Highlight of the day at a chilly Barbury Racecourse last weekend was the RSM Restructuring Advisory LLP Mixed Open. Six of the twelve entries went to post, including multiple course winner Iberico from Sam Jukes' yard, useful Hunter Chaser Shotavodka and James Owen's recruit from Gigginstown Stud, Net D'Ecosse and the three principals were close in the betting, Iberico holding firm at 6/4, Shotavodka drifting from the same price to 5/2 before the start and Net D'Ecosse backed late from 6s to 2s.
Net D'Ecosse took the lead at the cross-fence on the final circuit and looked to be going best, especially with the favourite making mistakes, however he blundered and unseated rider Jack Andrews at the very next fence. This left Petrou – who had useful form under rules for Dan Skelton – in front, but Shotavodka was always travelling well and jumped into the lead two out, holding on by a length and three-quarters from the fast-finishing Iberico, with Petrou two and three-quarter lengths away in third.
"I'm delighted," professed winning trainer Heidi Brookshaw – based near Market Drayton in Shropshire. "We were only hopeful, as we weren't sure he was fully fit, but we knew the ground would be OK as he goes on anything." Shotavodka was ambitiously campaigned last season, including in the Cheltenham Foxhunters, but the plan this year is to, "Have three or four runs in points and take it as it comes, and maybe go for the race he won at Hereford, if he shows he's still got ability." Heidi has about 15 in her yard, including the useful Bay Sly, Global Power and Sam Cavallaro.
Successful rider Tommie O'Brien was making it three wins from three rides this year and went into a short-lived lead in the riders championship (until Byron Moorcroft completed a four-timer at Howick). "That's only my second Open winner," said Tommie, who works full-time for Tom Lacey and also rides for the likes of Fran Nimmo and Joe O'Shea. "He can be a bit quirky, but gave me a good feel today." Tommie rode 20 winners in 2017/2018 and finished joint-sixth in the riders table, and admitted, "I'd like to get to 20 again and finish in the top four, but I'm going to need a lot of luck. Most of my horses will only run in one point-to-point!" (He was referring to his well-deserved reputation for riding four-year-old maidens to victory on their debut).
Another classy individual on display was Alan Hill's Hawkhurst, who started at 1/4 and took the four-runner Alan King Racing Conditions Race in the manner a long odds-on shot should. Settled in second by multiple champion lady rider Gina Andrews, having her first mount of the season, he took the lead six out, drew clear with minimal effort and won hard-held by eight lengths from the pursuing Hinxworth, with long-time leader Tinelyra 23 lengths third.
Asked about future plans for the eight-year-old, the trainer said, "He'll keep going and stay pointing – he has to! (Due to a clause in his sale from previous owner J P McManus). We'll try to avoid Opens and keep to Conditions races, and we may target the leading horse award. The ground was quick enough for him today," continued Alan. "And he pulled hard, but that was a nice easy race for him." The Aston Rowant handler has about 30 to run this year and, while he played down his chances of regaining the leading trainer title he last won in 2014, he was keen to nominate Ringa Ding Ding, who goes to Cottenham on 30th December, as his 'milk bottle' horse (one fancied to win first time).
"It was good to get off the mark," said Gina Andrews of her 199th winner between the flags. "He's a nice horse, if a bit quirky – not the biggest, but an exceptional jumper with plenty of scope. I've ridden him three times now… and won three."
The Gwynne Dental Restricted went the way of another odds-on chance in Julie Wadland's Lily's Got Wings. The six-year-old, a 1/2 shot, faced three rivals and ran them ragged in the hands of Jack Andrews, leading all the way and giving an exceptional display of jumping to come home a fence clear – and hardly blowing – of the only other finisher Wild Ginger.
