Good weather brought an even larger crowd than usual to this popular meeting and they were treated to some competitive racing, with no fields smaller than three, a 19th career success for the popular mare Dabinett Moon, a treble for local trainer Alan Hill and doubles for jockeys Jack Andrews and Will Thirlby and trainer Fred Hutsby.
Highlight of the card was the three-runner Skinners Ladies Open, a qualifier for the series final at Stratford on Friday 31st May. Dabinett Moon was odds-on to win this race for the second year in a row and, held up as usual as Blue Mountain Boy set the pace followed by Hellorboston, she went into second place at the 12th fence before cruising into the lead four out. Blue Mountain Boy kept on at her, however, and Dabinett Moon had to be shaken up approaching the last before going away to score by six lengths, with Hellorboston six back in third. Of her 19 victories, 18 have been in the hands of today's winning jockey Claire Hardwick.
"I always say the same thing afterwards," laughed trainer Fran Marriott, who was nursing a broken wrist after a fall on the gallops. "She's just a star. We hope she'll go to Cheltenham next – although she finds the fences quite big there. "We'll enter her in the Mares race and the United Hunts Cup – she gets an allowance in the latter." Following Cheltenham, the plan is to put Dabinett Moon in foal to Passing Glance, followed by a career swansong in the final of this series. "We'll hopefully see our colours on the course again next season," advised owner Christopher Marriott. "We've got her relative Apple Of Our Eye in training with Claire." Christopher still rides Dabinett Moon every morning and confirmed, "We had a bit of a leg stretch this morning!"
Claire Hardwick was moving on to 99 career successes between the flags and smiled, "I never thought I'd ride ten!" It was the fourth win of a relatively quiet season for Claire, three times a runner-up in the Ladies Championship and she told me, "I choose what horses I ride now – I wouldn't have done that five years ago. It's time to grow up as I've got a business to run! But I still love it, still want to do it and as long as I've got good horses to ride, like Exclusive Rights, Kazuri Kate… and Golden Tobouggan for Julie Wadland, I'll keep going." Asked to explain her affinity with Dabinett Moon, Claire smiled again. "She just loves me – it must be because I broke her in! I trust her, and she trusts me."
Alan Hill's treble came in the first three races of the day, starting in the Cub Cadet Conditions Race – another for which three went to post – with Changeofluck. The 11-year-old made all under Jack Andrews and, despite a couple of sloppy jumps late on, held on well when challenged by favourite Midnight King at the last to win by one-and-a-half lengths. Spanish Fleet was only three lengths away in third but never got in a blow.
"The first time blinkers may have helped," admitted the winning trainer. "He ran in cheekpieces at Fontwell Park last year but the blinkers were (son) Joe's idea. I hoped he'd get an easy lead as he always pulls out just enough. He's a funny little horse – he only just gets over the fences and rooted three out. Neither of the other two wanted to make the running, so that was our opportunity. I'd love to run him in the four-miler at Cheltenham next week, but Joe will probably shoot me down!"
Alan Hill and Jack Andrews' second win of the day – and Alan's 300th pointing victory as a trainer – came in the Hildreths Garden Centre Maiden in very similar circumstances, as recent Irish recruit Normofthenorth led his six rivals from flagfall. Allowed an easy lead, he quickened five lengths clear going into the back straight on the final circuit and always looked in control despite the attentions of four-year-old debutants Hereditary Rule and favourite Latenightfumble. The latter was beaten when she unseated her rider two out and Normofthenorth stayed on to beat Hereditary Rule by two-and-a-half lengths, with Tajj a well-beaten third.
The trainer owns Normofthenorth in partnership with Maurice Thomas and Lynn and Martin Redman and the latter explained how the ownership came about. "I was underbidder for him at Ascot (where he was bought for £15,000) so Alan phoned me and asked if I'd like a share. Lynn has had horses with (Alan's wife) Lawney under rules but he's our first pointer with them." "I bought him as a project and I'm not sure if he'll run again this season," said Alan. "Denis Murphy, who sold him, said that it was too soft when he last ran and that he needs top of the ground – and that I should take him home and not do anything with him for a fortnight. Today's ground suited and I told Jack to stretch them as I knew he'd stay."
Winning rider Jack Andrews confirmed, "He's got a very good attitude and loved every minute of it. He quickened all the way from the ditch to two out. He's very quiet at home but comes alive at the fences. When he quickened, he had them under the cosh and felt like a good horse." Jack was moving on to 22 for the season, four behind leader and reigning champion Alex Edwards and – asked about his title aspirations – said, "I'll give it a good go, although I don't think I've got the ammunition. I was hitting the crossbar three weeks ago but I couldn't be happier now and I'll be pleased whatever the outcome – I always said my ambition this season was to beat my previous best of 20, which I have done."
