Local trainer Tom Ellis, based less than 20 minutes drive from the Oxfordshire course, continued his march towards a third consecutive national trainers championship with a treble at the North Warwickshire Club point-to-point at Mollington on Saturday. The fixture, used as a pilot for owners being allowed back at meetings following the national easing of Covid-19 restrictions on Monday, treated spectators to a 74 runners in the seven races and to a number of close finishes.
Highlight of Tom's treble was the ten-runner Hatton Arms Mixed Open, which provided jockey Natalya Irvine with a first ever career success on only her eighth ride. Rear in the early stages, the ten-year-old made progress after three out but still looked likely to be third best coming to the last. However, Natalya got a great leap from Blazing Tom and charged up the hill to overhaul favourite Mr Snuffles close home and score going away by two lengths with market rival Sugar Baron half a length away in third.
"I have no words," was Natalya's reaction afterwards, before confirming that she hadn't expected to be riding her first winner today. "I was just hoping for a spin round," she confessed. "Blazing Tom, who we got from Jonathan Tudor in November, and I have a love-hate relationship and we had a whoopsie schooling earlier this year which meant he had to have stitches and six weeks off – he's only been back in work three weeks. He's the ideal schoolmaster and did it on his own – I just had to sit on him."
Lancashire-born Natalya, 20, who's a big part of the Ellis team and admitted to learning most of what she knows from Tom's wife Gina Andrews and Gina's brother Jack, explained how she came into the sport. "My grandad Willie Irvine played football for Northern Ireland so my family tried to get me into football, but I preferred running. I came to Warwickshire one day to do a tetrathlon and met Fred and Caroline Hutsby. They got me started and gave me my first ride and I'm now in my second season as Tom and Gina's novice rider."
It was Jack who kicked off the Ellis treble on the impressive Scotch On Da Rocks in the Tattersalls Cheltenham young horse maiden, in which nine went to post. Settled in second for most of the race, the four-year-old debutant quickened to lead three out and, while his lead was threatened between the final two fences, he always looked in control and scored cosily by one and three-quarter lengths from fellow newcomer – the always prominent Blackwell Bay – with another first timer, Gareth Cael, who had looked the biggest danger two out, three and a quarter lengths third.
"I think he's our best four-year-old," stated Tom boldly after the race. "He's got size, scope, looks and his sire (Fame And Glory) is on fire. But he's as green as any I've run – we haven't been able to school him as much as I'd like and he's a slow burner, who'll improve a lot for today." Scotch On Da Rocks was Tom's 16th winner of the season and an incredible 13th since pointing resumed after lockdown on 29th March. Asked about a third trainer's title, Tom remained coy. "I'd love to be champion again," he said, "But don't want to tempt fate. We've got a lot of nice chasing types that I won't risk on firm ground."
Winning rider Jack Andrews confirmed, "He was straightforward and jumped well but was clueless in between his fences and didn't really know how to gallop! But the further went, the more he got into his stride and he winged the last." Quizzed on his own chances of retaining the jockeys crown he won for the first time last season, Jack admitted to being, "In with a chance and I'm riding for a yard in form, so I'll give it a good kick."
Gina Andrews got on the score sheet when riding the third of husband Tom's winners, Bawnmore in the Farol sponsored Restricted, which had 12 runners. Having led for most of the way, the hot favourite was forced to battle up the run-in with Welsh raider Gats And Co and just held on to win by a head, with Earcomesbob, who had raced prominently throughout, one and three-quarter lengths third.
"We'll find an Intermediate next," advised the winning trainer of plans for Bawnmore. "We may go to Stratford for the Restricted final, but it might be too sharp for him. I thought that was a hot Restricted and, while he's won two out of four now, he's still unexposed." Bawnmore is owned by a partnership comprising Warwickshire stalwart Jenny Hayward, MFH of the Warwickshire Hunt and Maiden race sponsor Ray Randerson, recently retired trainer Lynn Redman and well-known racegoer and owner Maurice Thomas. "It's been a great couple of weeks," confirmed the latter. "I've got a share in Chipotle, who won the Brocklesby Stakes at Doncaster, and Lynn and I are involved with Clondaw Westie, who was fourth in the Aintree Foxhunters."