Lily's Got Wings was winning for the second time on her seasonal debut here, having scored at the November meeting in 2017 and her trainer was keen to stress how the mare has matured since then. "She's more settled at home now," Julie told me, "And is a different horse this year. She'd want a bit more cut and I thought she'd be a bit short of work, but this wasn't a bad race for her." A step up in class now beckons for Lily's Got Wings. "I promised Claire (Hardwick) that she could ride her in a Ladies Open if she won a Restricted," laughed Julie. "Claire's going to be busy, what with her, Golden Tobouggan and Midnight King!"
"It wasn't a great race," admitted winning rider Jack Andrews, getting off the mark for the season an hour and a half before his older sister, "But she did what she had to do. She's a great jumper, who likes to get on with things." Jack, who also rides primarily for Stuart Morris, Alan Hill and James Owen, had 20 winners last season and modestly confesses to having, "No aims beyond that."
The opening contest, a Maiden, for four, five and six year-olds over two and a half miles, was sponsored by Gourmet Gallopers and had four runners. Despite the small field, it was an eventful contest, with second favourite Winter Squaw bolting into a long lead – she was almost a fence clear by the fourth – before rider Gordon Treacy suddenly had to pull her up two fences later due to a broken stirrup leather. This left 4/6 favourite, the Mickey Bowen trained Equus Leader – ridden by Peter Bryan – well clear and they were untroubled to win by a fence and a half from outsider Mickie Franklin (that's the horse, not the jockey) who was completing for the first time.
"His trainer would like to run him again, but we want to sell him!" joked Mandy Bryan, daughter of winning owner David Smith and mother of the winning jockey. "He's a lovely horse, who ran a bit green in his bumper, but the form worked out well and the winner – Emitom – is unbeaten." "He's improved a lot and strengthened well over the summer," added Mandy's husband Willie, who has about a dozen youngsters – including pre-trainers – with Mickey Bowen, including a three-year-old by Getaway, who may come here for a bumper in February, as well as Lady Dudley Cup winner Lotus Pond and the ex-Alan King trained Hidden Cargo. Mickey himself reckons to have 15 to run in points this year, among whom are 2017 Aintree Foxhunters winner Dineur, back after a year off.
Peter Bryan described Equus Leader as "Very professional, considering it was his first time over fences. He'd have been able to win a better Maiden than that." Peter, who had seven wins in points and five in Hunter Chases last year, just wants to, "Have as many winners as I can this season, and hopefully win the Lady Dudley Cup again!"
The main race day sponsor was Fullers Brewery, who also lent their name to the closing race on the card – the Open Maiden – for which four started. Fittingly enough, it was won by the only horse running who was qualified with the Vine & Craven, Tim Underwood's Irish import Shallamar. The 11/10 joint-favourite jumped well and was always prominent, taking the lead going out on to the final circuit. Gina Andrews on Jemma's Gift, the other joint-favourite, pressed and harried the leader and looked to be going best round the final bend, but 52-year-old youngster Phil York always had something in hand on Shallamar and won cosily by three lengths. Market Court never threatened in 12 lengths third.
"Yeah, I was expecting that," said the ever-quotable Tim Underwood nonchalantly afterwards. "Even though I didn't back him! He had a little bit of form in Ireland, but you didn't see the best of him over there. He might be able to win a Restricted." Asked where the seven-year-old goes next, Tim replied, "I dunno – but I'm off to Mexico for ten days!" However, the 71-year-old didn't respond to my enquiry about whether he was planning a comeback in the saddle this season.
"He'd be a better horse in a better race," was winning jockey Phil York's verdict. "He's ever so safe and, when you give him a kick, he responds." Phil confirmed that – while he may have a few years on the trainer – this was his 27th consecutive season in the saddle. "I'm old, but I can still do it and, all the time I'm still enjoying it, I'll keep going," he smiled. "The house is paid-for and my sons are grown-up so, if ever I had an excuse to stop, it was 20 years ago when they were young and I still had a mortgage!"
The British Racing School Intermediate was a walkover for Skyhill Allstar, owned and trained by Shropshire-based Simon Edwards and partnered by his son Huw. At least the prize money made their journey worthwhile and the horse is now qualified for the Connolly Red Mills Intermediate Final at Cheltenham.