Inclement weather – it drizzled for most of the afternoon – meant that the Bank Holiday crowd was not as big as usual for this popular and long-standing meeting, sponsored by Coral. However, those that ventured out into the rain were treated to an afternoon of dominance from local trainer Alan Hill's Aston Rowant stable. The Hill yard saddled eight runners, including the favourite in all six races – and went home having bagged five of them. Keeping it in the family, four were ridden by trainer's son Joe Hill, his first quadruple following a three-timer at this meeting last year.
However, hopes of going through the card went west in the first event, the four-runner Cub Cadet Confined Race. Although Alan Hill's Brian's Well started odds-on and was taken into the lead from the start, he always seemed to be there on sufferance and looked beaten as soon as Fred Hutsby's Tempered Steel jumped to the front at the final water jump. The mare's lead didn't last for long though, as Nick Meek – riding a confident waiting race on second favourite Flicka's Witness – led three out. The 11-year-old soon went clear and scored easily by 20 lengths from Tempered Steel with Brian's Well back in third.
It was a second win in six days for Denis and Pauline Moylan's gelding, who scored in a similar contest at Brafield-on-the-Green last Sunday. Indeed, the horse completed a double at the same meetings last year, although they were two weeks apart. Trainer Joan Johnston, notching up her third success this month, explained her decision to run Flicka's Witness again so quickly. "He came out of his last race well and has been going really well at home." Flicka's Witness used to be an erratic jumper and Joan gave credit to Ian Wills for showjumping him to help with his jumping. "Ian's our Yogi Breisner," she laughed. "His jockeys have also given him confidence," she continued. "Not just Nick, but Jamie Goss, who rode him last year. They've both got him to relax, switch off and settle."
Winning jockey Nick Meek, scoring for the fourth time this season and moving into the lead in the Area Novice Riders title, said, "That was much easier than last week. His jumping was a lot better and, as long as he stayed on his feet, I knew he's be OK as he stays." Flicka's Witness was at the rear on the first circuit and fiddled a couple, but Nick remained calm. "I just switched him off and left him alone – I knew he's pick the bridle up," the jockey confirmed.
The Hill dominance started in the Hildreths Garden Centre Ladies Open, won for the third year in succession by the prolific 12-year-old Start Royal, ridden by Gina Andrews and part-owned by Kimble Clerk of the Course Stewart Nash. As is his wont, the Starborough gelding led from flagfall and, despite making a horlicks of the 14th (he always seems to put in one error per race), won unchallenged by 20 lengths from Cutlass Silver, with the only other runner Rossbrin a similar distance back in third.
"That's his 24th win," confirmed part owner Michael Avery. "13 ridden by James Tudor and 11 with Gina. At the end of last year, Gina told me 'I want to win 13 on him!' He's just as keen as ever and he's just unbelievable. I've had horses with Alan and Lawney Hill since 1988," continued Michael, "And they've all won at least one race – but most have just won once!" Asked about plans, Michael joked, "To have a cup of tea in the hospitality tent!" but Stewart Nash admitted that Start Royal may go for another 'home' meeting at Kingston Blount on May 7th, with one run in between. Despite the horse's age, there are no plans for retirement. "We'll take it season by season and go on as long as he's enjoying it. He seems to be holding his form," said Stewart.
Asked about his blunder, winning rider Gina Andrews admitted, "He wasn't concentrating, just dawdling along in his own little world, shying at the crowds by the fences. He just does his own thing and does as much as I asked him." Gina agreed she'd like to win as many races on Start Royal as the recently-retired James Tudor did and confirmed she is aiming for another Lady Riders title, a race in which – at the time of writing – she is three clear of Claire Hart, as long as she "stays healthy and injury-free." Asked about the successful season she is having in her training partnership with husband Tom Ellis, she put it down to "Better luck, better horses and working better as a team!"
Just two went to post for the Carey Group PLC Mens Open. Long-odds on Consigliere led all the way was never threatened to beat sole rival Kristian Gray by the length of the run-in, in what became a procession. It was the day's second winner for trainer Alan Hill, who blamed himself for the 13-year-old's two defeats at Cottenham in between the horse's three wins this season. "When he was second, he had a lump on his back the size of a golf ball, and next time, he blew up because I'd left him a bit short," confessed Alan. Plans may include the 'Southern Grand National' at the next Kingston Blount meeting, "Although I'm not sure he'll stay four miles." The trainer did confirm that the horse would definitely stay pointing and added, "He'll keep on next season. He's as good as ever."
