WESTONS' FATHER AND SON DOUBLE ACT
An overcast day at the popular course near Basingstoke saw the sun try to poke through in vain, but at least the fair-sized crowd was spared the rain. Clerk of the Course Bill Welling and his team have done a great job in the face of the recent adverse weather, the track was in good condition, and organisers were rewarded with a turnout of 45 runners in the six races.
Feature race of the day was the Moore Blatch Mixed Open and, while it saw the smallest field on the card, with only four going to post, it was high on quality. The two market leaders were the Martin Weston-trained Arthur's Secret, one of the top point-to-pointers in the country and local hope Mon Parrain. The former started odds-on and, ridden as always by owner's daughter Abigail Banks, took a keen hold, leading most of the way. Despite a couple of mistakes on the far side of the final circuit and being harried all the way by pointing debutant Starkie, the eight-year-old quickened clear after the last to win by five lengths, with a fast-finishing Mon Parrain one-and-a-half lengths away third.
"It was a bit soft for him three times up that hill on a staying track," was owner Christine Banks' explanation when asked if she thought the free-running type should have won more easily. Hunter Chases beckon now, with the Skinners Ladies Open Final in June the ultimate plan, although Christine refused to be drawn, saying only, "We'll see what comes along." Her daughter Abigail was bullish afterwards. "I'm so lucky to have the opportunity to ride him, she enthused. "He's awesome, he's gutsy, and really tries his hardest. I've never ridden anything like him before and probably never will again." She echoed her mother's comments about the ground, adding, "The weather's frustrating – it was too soft for him but he had to run somewhere," and was equally circumspect about a next outing, telling me, "We'll take him home and see how he comes out of it. He'll tell us when he's ready."
What was almost a Banks double in the last, the eight-runner Quilter Cheviot Open Maiden over three miles, turned into one for the Westons. Abigail on the outsider Round Robin, owned and trained by her mother, led most of the way, however odds-on Cook The Books, owned and trained by Martin's son, licensed trainer Tom Weston, and ridden by leading amateur James King, made stealthy late progress having been in rear early, jumped into the lead after the last and won a shade cosily by one-and-a-half lengths. Oldeddietherebel was five back in third.
"We bought him from the Landrover sales," said Tom of the five-year-old by Stowaway, who was second at Larkhill on his debut. "And we'll look to sell him on again now. Three miles in mud was stretching him and he'll be suited by two-and a-half miles on decent ground, but I thought I'd run him here." Asked about plans for the rest of the family's string for the season, both in points and under rules, Tom smiled. "Win with the ones that should and stop having so many seconds and thirds!"
The biggest field of the day was the 11 that went to post for the Gwynne Dental Conditions Race and, like the two races described above, it went to the favourite. Templebraden, however, was a much more backable price at 9-4. Always prominent, he surged past leader Kilmacallouge Bay round the final bend and went on to score easily by 30 lengths, with Toowoomba tailed-off in third, the only other finisher as conditions took their toll. Watch out for the second next time – he ran an eye-catching race on his return from a year's absence.
With winning rider Zac Baker dashing off to Warwick (where he finished second), I spoke to winning owner Sarah Oliver about her consistent 11-year-old, who was scoring for the first time in two years. "This will help his confidence," she laughed. "Horses don't like getting beaten. He's been running well and deserved that." Templebraden has mostly been running in better quality races, having been placed behind Cheltenham Foxhunters contender Cousin Pete last time out and his owner is hopeful of better things to come. "As far as we're concerned, the season's only just started," she laughed again, but wouldn't admit to any specific targets. "He needs to go left-handed and likes a bit of cut," she confirmed, "But any plans depend on (husband) Michael and trainer John Bryan."
Six ran in the Jude Becher Conditions Race for Veteran and Novice Riders and the market was dominated by the prolific Tempelpirate, leading horse nationally in 2014 and a winner of 18 races, and the in-form You Too Pet. Punters made Tempelpirate odds-on for 51-year-old youngster Phil York, but youth prevailed as 22-year-old Harry Thorpe-Codman gained his second career success, following the pair's recent victory at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire. Boher Call led for most of the final circuit but the two market leaders always had him in their sights. A mistake four out when going well interrupted the favourite's momentum, allowing You Too Pet to close, before jumping to the front at the penultimate fence. Tempelpirate stayed out but couldn't reach the winner, who held on by a length, with Boher Call one-and-three-quarters behind.
