by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by David Ruddle

Why do people own point to pointers, or come to that any racehorse? Why do ordinary, limited income, people spend thousands of pounds, not just as a one off payment to buy it, but in ongoing commitments to feeding it, shoeing it, entering it, travelling it, training it, or mending it? The list of chores, and cash, it involves, is seemingly endless. What on earth is there that can come back in return to justify such an investment? There are a few theories to explain this; ego, status, and the inside knowledge to prepare for a gamble being amongst the most prominent.

My own belief is that most people are searching for a sense of involvement, something beyond the cold detachment of a spectator, and something that they can embody and lose their largely routine existence in. They want to feel the anticipation, the nerves and the excitement on the day of the race. They want to live each fence, each dodgy jump, each opening their jockey could go for. Although the ultimate experience is the joy of victory, they are prepared for each fall and each disappointing run because to be a part of something is better than to just look on. No matter how bad things are today, there is always tomorrow, and, if you look hard enough, there is always a reason why things could get better. The ground will be more to his liking, the course will suit his style of running, perhaps his chance won’t be spoiled by another horse falling in front of him at a key moment, perhaps he won’t lose a shoe when getting in too close? There is always the hope that, one day, everything will go right and “your” true potential will be released. The buzz of being involved, of having an emotional attachment and interest, transcends everything else. Be it in a trough, in a peak, or in a plateau, the involvement gets into your heart and into your soul.

Very, very occasionally you can form this emotional attachment to a horse without having to part with a penny. You admire, or sympathise, or identify with, something about it. It starts off innocently; you follow it, perhaps it wins you a few quid? Before you know it, you are looking forward to its next run, and it becomes the focal point of your day. Normally such horses have a character, or they, or their jockey, have triumphed over a particular disadvantage. “Ownership”, if only just for the day, is not restricted to those paying the bills. You too have been fortunate enough to make an emotional investment. Your interest in the outcome goes beyond that of having a few quid on the outcome. You actually care about it. Regardless of any bet you may have struck, when things go right, and they triumph, you are uplifted to another plane of existence. Your heart beats faster, and there is a justice to vindicate all the qualities of perseverance we so passionately believe in. Examples of this happening to me include Desert Orchid’s Gold Cup victory (half the nation must have owned him that day), Red Rum’s third Grand National, and Aldaniti’s triumph with Bob Champion in the saddle. They are few and far between, but their memory is so strong it stays with us forever.

I formed such an attachment with Pampered Gale in the 2002 season. Carrying the colours of the Turner family, I first noticed him when he won his maiden in beating Sydney Hobart at Higham. He won me a few quid. I admired the gutsy way he failed by only a head to peg back Alpha Man at Horseheath, even though, on the day, he lost me a few quid. I applauded the way he bounced back to run through the mud at Ampton.

Too me he was improving all the time, he was as genuine as the day was long, and the world was his oyster. I looked forward to him stepping up to Open Class, or perhaps even Hunter Chases. Towards the end of that season, however, things started to go wrong. Almost overnight he became a shadow of former self. Whether it was the product of too many races, or being given too hard a time, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the sparkle had gone. He plodded round, head in chest, clearly not enjoying himself. His enthusiasm had evaporated, and he was a broken horse.

The Turner’s persevered with him for the early part of the 2003 season but, when it became apparent that the curve was an irretrievably downward one, they sold him to the Marriage family. They put the novice rider Nicky Barnes on board, but things barely improved. He would invariably be tailed off or pulled up. Connections persevered with their strategy of giving him easy races, however, and allowed him to do pretty much his own thing. It almost became an embarrassment to see him run. I almost wished that they would retire him. His lack of enthusiasm was a discredit to his memory.

The beginning of the 2004 season saw little improvement, with typically unpromising runs at both Cottenham and Ampton. On two visits to Higham, however, for those that looked hard enough, there were signs that the “easy race” tactics were beginning to take away the horse’s fear of being given a hard time. He raced up with the pace for a fair while in The Red Boy’s Confined, before dropping himself out, and, in the Novice Rider’s race there a fortnight ago, he was noted running on through beaten horses, “coming through with a rare rattle” to claim an albeit distant third to Royal Action.

Royal Action was a short priced favourite for the Novice Riders race at Marks Tey today. Unsurprisingly Pampered Gale was an unconsidered outsider. When Royal Action and another ex Turner horse “gone bad”, Bruan (now with Julie Bevin) held a fifteen length lead over their closest pursuer at the fifth last fence, this assessment seemed a realistic one. When Bruan began to tire and drop away at the fourth last, this gained yet further credence. By the third last, however, it became apparent that two horses were coming out of the pack and beginning to gain ground on the favourite. Those two were the quirky Corston Joker, yet another Turner cast off, and Pampered Gale. By the second last Corston Joker’s effort had petered out, but Pampered Gale seemed not only to be gaining with every stride but positively enjoying the experience to boot! Between the final two obstacles he eased passed Royal Action to hold a three length advantage at the last. As the crowd held their breath for him, he cleared it in what seemed like spectacular fashion and stormed up the run in to record his first victory in two years. Royal Action came home a brave second, just in front of Crackrattle and Topical Tip, who finished like proverbial trains from another county to claim third and fourth respectively.

