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Saturday 9th April 2005
by Richard Hall

The atmosphere within The Sporting Endeavour Partnership was relaxed. We had won our Restricted at Marks Tey, and whatever happened during the remainder of the season was a bonus. John Ibbot, our trainer, had speculatively entered our only asset, Tartar Sabre, in the Ladies Open, primarily to gain a yardstick against seasoned and proven campaigners. It was a big step up in class and we were not expecting to win, particularly as Cloth of Gold was amongst our six opponents. Teresa Spearing’s pride and joy boasted impressive form over hurdles; winning twice in 2002 for Lady Herries and, after a year on the sidelines, finishing three lengths third of fourteen to Mr Ed in a Class B event last June. He had also begun his pointing career in emphatic fashion five weeks ago, when slamming the very useful Step and Run by twelve lengths in a Ladies Open at Welbeck. After being entered all over the country this weekend, connections made the decision to undertake the three hundred mile round trip from Worcestershire for Higham’s almost perfect going. They obviously think a lot of him!

When the race got underway our hopes were lifted at the sight of Cloth of Gold making a series of indifferent jumps and having to be niggled keep up with the decent pace set by Gemma Hutchinson on Nokimover. “Our” horse, on the other hand, was jumping well, and travelled easily on the outside.

It was Chicago City, carrying the colours made famous by Aldaniti on perhaps the greatest Grand National day of all, who made the first, and only, serious mistake of the race. He hit the board at the open ditch on the first circuit and deposited Alex Embiricos abruptly on the turf. The jockey was subsequently sent to hospital with a suspected broken wrist, and the horse, looking badly injured, was quickly rushed to a vet in Newmarket. Needless to say, both are wished a speedy and complete recovery.

On the second circuit Cloth of Gold moved up a gear. He sliced through the field and joined Nokimover at the fourteenth. Tartar Sabre and Celtic Duke both looked to be travelling well in third and fourth, and followed him closely. The two outsiders, Bustling Rio and Glenalla Braes, were already beaten.

Nokimover’s pacemaking exertion soon proved too much and, being ten lengths adrift when the leader jumped the next fence, was the first of the principal quartet to call it a day. At that point we still had every chance. As they raced to the sixteenth we were only two or three lengths behind Cloth of Gold, with Celtic Duke a similar margin away in third. Dare we even think it?

Our impossible dream was short lived. Cloth of Gold put his hurdling speed to good use and steadily pulled away over the remaining fences. He came home to win by a distance in the fastest time of the day. We would have finished within fifteen lengths had Sabre not chosen that obstacle to make his only mistake of the race. He stumbled on landing and propelled Lucinda Barrett Nobbs off the saddle. For a few strides she hung grimly round his neck. As Celtic Duke got closer and threatened to deprive us of second place, she somehow managed to regain her position. With jockey properly balanced again, Sabre galloped resolutely to reassert a three length advantage over Zoe Turner’s mount at the line. It was a brave performance; as much as we could have hoped for, and more than we had a right to expect.

After a suitable gap for the Grand National, it was the turn of our friends, Peter and Jennifer Smith, to visit the paddock with their horse, Jupiter George. He lined up for the Confined and, although his owners would not admit it, hopes were high. After a fifteen year wait for a winner, they were still buzzing with the elation of his victory at Cottenham three weeks earlier (where he had beaten Tartar Sabre by a head). As James Owen, the winning jockey that day, was claimed by the Turner’s to ride the favourite, King Plato, Paul Cowley was the entrusted with the honours. Having ridden Jupiter George before (when a fast finishing second to Shoveontommy at Higham’s opening meeting of the season) Paul knew that he would probably have to help his mount over a mid race flat spot. He also knew that he had a serious turn of foot underneath him, and that the 6/1 the bookies were offering about his chances was probably over generous.

Jupiter George took up his customary position at the head of affairs. He set a steady pace for a circuit and still looked to be travelling well within himself when Paul Cowley suddenly pulled him up after jumping the eleventh. As he rapidly dismounted and led the horse gingerly back, our hearts sunk. We later learnt that Jupiter George had gone wrong on landing. He had a swelling on one of his back legs, which the course vet had bandaged, and his trainer would be taking him for an X-ray that evening. “That’s racing” his owners said philosophically. Their downcast expressions could not have contrasted more sharply with the sheer joy that had been in their eyes just three weeks earlier. “Plenty of downs, with just the occasional up.” It certainly put a dampener on the day.

