that point sought to repel every challenger. One by one they dropped off and, four fences out, only Morph, who had been patiently ridden by Phillip York, remained as a danger. He was only five lengths adrift, and appeared to be travelling ominously well. When Minster Sunshine got in close at the second last it looked to all as if the race was Morph’s for the taking. As they approached the last, and with the gap fast diminishing, Nicky Tinkler asked Minster Sunshine for more. He got it. Two tired and gallant horses raced for the post. Minster Sunshine would not give in and prevailed by a length. A long way back in third was Jolly Jake with Beat The Retreat, who had tried to take Minster Sunshine on early, fourth.

The first division of the Young Maiden went to Lawney Hill’s Gray Knight, ridden by James Tudor. Leading off the final bend he went so wide that he allowed the Andrew Martin ridden Cash ‘N Carrots to squeeze along the inner rail and draw level at the last. After jumping it, he remained on his feet, whereas his rival took a crashing fall that catapulted his pilot from the saddle. Tooley Park, who had been given a quiet ride at the rear, came through strongly on the run in to deprive the long time trailblazer, Krac De Mirande (who faded tamely from two out), of second place. He may be the one take away for the future when stepped up to three miles in a mid season Maiden.

Julian Pritchard on Terimon’s Dream went off at a furious pace in Division Two. Only Viscount Bankes, at six lengths distance, attempted to go with him. He nearly paid the price when over-reaching and stumbling at the fifth but was well held together by Andrew Martin, none the worse for his earlier fall. As they passed the stands on the first circuit the leading duo were twenty lengths clear of the third. Just under a mile from home Terimon’s Dream began to tire, surrendering the lead to Viscount Bankes, and the pack closed ominously. The much touted Sporborg horse, Mister Ringa, appeared to be travelling as well as anything before parting company with Andrew Braithwaite just after being asked to put himself in the race at the eleventh. This left Dromdowney Lad as the principle danger. His effort was short lived, however, as the new leader found another gear and kicked again. Belying his odds of fourteen to one, Rosemary Gasson’s six year old quickly re-established a ten length gap between himself and his pursuers. He sprinted to the post with the well backed Big Brendan running on doggedly to snatch second spot from PhillipYork’s Drumdowney Lad (who will surely come on for the experience) with David Pipe’s debutant Cimmaroon in fourth.

The winner could well follow up in a Restricted, given similar conditions. He certainly seems to have inherited some speed from his sprinting sire, Clantime!