by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by Richard Hall

After last weekend’s gourmet feast at Horseheath and Higham, I felt like a man with indigestion walking past the local Fish n’ Chip shop when I viewed the High Easter card in the Racing Post Weekender. It looked distinctly low on quality and, whilst I was not too worried about quantity (as the bookies often offer better value with less runners) I did wonder whether it was worth the two hundred mile round trip I would need to make.

I was still undecided on the Saturday night, but the addict in me won through and I awoke on the Sunday to cast away all pretence of a day pottering around the garden. By half past nine I was on the road to Mecca. When I turned into the narrow, country lanes protecting it, the drizzle that had smeared my windscreen throughout the journey turned to torrential rain. Like the half of a platform in a Harry Potter novel, it signalled my arrival into another world. I thought I was lost. This was an unreal place where there was nothing else on the road, and houses and cheery farmyards were sparsely scattered amongst crops and greenery. A place where hand written banners, demanding the Stansted expansion be stopped, replaced conventional signposts telling the motorist where he was. I half expected the local pub to be The Slaughtered Lamb, where an inbred Rick Mayall would throw darts against the board and never miss. This was a part of the country where most of us would not choose (nor could afford) to live. It was nevertheless part of the England we would like to believe could still have a place in the modern world. Not all change is progress, and to keep a part of the past hidden away for a rainy day is no bad thing.

As I neared the course the real world came back. The rain returned to a drizzle, houses became more frequent and marched closer to the road. Signs were metal again; round and white with a red outer circle displaying a low number in the middle. Arrows promised point-to-point races. This was familiar territory. 

There had been comment on the East Anglian website about the Hunt Race scheduled to start the days events. The general consensus of opinion was that this looked like being a poor race. One poster had even quipped that he would schedule his arrival time to miss it. If he did, he lost out. It was everything a Hunt Race should be.

All five entries declared, and two of the jockeys, Robert Cundry on Spring Frolic and Lucy Franks on the veteran Arkay, were having their first rides in public. Mr Cundry unseated at the very first fence, but Miss Franks did complete, albeit a long distance behind the third!

On paper the race looked set up for George Cooper on Rip Kirby. He was the long odds on favourite. He ran no sort of race, however, and when the other two quickened up after a circuit he was left very flatfooted in their wake. Marsden, under the experienced Nick Moore, had led from halfway around the first circuit but Rosina Page, having only her second ride in public, had done a pretty good job stalking him on Glenalla Braes. When she drew upsides four fences out, Marsden was coming towards the end of his run. It must have been frustrating for Nick Moore as he could only watch Miss Page’s backside getting smaller and smaller as it got further and further away from him! Rosina eventually came home unchallenged to win her first race by an official fifteen lengths.

The first division of the younger horse Maiden looked to be a poor one, with scrabble letters easily outnumbering previous placings on the formcard. It was won in convincing fashion by the fittest looking horse in the paddock, Caroline Bailey’s Just Jove, who led from start to finish to justify odds on favouritism. He did not have things all his own way though. Paula Twinn’s Flaxley Abbey, who will have benefited enormously for the outing, kept him company for most of the race, until she tired before the second last. She is definitely one to follow in similar company.

The second division of the younger horse Maiden looked much stronger, and bought together at least three horses who will have winning futures ahead of them. Christopher Sporborg’s much touted Mister Ringa, on whom Alexander Merriam deputised for the injured Andrew Braithwaite, won it. He was held up at the rear of the field for the first two miles and bought with a devastating run to collar and overtake King Freddy, a Caroline Bailey five year old making his racecourse debut, between the last two fences. The runner up showed a good attitude in renewing his challenge on the run in. He was always just held, however, but should not be long in losing his maiden tag.

Mister Ringa, impressive as he was, may have been a shade fortunate. Germany Park had led the field a merry dance for the first circuit. At the fourteenth fence the chasing group closed to within two lengths but when Germany Park was carried out by a loose horse at the sixteenth, he had re-established a five length advantage and looked to be going away again. He is another that I cannot see staying a maiden for long. Of the others, Highland Dancer ran well for a long way on his point debut (he was previously disappointing under rules) before tiring badly half a mile from home.

Alexander Merriam completed a double on the day in the final race on the card, the Confined. Riding Lord Euro, his family’s recent acquisition from Ireland, and trained by his mentor, Nibby Bloom, he went off at a furious pace and was never headed. It is difficult to know what to make of this as the majority of his opponents were “short runners” and there was nothing in the field to tell us if he really stayed the three miles, or if he just lasted it out better than the others. The facts are, however, that Camdem Loch, held up in exaggerated fashion by Nibby Bloom (this time in his capacity as jockey) to get the trip, ran through beaten horses to get within ten lengths at the line, and Treasure Dome actually got his head in front before going out like a light four from home.