And it was Aintree hero James King who took the riding honours on the day with a double for trainer Fran Nimmo in the two divisions of the older horse maiden. The 13-runner first division, sponsored by Ray Randerson Carpets, went to Fan Club Aulmes, who was prominent throughout, quickened clear two out and scored by a comfortable five lengths from Go Go Geronimo. Favourite Felino De Bersy made late progress to finish twelve lengths back in third.
While James King was continuing his rich vein of form – it was his fifth winner, two of whom he trains himself from the Nimmo base at Ettington, of the week – it was a belated first success of the season for Fran and her husband Charlie Poste (who was an excellent co-host of the live streaming with former rider Sam Davies-Thomas) from their Station Yard establishment. "They've been running well though," a relieved Fran told me. "We bought Fan Club Aulmes as a store and thought he was our best four-year-old the year we had Garry Clermont and Third Time Lucki. He's now syndicated for the Picnic Partnership, ran a couple of times for Dan Skelton and was a good second at Revesby Park last week."
Asked about her young horses to follow, Fran nominated Dondiam, who is entered at Chaddesley Corbett this weekend, while James remains on cloud nine after his Liverpool triumph, saying, "It's been a tremendous week, winning my second Foxhunters at 25. It's great to be back on the big stage and to see British pointers thriving."
Local trainer Dan Skelton stepped in to sponsor the second division when the race was divided on declaration and was rewarded with 11 runners and the most thrilling – and controversial – contest of the day. Rear early, the Nimmo representative Largy Mountain made steady headway to second two out before going hammer and tongs over the final fence and up the run-in with the always prominent newcomer and favourite Wideopenspaces. The trainers and jockeys of both first and second called it a dead-heat, the race reader reckoned a more realistic short-head, while the judge's verdict of Largy Mountain by half a length provoked comment, especially on review of the photo finish. Lennox Again finished well for six lengths third.
Largy Mountain carried the well-known colours of owner Kim Cockburn, another former Master of the Warwickshire Hunt, whose only pointer he is. "They used to belong to my mum Anne," he revealed, "And he's the first horse to run in them since she died 18 months ago. We bought him from my stepdaughter, Hannah Mahon – her husband Ryan found him for us. He'd been placed on all his previous runs, stays forever, and was beaten by a faster finisher at Maisemore Park last time."
Surely the classiest individual on show was Old Guard, who took the opening NFU Mutual Conditions race, for which ten went to post. The ten-year-old former winner of the Greatwood and International Hurdles at Cheltenham, who had not raced for two years (or over fences since 2016) but who came into the race with a BHB official rating of 152, did not look ring-rusty as he passed favourite Robin Des People after the last and ran on to win by two and three-quarter lengths with long-time leader The Unmentionable three and a quarter further away.
"Paul gave him to me for our daughter Olive to ride. She's done all the work with him." explained winning trainer Georgie Nicholls, now based at Kingston Lisle near Lambourn. "He's been off with a tendon injury and Olive's not 16 yet – she'll ride him next season – so Harriet Tucker, who works her socks off for me, has the mount this year." Georgie admitted to having, "No plans – we were just looking for a clear round today and came here for the good ground as we want to look after him. They've done a beautiful job with the going."
It was a first pointing winner of the season for Georgie and also (from just three rides) for Harriet, who famously won the Cheltenham Foxhunters in 2018 on Pacha Du Polder, although she has scored twice under rules. "I've been working for Georgie since November and go in there every morning," she confirmed. "He's a real trier, kept on to the end and jumped very well – Olive's got him jumping."
Nine faced the starter for the Oriental Club Conditions race, which went the way of Max Comley's veteran Knockaderry Flyer, who won his maiden at this meeting in 2017, scored a month later at Cheltenham but had not been successful since. The 12-year-old made most of the running, but looked beaten when passed four out by Waterloo Warrior. However, not for the first time, the latter looked reluctant in front and Knockaderry Flyer rallied to lead on the flat and win going away by six lengths. Spanish Fleet was a never-dangerous 12 lengths third in an incident-packed contest in which three of the runners unseated.
23-year-old Max, who trains at a purpose-built yard near Naunton in Gloucestershire, was yet another trainer to be getting off the mark for the season and confessed to being, "Fairly confident today. He was a good third at Fakenham, we've been waiting for pointing to return and have put blinkers on him to help him concentrate. He was one of the first horses I bought, from Fergal O'Brien, three years ago – I spent my grandad's inheritance on him, while my sister spent hers getting a degree! His first year for us was great and we had a lot of fun, but he did a leg last year and we didn't know whether he'd come back."