by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent

Despite torrential rain for large periods of the week, officials declared the going as “good to firm, good in places”. After the first couple of races, however, jockeys were describing the two furlongs at the bottom of the course to be “very tacky and holding”. An ability to handle all types of ground, other than firm, was therefore needed.

Last year’s champion jockey, Richard Burton, is a rare raider to East Anglia, but he paid his first visit to Ampton today in search of a treble to notch early season “points on the board” in defence of his title.

His first mount, Special Friend, was sent off favourite in the first division of the Maiden. The horse promised to be a difficult ride, engaging an exceptionally low head carriage as the field charged down the hill to the second fence. Special Friend negotiated it easily, however, which was more than could be said for the second favourite, What’s Next, who simply did not take off at all and gave Andrew Hickman the painful opportunity to determine, at close quarters, what he believed to be the state of the going.

From that point Special Friend’s head carriage seemed to improve, and he travelled well in the maestro’s hands as he was hunted up for the first couple of circuits. Lindron, Artic Sun, Artic Snip and Sharp Sarah all took their turn in making the running. With under a mile to run, as the other two tired, Artic Snip kicked clear of Lindron to make his bid for glory. Special Friend, however, always had him in his sights. He closed the deficit without coming off the bridle, collaring and passing the leader between the second and third last fences, pulling further clear as he climbed the final hill.

The form looks to be good. Still only a seven year old, the winner had previously run only once in each of the previous two seasons. On his debut he finished second of fifteen behind Vague Hope, weakening only when approaching the last. In 2003 he was pulled up at Larkhill. This year he looks the finished article, and should have no problem winning again in Restricted grade.

Artic Snip, who was eventually collared again by Lindron for second, also looks a future winner waiting to happen, although he may benefit from a course with less emphasis on stamina. He was unfortunate in his last outing of 2003 in coming up against the smart (and expensive) Bunratty’s Sole, and he certainly caught a tartar again today. His turn cannot be far away.

The second division of the Maiden was won in equally easy fashion, this time by Godfrey Maundrell riding his own horse, Rhythm King. He was fifteen lengths clear when falling four out at Tweseldown two weeks ago, but today put up an impeccable round of jumping to win on the bridle. Although his victory was made considerably easier by the early fall of his market rival, Morph, he too should be capable of taking a Restricted later in the year.

Cosmic Sky looked a picture in the paddock and ran well for a long way at a decent gallop before the lack of a previous outing told. He, in turn, finished a long way clear of Golden Shred, who was the only other one of the ten strong field to finish.

The second of Richard Burton’s mounts was Hot Toddy in the Intermediate. Those that backed him had an early fright as the commentator declared him a faller at the seventh. It was a case of mistaken identity, although, ironically, the actual casualty was the horse that Burton rode many times in 2003 – the even money favourite Airoski, partnered today by Nibby Bloom.

The race was taken by the scruff of the neck by Nick Moore on Augmor River, a dual course winner in 2003. He ensured a good pace throughout in the hope that his undoubted stamina would come into play. He eventually finished third, just repelling the late surge of Glenmot who finished fast in fourth. In front of him were James Owen on the runner up Fine and Dandy (who had benefited from a pipe opener at Higham a fortnight earlier), and the champion jockey on Hot Toddy.

There was much to like about Hot Toddy’s victory. He travelled well for the first couple of circuits but seemed tapped for toe as Fine and Dandy, representing the host Turner family, injected a change of gear going out onto the final circuit. He responded well to Richard Burton’s urgings however and, in the space of a couple of fences, closed to within two lengths of the leading pair. When asked to go and win his race, two fences out, the response was immediate and within a matter of a few strides the issue was beyond doubt. He is obviously still improving and, if the Racing Post comments from his three races in 2003 are correct, he has yet to be asked a serious question.

Paddy For Paddy was made a short priced, odds on, favourite to complete Richard Burton’s treble in the Men’s Open. After pulling to the front early, he was eventually settled in the middle of the pack. He never appeared to be travelling easily and was one of the first to be beaten when Fair Exchange eventually managed to gain his favoured pole position, and kick for home with over a circuit remaining. Pendle Hill, on whom James Owen deputised for the injured Andrew Hickman, came from out of the pack to make Paul Taiano’s lead a short lived one. Showing a liking for the tacky going, and an edge in fitness gained by a Cottenham third on the first day of the season, he sprinted to the front four fences from home and never looked like being caught thereafter. Fair Exchange kept on gamely for second and, as he does every year, will come on for his first run. Carthago, showed improved form to finish well up the final hill to take third place. Being by Roselier, he hinted that testing going may be the key to him.

It was another offspring of Roselier who bore the burden of the Hall cash in the “get out” Novice Rider’s race. I remembered backing Quick Response at 25/1 when he won a Cottenham Maiden in bottomless conditions before being sent on a chasing career with Milton Harris. He looked the day’s best bet to me, with only Royal Action in the nine strong field with anything like the form to hold a candle to him. I plunged on at 2/1, only to see him drift to 7/2 as money for Royal Action poured in. Not being able to resist a bargain, I backed him again.

