The sun shone at Larkhill at Saturday as the first steps to a return to crowds being allowed to attend a point to point took place. Although the meeting was held under strict Covid restrictions with two specific zones for officials and participants in one and owners and the public in the other zone it was certainly nearer to a more normal day's racing. There were in the region of 200 members of the public paying to watch the racing on a glorious winter day. The racing was of a high standard with the two winners of the Opens both being progressive seven years old with a definite future ahead of them. In addition there were first training winners of the season for local trainers Chris Barber and Sally Alner and a first riding success for James Turner and a first Larkhill riding victory for Will Thirlby.
The Ladies Open race was a good quality race and with Southfield Theatre running his usual brave race from the front for his pilot Lily Bradstock it was a true test with only the mare Miss Seagreen partnered by Hannah Lewis being able to master the game twelve year old. Miss Seagreen, owned by Clive Bennett who was not able to be present, had previously recorded two wins at the track before but this was her first attempt in Open company. Now trained by Lucy Smith at Dymock in Gloucestershire and recording her first training victory she explained that Sam Jukes who trained the mare last season was trying to obtain a professional licence so the horses had been split between them and Sam trained Marcle Ridge to win for Clive and Hannah at Barbury on Sunday. Lucy, the daughter of the late Terry Biddlecombe, is steeped in racing history and has been friends with Sam for over 20 years. Describing Miss Seagreen as 'an incredible game mare' Lucy is looking forward to more successes with her.
Salvatore from the in-form Melanie Rowley stable in Shropshire jumped to the front at the second last in the Mens Open and maintained the lead under Alex Edwards to hold off Coningsby ridden by Will Biddick and Trio for Rio ridden by Tommie O'Brien. Another previous winner at Larkhill in 2019 this son of Schiaparelli continues to progress and was recording his tenth career victory from only fifteen starts. Alex reported that 'he has strengthened up in the summer and is still improving' but indicated that a tilt at this seasons Foxhunters would be too soon for him. He should be able to continue to rise through the ranks and taking into Hunter Chases will certainly be on the agenda for this likeable gelding.
Will Biddick had started the meeting giving a masterful ride to the five year old Famous Clermont trained by Chris Barber in the young Maiden race. Settling the gelding at the rear of the ten strong field Will timed his challenge perfectly to beat the favourite Scipion ridden by Tommie O'Brien. Bought by Ed Bailey at the Doncaster Sales in August 2019 he had two races last season but was too free in both of these including when capsizing at the last when clear in January. Chris was quick to give a lot of the credit to Jamie Thomas, the former point to point rider, who now works for Chris and has spent a lot of his time settling the five year gelding who should continue to progress this season.
The Restricted race was run in two divisions with the first division being won by the ex-Alan King trained Second Time Around ridden by Will Thirlby. The winner of a Bumper for the Barbury Castle trainer he had not raced since March 2019 so this was a good training performance by Joan Johnston to have her charge ready first time out. He held off the challenge of the favourite Grey Getaway by 2 lengths with Montarlot a further four lengths back in third. Will, recording his first winner at Larkhill, explained this was a chance ride as Joan's normal jockey James Martin was riding at Cheltenham and he had sat on the Midnight Legend gelding only once before at a schooling session last Tuesday.
The second division which was run in a time some 10 seconds quicker than the first division saw James Turner ride his first ever winner aboard Happy Larry for Michael Kehoe. James, 18, works for National Hunt trainer Stuart Edmunds at Newport Pagnell where Michael Kehoe has a horse in training called Maskada which James looks after. His proud parents were in attendance and his father Mark advised that James had been keen to ride from an early age and had watched Richard Johnson as a role model. He had come through the pony racing ranks and had recorded a success in that sphere. He gave the six year old Stowaway gelding a very positive ride from the front plotting a slightly wider course in the search of better ground. Although his rivals tried to tackle him from some way from home he had saved enough to deny the late challenge of Zac Baker on Cashmoll and Will Biddick on Thechaseison.
Apple's Queen was one of the easiest winners of the day in the First Division of the Veteran race. A number of his sixteen rivals failed to finish but there was no fluke about the grey gelding's success. Ridden by Natalie Parker who was riding him for the first time and recording her first win for trainer Sally Alner she excitedly said 'That was so much fun and he jumped brilliantly for me'. Natalie who is pupil assistant to Paul Nicholls is likely to be aboard most of Sally's horses this season. Apple's Queen who is owned in partnership by Nicky Turner, Kevin Lloyd and Percy and Annie Tory who were all present, is a particular lover of custard cream biscuits and both Sally and Lil who looks after him have to keep supplying his favourite snack and maintain his fitness at the same time.
The closest finish of the day came in the Second Division of the Veteran Race when No Limitations ridden by Bradley Gibbs just held off the fast finishing Minim Mouse ridden by Chloe Emsley. The winner is now trained by Emma Yardley following the decision by Ryan Potter to take out a full training license. The winner of two point to points for Ryan this was an improved performance and followed up on his close third at Maisemore in October to the progressive Organised Solution.
The final race, the 6 year old and over Maiden over 2 and a half miles, was won in good style by the Robert Waley-Cohen owned, trained and bred six year old Maitree Express. Possibly unlucky at Kimble when making a bad mistake at the last fence there was no mistake this time and Sam Waley-Cohen was able to coast home from Jasmin des Bordes ridden by Will Biddick quite easily. Explaining his name (it is an Indian Express train) Robert said that his dam Shatabdi is named after another Indian train so he thought he would continue with the tradition. The dam won three races in England including a Grade 2 Hurdle at Kempton and a Hurdle at Plumpton and a Chase at Huntingdon and has already bred a couple of useful performers. This may be one to follow this season.