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9th January 2005
by Richard Hall

As soon as you scoured the entries you knew that it was always going to be hard for Higham to match the glorious start achieved by Cottenham the week before. Numbers were down and the chances of any events dividing were, at best, remote. Just six races, compared to the ten at the corresponding meeting last year, and the quality and depth of entrant had a decidedly second division look. Just one week into the season and already the bread and butter was upon us. I wondered if we’d be on potato peelings by week six?

Nevertheless the races still had to be won, and the thrill of doing so would be every bit as great for those connected. To the spectator and punter too, a close fought finish would be just as exciting providing the outcome hung in the balance until the last possible moment. The ground had a good covering of grass and was officially announced as good to firm, good in places (almost unheard of for January!). The scene was set, and the crowd had gathered. Let the show begin.

The opening event was the Maiden. Fourteen declared for it, and, as this was the only contest where more than the safety factor of eighteen had been entered, the prospects of a bonus seventh race were immediately scuppered. Sort it Out, bought from Ireland by the luckless Anthony Howland Jackson (who, despite the considerable amount of money he injects into the sport, was without a winner in 2004), attempted to lead from start to finish. When Jove’s Shadow joined and passed him at the fifteenth he showed battling qualities over the next couple of fences to repel the challenge and re-establish a distinct advantage by the time they jumped the eighteenth. Waynesworld from Marilyn Scudamore’s South Herefordshire yard, however, been had travelling sweetly behind them and was bought with a perfectly timed run by Nick Oliver to both join and pass them with a fast and economical leap at the last. On the run in he was not extended to pull further ahead and win with a considerable amount in hand.

Waynesworld is still only seven years old and had reasonable form under Rules, the pick of which was a 2 lengths second to Richard Lee’s Marked Man at Chepstow in March last year. He is clearly a useful recruit to the pointing field and should not be long in picking up a Restricted. Sort it Out will surely lose his maiden tag in the not too distant future, and looks the type to benefit when there will be a greater emphasis on stamina. Joves Shadow, on the other hand, will need to find a shorter course to be seen at his best. He looked all to be travelling well until the second last before going out like the proverbial light. He tired so badly that Royal Blazer, who had been hacked round at the rear of the pack, deprived him of third on the run in.

Of the remainder I would not give up entirely on Faugere. He had promising form on his first two starts over hurdles but, since being sent pointing, he has been so highly strung that he used up so much energy in the preliminaries he failed to see out the trip on the course. He looked a reformed character in the paddock today, and went to post with barely an ounce of sweat on him. He raced prominently throughout and looked to be travelling well until finding little when the leading trio kicked on. The race may bring him on and he could perhaps spring a surprise later in the season.

Six of the fourteen entries went to post for the second race on the card, the Novice Riders. The bookies gave little chance to three of them and their assessment proved accurate as only the market leader Homme De Fer, pacemaker Philtre, and third favourite Step Quick (fresh from a campaign under Rules) ever looked likely to be in a position to trouble the judge.

As the race entered its final stages Philtre began to tire. Homme de Fer got first run on him and kicked on approaching the second last. He did not shake off Step Quick who had stalked him menacingly throughout. Ridden with supreme confidence Gregory Wright’s charge came with a wet sail to devour the favourite just before the final flight and seal victory in his first race between the flags since 2003. It is hard to envisage that this will be the last in this sphere either.

I was not overly impressed with the ride George Greenock gave Homme De Fer. I may be talking through my pocket but he seemed to run in snatches and could not make up his mind whether he wanted to trail, travel alongside, or lead Philtre. At four-furlong intervals he seemed to ask his mount to change gear and do something different. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that there was no acceleration left to respond with when it mattered most.

The Men’s Open seemed an intriguing contest on paper, even though those that my homework had unearthed as the most likely winners (Longville Lad, Janiture, and Placid Man) were not among the seven declarations. The ex Paul Nicholls trained Ivanoph was an interesting recruit from the National Hunt sphere and had travelled from Dorset to compete. Greenwich was returning to pointing after spending the previous season racing under Rules and was attempting a double for Nick Oliver and Marilyn Scudamore. Snowtre too had to enter calculations. He had his favoured ground and had ended last season on an upward curve by winning his final three races. I also had a sneaky regard for Viscount Bankes, a youngster who had been tried in Hunter Chases last year and looked the type to do well in his second season if he could be taught to settle.

When Ivanoph fell at the second fence, and Snowtre at the third, the contest lost some of its intrigue (particularly as far as my wallet went) This sensation was compounded at the eighth fence when John Benfield lost his battle to control Viscount Bankes and failed to steer him over the obstacle. Under Point to Point Rules he should not have continued, but Viscount Bankes is nothing if not a law unto himself and Mr Benfield had little option but to let him take the ninth – still full of running and itching to be allowed to get to the front. It was only in the home straight for the second time, approaching the horsebox bend, that the horse allowed his rider to pull him up.