The older horse Maiden was another to go the way of the favourite, this time Trumper who was ridden by the man in form, Phillip York. He was always up with the pace and shook off his rivals one by one. Mike Robert’s Street Smart rallied well under pressure from Brea Donnelly and, without ever looking a serious threat, closed to within a couple of lengths on the run in. A Fine Story ran a decent enough race after a two year absence to suggest that he may be a force to be reckoned with in the coming months.  

Phillip York completed his double on the day with Eastern Point in the hotly contested Intermediate, and few in the crowd would argue that it wasn’t his jockeyship that made the difference! Camden Carrig, at a shade of odds against, set a fast and furious pace. With four fences left to jump only two of his original nine rivals were within shouting distance, those being Eastern Point and Fine and Dandy. The latter put paid to his chances with a spectacular fall at the very next fence. When Eastern Point made his challenge at the third last Camden Carrig, positively ridden by Nick Phillips, responded immediately. He changed gear to snatch the lead back again at the second last. Eastern Point also still had more left to give and the two began to race with all guns blazing. There was little in it, but Phillip York managed to gain the inside berth and hugged the rail as they rounded the final bend. As they straightened to take the last he had stolen a one length lead. Camden Carrig could not respond again, and the race was won. 

The race had other noteworthy events too, this time in the Betting Ring. For the first time in East Anglia I saw a board offering odds greater than 33/1 (both Ballylesson and Stick or Bust were laid at 40/1). Could this be the first sign of a cartel crumbling? I also saw a £440 to £400 bet refused by what I had previously believed to be one of the better bookies. Although he did offer to take half the amount requested, his credibility has to be questioned. I for one will be steering clear of him when (or, perhaps, if) wanting a serious punt in the future. 

In general the bookies seemed much more at home with smaller fields and horses whose form was, by and large, well known to them. The general level of over-round was a reasonable 125% to 140%.  After last weekend’s setback at Higham they appeared to have devised new tactics. They priced most of the favourites up at odds so unrealistically short that no one would back them. Consequently, all the “good things” ran for them, leaving the punters to choose from the alternatives that were generally on offer at decent rates. On the day it was probably a close run thing as to whether they would have been better off laying the favourites. 

Fair Exchange, at 4/7 in the Men’s Open, was one such horse running for the bookies. He pulled up early on the second circuit, after never getting into the race. As the commentator explained; despite his high win to run ratio, Fair Exchange had never come home first on a left handed track!   

Dunrig, from the Turner yard, tried to make the early running. When Ben Pollock on Delgany Royal denied him that privilege from the fourth fence onwards, he seemed to sulk and never looked interested thereafter. It was left to the recalcitrant Minino, who had refused to race at Horseheath last week and, this week, only consented to start once the rest of the field had jumped the first fence, to offer what resistance there was. He made up the deficit before the end of the first circuit to sit handily in second. When Ben Pollock asked Delgany Royal to kick on again from three out, however, Minino’s tank was empty. He came home on fumes, but nevertheless a distance clear of Ballard in third.

The Ladies Open turned into a thrilling duel between Ann Marie Hays’ Bush Hill Bandit, the odds on favourite, and Storm Castle, who had won the race last year for his trainer / rider Jane Wickens. There could well have been a third player at the business end, had Cherie Cunningham’s Fair Kiowa not parted company with Sam Hodge at the “drama fence” of the day, the fourth last, when coming with a promising run.

Storm Castle joined Bush Hill Bandit at the fourteenth fence and raced alongside him to the fifteenth, where the long time leader made a mistake that cost him all of five lengths. When Fair Kiowa, who had moved smoothly into second, fell at the next it looked to all intents and purposes if Storm Castle was home and hosed. Amy Stennett was not giving up without a fight though, and galvanised the Bandit to grind down the deficit. At the last it was only a length, but it was enough. Bush Hill Bandit had no more to give and Storm Castle maintained the advantage all the way to the line. 

As I pulled out of the car park, and prepared to negotiate my way back through the country lanes, I felt glad that I had made the effort. My early week indigestion had turned into an appreciation of good, solid, traditional food. It was probably just as well – now that the rest of the country are up and running we will probably have to wait until next January before we East Anglians are served an A La Carte menu again!