To be fair, I got a run for my money and the only thing I could perhaps criticise his jockey (Miss B Donnelly) for was in being a bit too keen to take on Legal Storm for the early lead. When Legal Storm tired at the end of the second circuit, however, things looked as they should be. Paul Chinery (is he really still qualified as a “Novice” rider?) was playing a patient game on Royal Action though, and as the others tired he emerged to sit ominously on Quick Response’s shoulder. He made his move turning down the hill for the final time and quickly established a ten length lead. I thought it was all over but, as they hit the really soft ground, Quick Response began to close again. Turning up the hill with two left to jump Miss Donnelly had got within a length. Was this to be a fairytale ending?  No. Paul Chinery had been saving his mount and, back onto the “good to firm, good in places” going he eased off the brake, touched the accelerator for a stride, and easily re-established the daylight between himself and his pursuer. A comfortable victory, but the runner up lost nothing in defeat and will continue to give his rider a lot of fun in this grade.

Thankfully the day had begun with a boost to the Hall overdraft when Minino won the opening Confined race. This was a really competitive affair, with at least six of the ten runners holding a realistic chance. Minino, who had been prominent throughout, had his task made easier when the previously unbeaten Lord Valnic, ran out at the downhill fence when going well and holding every chance. Minino, and his jockey Nibby Bloom, had to display plenty of determination however to repel the late challenge of Colonel Conca, who was given a typically sympathetic ride by Andrew Braithwaite. The runner up put his disappointing run at Cottenham well behind him and gave notice that he would soon be justifying his substantial purchase price. Rathnally Park, an ex Irish inmate from the Perry Harding Jones stable, was not far behind in third and was similarly well ridden by Chris Gordon.

The Ladies Open race looked to be a hot one. There were several in the line up whose form suggested they would not have much trouble adding to previous victories. They included Jolly Minster, a multiple Hunter Chase winner now with the Hickman’s, Dunrig, a recent Turner purchase with good National Hunt form, Andsuephi, who invariably runs well fresh and took the Ladies at Cottenham’s opening fixture in 2003, and Ann Marie Hay’s Bush Hill Bandit, who won two points and a good Fakenham Hunter Chase last year.

Today, however, was all about Lisa Stock and her thirteen year old Kincora. They achieved what no other horse could do on the day. They galloped resolutely, led all the way, and made every post a winning one. Bush Hill Bandit ran a gutsy race to get within three lengths at the line, but the winner looked almost as fresh as a daisy when it finally pulled up! One to possibly take out of the race would be Teresa Spearing’s Le Prince, who raced prominently until fading quickly two from home. This was his first outing for over two years and, although he looked well in the paddock, will invariably come on for the outing. A winner over hurdles at Ludlow, he will probably be one to follow when tried in less stamina sapping conditions.

The most impressive performance of the day came from a raider south of the Thames in Mike Roberts seven year old, ex Irish maiden winner, Teach Altra. Under considerate handling from Chris Gordon, he made mincemeat of what looked to be an ultra competitive, fourteen strong, Restricted. He came home on the bridle, twelve lengths clear of Holy Moses with the mare, Carlton Brae, a long way behind in third. Behind her were good, and fit, horses including Jacob’s Choice and Lambrini King, both of whom had been successful at Higham two weeks ago. The winner should, quite simply, be followed.

The impressive nature of Teach Altra’s victory was, for me, overshadowed by the odds offered by the bookmakers on that race. Even the normally placid announcer was moved to describe them as “probably the worst on offer anywhere in Britain.” I know I have bleated on about this subject many times in the past but, whilst things may improve for a week or two (am I kidding myself?) the bookies seem reluctant to give up their favourite game of “mugging of the innocent”, and return to it at the earliest opportunity.

A companion of mine, who is not a regular, summed it up. “It’s not cheap to come point to pointing, by the time you’ve bought programmes and a bite to eat you’re looking at about twenty five quid a couple. To get ripped off to that extent when trying to have a bet is just not on.”

If the sport is going to continue to attract paying customers over the longer term, then it MUST get to grips with this problem – particularly when punters can stay at home and bet on 100% books on Betfair. As the bookies seem incapable of policing themselves, acting as a cartel rather than in competition with each other, the Area Authorities or whoever it is that grants them a permit or license to trade, needs to grasp the nettle and do something about it. Nobody begrudges bookies making a reasonable profit, but to deny spectators a fair bet is an outrage.

For those that were not actually there to witness it for themselves here are the prices, taken off one of the best boards less than five minutes before the off. Fourteen runners – over-round at 254%!!!!!!!

6/1, 3/1, 8/1, 8/1, 3/1, 2/1, 6/1, 6/1, 3/1, 5/1, 6/1, 12/1, 6/1, 6/1.

In my report last week I asked if any bookie would care to come onto the forums to put forward a case that could justify what we punters would call excessive over-rounds. I repeat that invitation – is there anyone out there who can argue for it, or is your answer simply “If you don’t like the odds, don’t have a bet?”

To my fellow punters I would ask the question – is it time we got together and did something about it? I know if we stopped betting altogether we would be biting off our noses to spite our faces. What, however, if we united to boycott certain bookmakers (until they were forced to either break the cartel or pack up)? Wouldn’t that cause a reaction? What do you think?