In the contest proper Greenwich seemed to be leading the three opponents that remained a merry dance. Only the rank outsider, Pharbeitfrome, raced within striking distance, whilst the jockeys on the other two, the mud lark Pendle Hill and the Turner’s Minster York, appeared content to merely hunt out in pursuit of race fitness for targets that were a long way off.

When Pharbeitfrome fell at the fourteenth it seemed all over bar the shouting. Three fences from home, however, Greenwich, who rarely went beyond two and a half miles under Rules, seemed to tire and, albeit very gradually, the gap between him and Pendle Hill noticeably reduced.

Between the last two fences it had closed completely and Pendle Hill, under the surprised Andrew Hickman, began to draw clear and claim the stable’s first win within East Anglian territory this season. The only sad note was that they took very little of the bookmaker’s money back down the M25 with them! Hardly a penny of the stable’s hoard of cash had been invested.

The Ladies Open saw the seasonal debut of Placid Man, the area’s hope for the Cheltenham Foxhunters. He had bypassed the Men’s Open in favour of this less competitive event and duly thrashed his four opponents in the manner a long odds on favourite should. Although Lucky Master ran creditably in second (he was the only one within shouting distance from the second fence onwards) it was always a question of, providing he stood up, how far Placid Man would win by. A distance was the official verdict, although it could easily have been a parish. It was little more than an exercise gallop to confirm his well-being.

As the photograph below illustrates, the odds offered by the bookmakers on this race hardly shout “value for money” to the paying public, many of whom attend for the prime purpose of having a harmless flutter. No one can sensibly grumble about the restrictive price for Placid Man, but the ridiculously cramped odds on everything else in the race are nothing short of disgraceful. I cannot understand why some of them did not offer odds without the favourite, but there does seem to be an unwritten and unspoken agreement that only one bookmaker will ever do that!

Half of the fourteen entries actually went to post for the Countryside Alliance race, but considerably less took an active part. Jims Belief unseated George Cooper just after the fifth, The Lord Roberts was pulled up with something badly amiss shortly after, and Adrian Gibbons on the owner ridden Castle Prince seemed content to “gain experience” by immediately giving the others a one fence start and hunting round thereafter.

Three of the four horses that fought out the finish were backed in the market. Philip York’s Generous Ways was the first of them. He gave way quite tamely when the battle started in earnest, and pulled up three out. Deckie was the second of them. He is a recently acquired Irish purchase for the powerful Kemp stable, and was given a trademark pace setting ride. He rallied gamely, but in vain, when the other two threw down their challenges as they galloped to the last. The third was Heisamodel from the South Dorset yard of J Boulter and F Wilkins, who had earlier been spectacularly unsuccessful with Ivanoph and Faugere. He came easily enough to win his race and was three lengths clear at the last. He stumbled badly though, and jockey Mike Miller did well to stay in the saddle and keep some momentum going. At the line he was adjudged to have won, although the margin by which he did so was only a neck. Second place went to Rooster. Using unfamiliar hold up tactics, he ran his best race for a long time for Matt Mackley and bellied the derogatory comments heaped on his trainer, Julie Read, in the MSH yearbook. I suspect that the improvement may be sustained, and that he could be one to be profitably followed this season.

The Restricted wrapped up proceedings for the day and eight went to post for it. Stuart Robinson’s ten year old Shoveontommy, who had been off the racetrack since 2002 when he had won an end of season Charing maiden, won it in a gutsy, workmanlike, manner. He simply outstayed Shaking Chief, from Helen Needham’s Worcestershire stable (who had earlier failed to score with both Philtre and his half brother Snowtre), who folded tamely after looking almost certain to prevail at the second last.

The performance of the race came from Jupiter George, who was formerly under the care of Shelia Crow but is now trained at the Puckeridge yard of B Clark. He has been something of an enigma in the past, and although winning his Maiden impressively, he frequently came to an abrupt halt after two and a half miles. After taking up the running and threatening to assert at the thirteenth, he did the same today. At the fifteenth he was fully twelve lengths adrift, going backwards, and looking a spent force. Paul Cowley must have done something with him though, for, after the last and under strong driving, he came from the clouds with amazing acceleration to easily overtake Shaking Chief for second and get within a length and a half of Shoveontommy. Given his previous record I will not be investing too heavily next time as it could be that he simply reserves his cooperative performances for his seasonal debut. On the other hand, Paul Cowley may have found the key to him and, if so, he should not be dismissed lightly on subsequent engagements.

Next week is Ampton and, all being well, the seasonal debut of Tartar Sabre. Having come through his first season with credit, and with a bit of maturing and a summer on his back, we, like all connections, are dreaming of victory (dare I say victories?) in the months ahead. Ampton we tell us if he has trained on, if our hopes are realistic or just pie in the sky. After months of waiting this last week will seem the longest of them all……...

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