In the winners enclosure afterwards jockey Nicky Barnes and owners, the Marriage family (who also do the training), were naturally overjoyed. Beaming smiles were the order of the day, and well they deserved to be. The horse too looked positively happy with his lot. Hopefully it will not be a one off and Pampered Gale, in the care of the understanding hands he obviously needs, can continue again on the road to realising his full potential.

If the Novice Riders race provided me with one of my most uplifting experiences on a Point to Point course, then Division Two of the Maiden certainly was responsible for one of my most disappointing. On the strength of his appearance in the paddock I had invested a tenner at six to one on Stephen March’s No Penalty, ridden by Christian Ward Thomas. My selection set a good pace and led from the third fence onwards. Magic Lodge, Golden Shred and Artic Sun were the only ones in the twelve strong field ever capable of getting within five lengths of him. As he kept up his relentless gallop they dropped off one by one. He was a long distance ahead at the post, with Magic Lodge, who had survived two blunders over the final few fences, battling on doggedly to deprive Artic Sun of third.

After stopping for a chat, I ambled over to the bookies to collect my winnings, got paid out, and went to inspect the runners parading for the next race. Half way there a voice over the tannoy declared that there was an Objection to the winner by the clerk of the scales. Apparently Christian Ward Thomas had lost his weight cloth during the course of the race, and consequently “failed to draw the correct weight”! As a result the stewards had no alternative but to disqualify No Penalty and award the race to Magic Lodge. It was one of those “pit of the stomach” moments when the inevitable announcement came through and I realised that I would have to return my “winnings.” The journey back to my bookmaker was not an easy one, and handing over the £70 was even more difficult. Somehow I felt as if I had been mugged, and, had I been betting as a one off outside of “my” region, I admit that I would have considered not doing it. I did, however, think the importance of not having it hanging over you (could you ever bet with that bookmaker again?) and the need to “do the right thing” outweighed the potential gain. Perhaps the scenario would be an ideal one for inclusion in the game of Scruples? I know that not everyone at the course balanced the pros and cons to reach the same conclusion as I did.

Division One of the Maiden had earlier fallen to David Kemp, who had ridden a patient ride on Madmidge when weaving through the pack with a smooth challenge to take up the running just before the last and win going away. There were plenty of promising runs behind however, the most notable coming from Josie Sheppard’s Catch On, who was making his racecourse debut and kept on up the hill to ensure that Madmidge could not be eased. He will not be long in losing his maiden tag, a remark that could also apply to Lord Somerleyton’s Montenegro who raced prominently throughout before the lack of a previous outing told from the second last. Joves Shadow, having only his second run, attracted attention in the betting ring and is another who will undoubtedly be a better horse next time out.

In the Men’s Open at this meeting last year the Hickman stable’s Splash and Dash produced a performance that sent him into a few notebooks for this year’s Cheltenham Foxhunters. The same stable’s Ballinure Boy is not in that class, but he is nevertheless a good horse and was able to toy with the opposition put before him to record a facile victory in this year’s event. Such was the ease of his achievement that, in hindsight, the big question of the race was not who would win it but would Minino consent to take part? With the assistance of a few helpers at the start he was persuaded to put his best foot forward and led the field for a good two and a half miles. When Andrew Hickman allowed Ballinure Boy to coast by him, however, the result was but a formality. Tod’s Brother finished encouragingly in second after a two year absence.

Surprisingly Ballinure Boy’s victory was not the easiest of the day. That honour went to Ginger Bug who led from flagfall to win the opening Hunt Race from Give Him a Chance by almost a fence. This runner up was, in turn, almost two fences clear of the other two runners. 

The Ladies Open saw a belated first victory of the season for the all conquering Turner yard when their grand old servant, Celtic Duke, continued the tradition of mopping up substandard events within the East Anglian region. Nokimover and Killerine both ran respectably enough to finish second and third, without ever suggesting that they would give Zoe Turner more than a moment’s worry. Jolly Minister, who never really got into the race, finished to some effect to take fourth but has so far done nothing to suggest that he retains the ability that saw him record two Hunter Chase success’ in 2002.

The Confined went to George Cooper on another “grand old servant”, Endeavour. The twelve year old ran his customary race from the front and pulled way from the opposition two from home. This year he has displayed a consistency in performance that was missing from previous campaigns. Perhaps age has finally settled him? Not quite up to Open class, George has, no doubt, pencilled in a few similar events for him to farm before the season ends in May? The lightly raced eleven year old, Ardkilly Warrior, in the Wales’ colours, was particularly promising in second and should find a race before the season ends. Nowornever was the subject of a bit of a gamble and David Kemp gave him every chance to land it. He could not go through with his effort, however, and finished just behind Ardkilly Warrior.

George Cooper adopted similar front running tactics to complete a double on the day on Jim’s Belief in the hotly contested Restricted that bought proceedings to a close just after five o’clock. This seven year old has improved in leaps and bounds since winning a soft Hunt race at the end of last season, and the signs are that there is still more to come. When Secrete Contract, given a typically well judged ride by David Dunsdon, came to win the race between the last two fences, Jim’s Belief found a change of gear to pull away again and win with a little bit still up his sleeve. I will be following him until he is beaten. Run Monty ran his best race for a long while in finishing third, with the well regarded Bunratty’s Sole, making his seasonal reappearance and ridden with future engagements very much in mind, finishing fourth.