by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by Richard Hall

After a restless night, during which the house was battered in machine gun staccatos of hail, rain, and gales, I arrived at Higham half wondering whether the meeting would still be on. It was. Apart from the portaloos and the Hunt Master’s tent being uprooted by an icy wind that sliced through flesh with the cold efficiency of a bacon slicer, everything was perfect. The ground (as at Cottenham and Horseheath previously) was genuinely good, and the horsebox park (even an hour before the first race) was fuller than I had ever seen it before. A competitive day’s racing was ensured. 

Both divisions of the maiden divided, turning what was originally a six race card into a nine race bonanza. There would have been more had the Stewards not decided there was insufficient daylight available for any additional multiplications. When twenty two subsequently declared for the PPORA Novice Riders, four had to be balloted out. The unfortunates included Act in Time and Little Worsall, whose connections between them would have travelled nearly seven hundred road miles before returning home. You could well understand their frustrations. 

Most activity in the betting ring for the first Maiden division concerned Phillip York’s Charango Star, who was backed from 8/1 into 3/1 joint favourite. There was also splatterings of interest for the ex Jonjo O’Neil inmate, Madmidge, the long distance raider, Sovereign Gale, and, surprisingly, Ruth Hayter’s Golden Shred, who was enjoying the assistance of Stuart Morris for the first time this season.

Money talked and, after being held up a long way of the pace for the first circuit, Charango Star made rapid headway around the bottom bend to sit behind the leading duo. Golden Shred’s blunder six from home saw Phillip York’s charge emerge as the only threat to long time leader Sovereign Gale. As they turned into the home straight he was given the license to head for home and, despite stumbling at the second last, quickly put the issue beyond doubt.

There was a similar, well coordinated, gamble in the second Maiden, this time on the Hickman stable’s Asthefellowsaid, whose price tumbled from 5/2 to 4/5 in less than a minute. Running in the Splash and Dash colours of Maurice Smith, this gelding had been pulled up at Higham on his sole appearance in England last year. Boasting form in Irish points, he was ridden with supreme confidence by Andrew Hickman who held him at the back for two thirds of the journey. When asked to get serious along the back straight, he smoothly moved through the field to sit behind the long time pacemaker, Troubleshooter. When Castlediva fell, whilst under pressure to maintain her position, the race effectively only had two possible outcomes remaining. In the home straight Asthefellowsaid moved easily to the front. Troubleshooter stuck to him though, and he had to be kept up to his work on the run in to ensure the gamble was landed.

The third Maiden was a comedy of errors. Marsden and Rumour Has It both got rid of their jockeys on the way to the post, and did more than a lap of the course in the wrong direction before finally allowing themselves to be caught. When, after a fifteen minute delay, both were remounted and sent to join the others at the start, connections decided to withdraw Marsden. There was then a further long pause as he cantered leisurely back to the stables. When the race eventually got underway, Rumour Has It might as well not have been in it. He was always a remote last and eventually pulled up before completing a circuit in the right direction. The well backed favourite, Greybrook Lad, set out to make the running. Only Vivaldi Rose ever got within a length of him, but she faded badly half a mile from home. Bebe Bleu was the only other finisher, a distance behind.

The bookies had taken such a battering in the first three races that they refused to put up prices for the fourth until all the runners were at the post and the starter was all but on his rostrum. They picked up a few fivers and tenners for the 10/1 outsiders but all the serious money was for the odds on shot Morph, who duly justified his short price with the minimum of fuss. He was not winning out of turn, and had been a close second on at least a couple of occasions before this shedding of his Maiden tag. He may well hold his own in Restricteds.

The PPORA Novice Riders race went with a full compliment of eighteen runners and leaving, as I have already said, another four in their horseboxes. It was a good measure of the wide range of riding ability on show that, after jumping only two fences, there was almost a hundred yards between first and last. Very few got into the race and, when Brown Chieftain fell early on the second circuit, Royal Action, under Paul Chinery, was left ten lengths clear of Rupert Stern on Village Copper with Annie Bowles on Treasure Dome a similar distance away in third. Whereas the latter two tired badly in the final mile, Royal Action just kept on galloping. After clearing the last Paul Chinery needed binoculars to see Naughty Dandy run through the pack to finish second and Pampered Gale, perhaps showing signs of enjoying the game again, coming through with a rare rattle to claim third.