Winning rider Joe Hill, scoring for the first time since breaking his collarbone at Higham in February, following which he was laid off for a month, enthused "It's great to be back. That's the fifth I've won on him. He jumped fantastically – the best he's ever done for me. He's a superstar, a real family pet and it's a pleasure to ride him."
The five-runner Subaru Restricted Race was the most exciting of the day. Outsiders Freddy Fox and Steel Away J led for most of the first circuit, before Joe Hill on joint-favourite Velvet Cognac took over. The other market leader Emperor Arcadius looked reluctant for Gina Andrews and from the final water jump, Midnight Monkey, given another patient ride by Nick Meek, looked the main danger. When Velvet Cognac made a mistake three out and Midnight Monkey led at the penultimate, the race looked over, but Joe Hill kept rallying his mount and the lead changed hands three times from the final fence before Joe and Velvet Cognac prevailed by a neck in the fastest time of the day. Emperor Arcadius was a long way back in third.
The horse runs in the colours of Hugh Jarvis, who was enjoying a welcome change of luck, as he explained. "I own Harris Garden, who's unable to run this year, so I took an interest in Mr Cardle, who is also out of action. So Alan has let me lease Velvet Cognac." Hugh and his family – including sister and former rider Emily Jarvis – were sporting scarves in his yellow and green colours. "They're either supposed to be Brazil or Norwich City," laughed Hugh, who wouldn't be drawn on where the eight-year-old by Grape Tree Road, who has won his last two, goes – "I'm sure Alan's got a little plan" is all Hugh would say. Hugh regularly rides out at the Hills' Woodway Farm yard, saying, "I enjoy it when I can and Alan and Lawney are very good at finding me something sensible!"
Win number four for Alan Hill, and three for son Joe, came with evens favourite Pride Of Parish in the six-runner Richardsons Open Maiden Race, before which the rain started lashing down. Lucky To Be Alive led early from Basher Brian and Lake Balaton. The latter, on his English pointing debut, moved to the front after a circuit and was still leading when falling four out at the final open ditch. This left the favourite in front from Basher Brian, who appeared to slip on the bend before the penultimate. As a result, Gina Andrews was almost forced to pull him up and Pride Of Parish was left to come home by 15 lengths from the fast-finishing Gwili Spar with Basher Brian completing for third.
"He was very disappointing at Horseheath, where he didn't settle and stay, so we dropped him out at Kingston Blount next time," was all trainer Alan Hill had time to say before rushing of to saddle three in the next race, while jockey Joe Hill was unstinting in his praise of the horse. "He cruised home and he'll win a lot of races as he travels, jumps and gallops. We think so much of him, but I don't know if he's for sale."
Four went to post for the concluding Jeremy Swan Members Race, three from the Hill stables and Tom Brockett's Dunara Castle. All eyes were on Victoria Pendleton on evens favourite According To Sarah, aiming to win her first point-to-point after finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Foxhunters the week before. With Dunara Castle soon tailed off, a Hill five-timer was always on the cards but the question was 'which horse?' According To Sarah and Susannah Gill on Minella Theatre dulled for the lead for a circuit and a half, with Joe Hill tracking them on Divine Folly, closing them down at the final water jump and taking the lead at the ditch, before going on to win cosily by two lengths – with plenty in hand – from Minella Theatre. Dunara Castle got round for third, but According To Sarah was pulled up before two out.
"Divine Folly was the only one of my three who liked the soft ground," admitted Alan Hill – confirming it was the first time he's had five winners on a card – before attending to a post-race presentation of According To Sarah to her jockey by Betfair, who have sponsored Victoria Pendleton through her 'Switching Saddles' challenge. The mare is now set to race in Victoria's own colours for the rest of the season – after her jockey comes back from a well-deserved holiday.
Jockey Joe Hill, who punched the air as he entered the winners enclosure for the fourth time and rushed up to hug his father after weighing-in, was quick to acknowledge where the credit was due for the family's splendid day. "It's Dad, he's brilliant," was the 20-year-old's response. "His horses always pick up from March onwards." Joe was hard-pressed to pick out a single highlight from the day, praising all his winners, before admitting, "Consigliere was breathtaking."