"He's our only soft ground horse and the wetter the better!" chuckled trainer Dale Peters of the horse, who he bought privately from trainer-rider Peter Mason. "I thought he'd be the perfect horse for Harry." Asked how he trains the horse, Dale admitted, "We just mess about with him – we got him fit early on and he just goes on the gallops a couple of times a week." Plans for the rest of the season, unsurprisingly, are to "Keep winning!" Harry was keen to pay tribute to the trainer, saying, "Dale's a big mentor to me. He's teaching me well, although I've still got plenty to learn. Dale and (girlfriend) Natalie are really supportive. They're like a family and there are loads of fantastic lads in the yard, not all of whom get the credit they deserve." Harry, who also praised the horse for, "Giving me a lot of leeway, being very forgiving and a joy to ride," works in the yard and – looking after a couple of his own – is also learning his craft as a trainer from his Sawtry-based mentor.
I let the winning jockey's mother Jane have the final word. "Dale couldn't win on the horse," she laughed, "But Harry's two from two. And look out for my younger son Marcus, who's having his first ride at Dingley on Easter Saturday. Both of them want to work for Joseph O'Brien."
The other two races on the card were run over the shorter trip of two-and-a-half miles. Following two pony scurries, the Lucy Lines Leading Rein Dash and the Rhiannon Lines Pony Scurry, the contests over fences opened with the Sofas & Stuff Restricted Race. Eight faced the starter for a competitive betting heat, including three from Wales and it was one of the raiders from across the Severn, League Of His Own, who took the spoils. Sent into an early lead by Byron Moorcroft, the nine-year-old went 20 lengths clear with a lap to go and – though joint-favourite Double You Be and Dan's Wee Man closed up the stiff uphill finish – he held on under strong driving by three-quarters of a length and two-and-a-quarter respectively.
"It took us three-and-a-half hours from Pontypridd, where they make rugby players!" joked trainer Kieran Price, for whom it was League Of His Own's first start, "But it was worth it. He had good form in Ireland, then went to Tim Vaughan and we bought him for peanuts." Quizzed on the improvement in form, Kieran was clear. "Two-and-a-half miles and he loves this ground. Didn't he set them a gallop? That was the plan all along." With a low handicap mark, the horse is likely to go back under rules at some point, but Kieran has already identified a Conditions race over the same trip at Ystradowen for his next outing.
"I was told he was very keen so didn't have much of an option," smiled the winning jockey when asked if he planned to lead all the way. "He went off too quickly but jumped fantastically – they're lovely fences – and made lengths in the air. He was running on empty at the end but kept going. Lots of planning went into it," continued Byron about the decision to run here. "I was messaging the boys all week to find out what was running." Byron, a former conditional jockey who rode over 20 winners before reverting to amateur status, described himself as a "Jack of all sorts. I've got a yard full of pointers at home, spent a season in New Zealand rising pre-trainers and rode a couple of winners in America in the Autumn," and credits his success in the saddle as being down to dedication and a willingness to travel.
Arguably the most impressive winner of the day was Kootenay River in the eight-runner NFU Mutual Basingstoke Maiden, for four, five and six-year-olds and again over the shorter distance. Trained by Fran Nimmo, Tommie O'Brien kept the four-year-old debutant covered up in mid division until scooting into the lead after two out. Despite running wide round the final bend and veering left at the last two fences, he showed an impressive turn of foot to go 20 lengths clear of Kalinite, with long-time leader and favourite Mine's A Pint two lengths back in third.
Neither Fran, nor her partner – jockey Charlie Poste – were present to see this win, but they were represented by Charlie's brother, fellow jockey Ben, who told me about Kootenay River's background. "He was sourced by Paul Moloney and we bought him privately from Ireland," Ben confirmed. "He was playful when he came to us, but all he's done is improve and he's a model pro now. He was a bit green turning for home so he had a wander round – he's a big baby!" Fran and Charlie are proving adept at winning with their young horses before selling them on and the horse has a date at the Cheltenham sales this week. I asked Ben how Kootenay River compares to the other youngsters in the Nimmo yard but he remained tight-lipped, saying only, "There will be another half dozen at home!"
Tommie O'Brien is developing a real reputation as the go-to jockey for promising youngsters, rising most of Tom and Sophie Lacey's string too, and he was full of praise for both his mount and Fran and Charlie's operation. "He's laid-back and professional," was how Tommie described Kootenay River. "It was quite hard work on the ground, but a small quick one is better than a slow big one! We lost a couple of lengths at the last fence down the back but made it straight back. He was well-schooled and well-prepared and they're a professional outfit who know what they're doing."
Finally, asked for a Cheltenham tip, Tommie didn't hesitate before nominating Duel At Dawn, who he rides for Alex Hales in the four-miler on Tuesday!
The next meeting at the track, the Vine & Craven point-to-point, is on Easter Monday, 2nd April. For more information, visit www.vineandcravenhunt.co.uk/about-us/point-to-point