The Mens Open witnessed a struggle between two solid yardsticks; course specialist Shanavogh and the Hunter Chase winner Philtre. From flagfall these two took each other on for the lead. They shook of all the opposition bar one; Homme de Fer, formerly rated 112 with Kim Bailey under rules, and now embarking on a pointing career under the guidance of trainer Nibby Bloom. He had been content to sit five lengths off the front two and comfortably covered the move every time one tried to break the other. As they swung out of the backstraight any one of the trio could have won. Shanavogh was the first to give way, signalling perhaps that his thirteen years are finally catching up with him. Philtre did not give up easily but his main asset is stamina and it was insufficient to counter the turn of foot that Homme de Fer clearly retains. When Nibby Bloom delivered his challenge between the last two, his new acquisition quickly opened up daylight, which was maintained, with hands and heels encouragement, all the way to the line.

The Ladies Open saw the second course appearance this year of Alex Embiricos’ Placid Man. He galloped his, albeit inferior, rivals into submission a month ago and he did a similar job with the opposition put up before him today. He looks a far from easy ride, but he does have speed and he does have power. Alex Embiricos struggled throughout to hold him, and around the horsebox turn on each occasion the horse positively slowed in anticipation of going there. When he was sure that his rider wanted at least another circuit out of him he willingly responded, quickly re-establishing the lead that he had temporarily surrendered. I doubt if during the entire three miles, Alex ever really let go of him. He nevertheless came home a distance ahead of Celtic Duke who finished well to oust Paradiso from second just yards from the line.

The eleven runner Countryside Alliance Club Members race was another example, if one were needed, of the depth of quality East Anglian enthusiasts are lucky to enjoy at this early stage of the season, when horses from other regions (still to get going) chase “our “ pickings. It was “outsiders” such as these (ironically the first and second favourites) who dominated the finish, with the lightly raced Martha’s Boy, confidently produced by a motionless David Dunsdon, to swoop passed the Barbury PPORA winner, Lord Kilpatrick, just before the last. Highland Rose, who had slaughtered a Hunt field at Cottenham last Sunday, kept on to be ten lengths adrift in third. She failed to respond to Lord Kilpatrick’s kick for home four fences out, and connections may be hard pressed to go on with her from here. It could be that her best future lies in Ladies Opens, but only when Placid Man needs a rest!

The East Anglian contingent put in a couple of performances that boded well for the future, the most noticeable being the Turner horse Leatherback. He improved leaps and bounds from his Cottenham run last Sunday and, along with the earlier effort from Celtic Duke and a later one from Captive, gave notice that the stable’s horses will soon be approaching a winning level of fitness. Tea Box from the Kemp yard also ran well after an absence of over a year. Unfortunately he had to be pulled up just before the last, and walked back looking very lame on the near hind.

The Kemp team gave their stable star, Cantarhino, his seasonal debut in the Restricted race, which bought proceedings to a close over an hour later than originally planned. Thirteen others, including another significant group of “foreigners”, joined him. This time the home team prevailed when Carntarhino just held the determined late thrust of Snowtre by a head, and completed a fine day for favourite backers. This Alderbrook gelding is still only six and already has a Hunter chase victory (and a close second) under his belt. He did enough today to show that he still has further improvement in him. That remark can also be said to be true of Jim’s Belief, who was close up in third when falling at the last. This was improvement again on a promising third to Fertile Valley at Cottenham, which in turn was a lot better than anything he achieved last year. It will not be long before he visits the winner’s enclosure again.

As the light faded I climbed into the car to begin the long journey home. It had had been a long weekend. I had experienced seventeen races and turned over a few pounds in betting revenue (not all coming back into my pocket). I had witnessed a potential star of the future (Fane Counsel) annihilate a decent class Restricted field, and I had seen good, honest pointers give their all for my enjoyment. I was a lucky man. As the heater slowly began to take effect and a warm tingle gradually returned the circulation to my nose, ears, and hands, I wondered if Captain Oates was referring to an East Anglian “double header” in the middle of February when he uttered those immortal words “I may be gone for sometime!”