by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by Richard Hall

With thirty eight entries, the highlight of the day’s racing always promised to be the Restricted. Even when the top East Anglian novices, Cantarhino and Bunratty’s Sole, failed to declare, a highly competitive event seemed certain. There were still eighteen runners lining up. It was so open that even the bookies couldn’t find a strong market leader, and went a mouth-watering 5/2 the field!! 

The race ceased to be competitive after less than a minute. Richard Burton sent Fane Counsel into the lead. By the first fence he was ten lengths ahead. That was the closest any of his rivals ever got to him. For a while Kepi Royal and What A Charmer made overtures about keeping him in their sights, the pair keeping each other company a full twenty lengths clear of the fourth. They could not maintain the gallop, however, and both tired badly on the second circuit before pulling up. By then Fane Counsel’s lead had become a distance, and he wasn’t stopping. It really was a question of him first and the rest nowhere. His jockey will never ride an easier, or more impressive, winner.

This was Fane Counsel’s third visit to a racecourse. He had an introductory outing in 2002 as a four year old and, in January last year, won a 5 y.o. Adjacent Hunt Maiden at Lisgoold. James Crispe tells me that the Irish formbook commentated that he was “destined for stardom”. Few who witnessed the annihilation of today’s opponents would argue with that assessment. He is clearly something special and, in Sheila Crow, he has the handler to take him all the way to the top. Unfortunately I doubt if we will see him in the pointing fields of East Anglia again. Hunter Chases, I suspect, will be the more appropriate showcase for his talents.

Richard Burton had earlier attempted to initiate a jockey / trainer double on Involved in the Men’s Open. He shared the early lead with Owens Pet, with the remainder of the eight strong field (minus Minino who had refused to start) content to stalk at ten lengths distance. On the second circuit Gallant Glen and Manavite closed menacingly to join them. At that point Owens Pet tired (although he did keep on gamely to eventually claim third). Five fences from home Manavite too found he no longer had the legs of the first two, and dropped tamely from contention. He was allowed to pull up when it became clear his chance had gone.

A mistake at the downhill fence (the fourth last) settled it. Gallant Glen and Involved approached it upsides. The Matt Mackley ridden 4/7 favourite emerged three lengths to the good as his rival stumbled badly on landing. At that point Richard Burton accepted defeat and allowed Involved to come home aided only by hands and heels. No sense ruining him for another day!

The Ladies Open went to MacFin, trained and ridden by Louise Allen who, a week earlier, had been responsible for this reporter going home a few pounds lighter after she lost the bridle on Grand Ambition at the first Cottenham fence and had to pull up before the second. She had no such burden on her back today and, at 20/1 (the East Anglian bookies equivalent to 200/1 on Betfair!), was unlikely to have persuaded more than a handful of the crowd to part with their hard earned dosh.

MacFin raced prominently throughout. Content to sit behind the veteran pacemaker Spring Gale, who was making a pleasing seasonal debut, MacFin surged into the lead as they met the incline into the home straight. For a moment it looked as if the race had been set up for Jolly Minster who, confidently ridden by owner Didy Rowell, came menacingly to challenge as they approached the third last. His effort did not last long, however. He made a mistake at the very next fence and deposited Ms Rowell to the forgiving turf. This left Tom Cobbler, successful in a Ladies Open at Tweseldown three weeks earlier, as the main danger. This out and out stayer closed all the way to the line, but the post came too soon. MacFin prevailed by less than a length.

It was a similar winning margin in the first race of the day when Tim Lane bought General Confusion with a well timed run to collar his market rival, The Glen Road, between the last two fences. It was a gem of a ride, as the second is clearly the better horse with a higher number of gears at his disposal. The runner up found more each time Andrew Sansome asked him and, with this run under his belt, should continue the improvement he showed at the tail end of last season. General Confusion, in contrast, will probably struggle to find another winning opportunity. He needs everything to go his way and will be susceptible to fully fit horses with a turn of foot.