Alan Hill completed his treble – and an across the card five-timer after wins at Charing and Higham – in the Richardsons Chartered Accountants Novice Riders race, another three-runner event. This time it was the turn of long odds-on favourite Supreme Danehill and Dan Cherriman, who had a bloodless 25-length victory over the only other finisher Victoria Hill, a great first ride in points for Molly Griffiths. Supreme Danehill has just taken the lead from early pacesetter More Than Luck when the latter unseated at the 13th and was unchallenged thereafter.
Supreme Danehill is owned by the Sunday Night Partnership, who include the Hill family, myself and my wife Caroline, Richard and Auriol Wilson (who run Higham racecourse) and Keith Loads and Alan Hill was quick to explain the reasons for the 11-year-old's delayed reappearance. "He ran at Cheltenham last year and came back slightly jarred, then a setback in the Autumn cost us six weeks. He was going to run at Kingston Blount, to try to win the four-miler there for the fourth time, but banged himself that morning." When I asked where we'd go next, Alan pointed to the sponsors' tent as he laughed, "Over there, collect the cup and have a drink! Seriously, we'll have a look for a four-miler or maybe a Hunter Chase at Fontwell Park, where he's won before."
It was a fifth win for rider Dan Cherriman, who admitted, "The horse gave me an amazing feel and it was a privilege to be asked to ride him – it was my first ride for Alan other than as an owner." Dan, who rode his first winner on Churchfield Champ at Umberleigh in 2017, is the only professional huntsman (for the Pytchley) riding between the flags at the moment and explained how he combines the two. "I hunt through the season and don't race-ride until March. It keeps me fresh," he confirmed. Multi-talented Dan also writes about hunting for Horse & Hound and is the only pipe-smoker in the weighing room!" He told me finally that his ambition is to ride in the Aintree Foxhunters – hopefully next year on Kashmir Peak.
Six runners faced the starter for the Chandler Garvey Commercial Property Consultants Mens Open. On paper, it looked the most difficult race to solve of the day and it resulted in the closest finish. Jack Andrews tried to make all, for the third time of the day, on Alan Hill's Namako and – approaching the last – looked to have seen off his rivals, including the tenacious Downbythestrand, who had chased him for most of the final circuit. However, Namako hit the last, was headed and didn't respond to pressure, allowing Downbythestrand and Will Thirlby to get up by three-quarters of a length. Gallox Bridge never threatened in 12 lengths third.
"Thank God for that – it's my first win since before Christmas," exclaimed winning trainer Fred Hutsby. "(Son) Tom's had more winners than me – he's won two pony races, including one at Cheltenham this week!" It was a second success for Downbythestrand, who had only ever won in Restricted class before but – as Fred explained, "The owners like to run in Hunter Chases and I'll probably take him to Fontwell Park next, maybe over a slightly longer trip. Will gave him a bang on ride," he continued. "It's the first day he's ridden for me but he's been coming in to ride out and he's a nice lad. Plus, he's riding winners and his confidence is high."
Fred expresses himself especially pleased for owner Christine Osborne, who lost two horses last season, including the useful Kristian Gray. "I've just got him in training now," confirmed Christine, whose first pointer was Tempered Steel. "He had a year off with a couple of problems, then Fred decided to bring him back over shorter distances. This is all down to Fred and his wife Caroline."
The family of Alan Fantham sponsored the closing Restricted race in his memory. Four ran, and the consistent Kalinite completed a double for Fred Hutsby and Will Thirlby. Yet again, Jack Andrews attempted to make all on an Alan Hill horse, this time The Tailor Quigley, at a slow pace. Favourite Occupied jumped erratically before slipping up on the bend before the 13th and from this point, Kalinite always had the leader in his sights. Will Thirlby kept hold of him until the last before jumping into the lead and going on to win by a comfortable eight lengths. Only two finished.
"He did it the hard way," admitted Fred. "I thought we were in trouble at the ditch, as I'd expected him to take it up there, but I was confident going to the last. He's a tough little horse and he jumped well." Fred intends to send Kalinite, who he bought from Mark Gichero out of Ireland, for a Fontwell Park Hunter Chase next, "To see if he can win some prize money."
"That's my first double," said a smiling Will Thirlby. "And eight for the season now – my previous best was two. I work for Tom Ellis and Gina Andrews and have been riding out for Fred, and am lucky to have some good horses to ride, including Ardkilly Witness (who he rode in the Cheltenham Foxhunters), Black Valentine and Petrou." Will admitted that race-riding is "More of a hobby. I've got no plans to go professional, for a few years at least – I'd rather stay as an amateur, and become a top one. It was a first visit to Kimble for Will, whose closing words – unsurprisingly – were, "I quite like it!"