Tim Lane’s resurgent fortunes continued on outsider Hi Tech Man in the young horse Maiden. He bought the Eric Cantillon trained gelding, who had pulled up on his only previous outing, with another well timed run between the last two to collar Briery Fox, who looked to have the race in the bag coming up the final hill. The winner jumped patchily until asked to quicken four from home, when it all of a sudden seemed to come more naturally. He will come on leaps and bounds for the experience. The runner up lost little in defeat, and battled on gamely to get back to within a head of Hi Tech Man at the line. He had filled second place at Garthorpe on his only outing as a five year old, and surely cannot be long in qualifying for Restricteds? 

Willow Ryde, Caroline Bailey’s second string, was two lengths back in third with What’s Next, who had been very tenderly handled, a similar distance away in fourth. The Bailey first choice, Killard Point, had fallen at the end of the first circuit, bringing down Heather Silk’s well fancied Bacarese in the process.

Both the quantity and quality of the turnout for the PPORA club race, as in Fane Counsel’s Restricted, would have done credit to many end of season Open Races. Twelve runners went to post, and six were still in contention at the business end. Course winner Teeton Priceless was the first to give way, surrendering her lead to multiple course winner Contingency with dual course winner Bard of Drumcoo, multiple course winner Endeavour, and Colonel Conca and Light The Sky (neither of whom had any form at the course), well positioned to deliver their efforts.

David Kemp played his hand first, pushing Bard of Drumcoo alongside the Caroline Bailey runner as they approached the third last. He met little resistance and found himself two lengths in front jumping the second last. The expected challenges never materialised as Light the Sky and Colonel Conca tamely gave way. It was left to the veteran George Cooper on Endeavour to give the crowd something to cheer as he cajoled his mount to snatch second from Contingency at the shadow of the post.

The older horse Maiden divided on the day. After the quality of the previous races there was very much an “after the lord mayor’s show…” feel about them. The first leg went to Battle Honours who survived drifting badly left after the last to repel the late challenge of Here Comes Choosey. The pair finished a long way clear of Over The Rhee in third. The second division was claimed in convincing fashion by Wincy Spider, who kicked on from three out to expose the one pace of favourite Brass Razoo. He had not raced since finishing second in a 22 furlong Stratford hurdle in 2000 and may be one of the few in the race to trouble judges in future. 

It was an extremely competitive day’s racing, attracting a large number of runners. Tomorrow’s fixture at Higham promises much of the same. Two meetings in the same weekend do not, however, mean twice as much revenue or twice as much fun. Many in the crowd thought that it left nothing of the weekend for those essentials such as cleaning the car, shopping, ironing, gardening, DIY, or just putting your feet up! Spectator numbers were down on previous weeks, and I suspect they will be also be down at Higham too. Most people will “do” either one or the other. What was unanimous was that everyone I spoke to would have preferred one of these fixtures to have filled the empty weekend of 17th/18th January instead.

On the positive side, if East Anglia is to continue with “double headers” it has to be early in the season when runners can be attracted from outside the region. In the traditional “double header” weekends, at Easter and Whitsun, it is painfully obvious that the area does not support enough runners itself to do them justice. This is particularly true when the going is firm. The result is an endless stream of two, three and four horse “races”, that are usually non-events from a betting or excitement perspective.

One negative about the big fields is the appalling over-rounds the bookies continue to offer. It was difficult to single out any bookmaker for individual criticism as all displayed equally villainous “daylight robbery” tendencies. In the PPORA, the Maidens, and the Restricted races books approached, and surpassed, 200% for the third week running. In these twelve runner plus fields it was common to have two or three priced below 3/1, a further three or four at around 5/1, half a dozen between 6/1 and 10/1 and two or three at around 14/1. Very rarely did anything go off at over 20/1 – even the well known, well exposed, plodders such as Bright Torino and Monsukh could not be backed at odds reflecting even a tenth of their realistic chances.

How much longer can this fleecing continue before the authorities do something about it? Even the normally non-committal James Crispe, in his commentator role, questioned the (lack of) value on offer. Surely it is now time to question the criteria used to grant bookies a pitch, or will the sport wait until we all stay at home in cosy isolation to hear commentaries from Steepledown fed through our computers?