The race was won by King Plato, whom James Owen bought with a well timed run to lead two fences from home. He did not, however, produce the same sprint finish as he did on his last outing at Marks Tey, and had to be ridden rather vigorously to repel the efforts of Ain Tecbalet (2 nd), Magic Lodge (3 rd) and Castle Prince (4 th) who were all in close proximity at the line.

Deckie, the hot favourite for the Mens Open, went into the race on the back of a facile Hunter Chase victory at Fakenham over the Easter Bank Holiday. It was his fourth win of the year from just six outings. Surprisingly, as Higham is very much a “short” track, both of his defeats had been over this course where, after looking to have an unassailable lead approaching the last, he had twice shown a tendency to weaken in the closing stages and been collared on the run in. Heisamodel and Rooster did it on the first occasion, and Cape Stormer on the second. Punters were not put off by this, however, and, even at 2/5, he was the only one of the seven runners to attract serious money.

Deckie went to the front at the third fence. By halfway it looked like a victory procession as he comfortably held a ten lengths lead. David Kemp then took the opportunity to get a breather into him, at which point Bering Gifts was asked to close and sit within a couple of lengths. From that moment onwards the procession became a race. Deckie kicked on again at the fifteenth. Bering Gifts did not have the pace to go with him and the favourite’s ten length lead was re-established by the time they jumped the second last. It looked all over bar the shouting. Then he started to slow. Rowan Cope saw his chance and began to get serious. Bering Gifts responded by flashing his tail and refusing to quicken. He did, however, stay on. At the last the gap was down to five lengths. On the run in it closed still further. Unlike the previous occasions, though, the post came just in time for Deckie. He still had half a length in hand when they passed the judge. Hi Tech Man was a distance away in third.

The day had begun with a five runner Hunt race, for which Jims Belief went off a similarly short 2/5 favourite. Punters hardly had time to take up a decent viewing position before their fate was sealed when George Cooper failed to keep the partnership intact after a stumble at the second. The veteran jockey was quick to his feet, but was later taken to hospital with a suspected broken shoulder. Surely a retirement announcement cannot be far away?

Jims Belief’s exit set the race up for the other front runner in the field; Premier Marble. He travelled well but his tendency to hurdle his fences took its toll when, after holding what looked to be a winning lead, he too came to grief at the fifteenth. This gifted the prize to Naughty Dandy, who was not extended to comfortably ward off the only other finisher; Brea Hill.

The Restricted produced the performance of the day. It came not from the 4/5 favourite Ballykilthy (who had been backed from 2/1), but from a far less expected source. Tooley Park had been labelled as consistent but one paced last year, eventually losing his Maiden tag in an uncompetitive, end of season, event at Dingley. This was his first run of 2005 and, as he hunted round a good twenty lengths behind the pacemaking favourite for the first circuit, it looked as if he had merely turned up to get fit for another day.

James Diment threaded him neatly through the pack as the race progressed, however, and, as Ballykilthy made his final upward change of gear four fences from home, he emerged as the only serious contender. Between the second and third last Tooley Park found a hitherto unseen turn of foot. It was so devastating that it turned a four length deficit into a three length lead within the space of a hundred yards and Ballykilthy, who had previously only been beaten (when completing) by It’sallinthestars, was made to look decidedly flat footed. The contest was effectively over by the second last, and the winner was afforded the luxury of being eased down on the run in. He has clearly improved since 2004 and, on this evidence, can be expected to quickly run up a sequence as he advances through the grades in the remaining weeks of the season.

With thirty two entries and such good going, it was disappointing that only ten declared for the closing Maiden, and that the race did not subsequently divide. Cosmic Sky, who had unshipped Rupert Stern at the final fence when twenty lengths clear on his last visit to the course in January, set off like a scalded cat determined to make amends. The pace proved too fast though, and he could not sustain it. When The Stickler, on whom Ben Pollock was making a comeback, challenged at the thirteenth fence he quickly gave way and was pulled up before the sixteenth. He is a frustrating and highly strung individual, who clearly has a mind of his own. He unquestionably has ability, but he may well prove hard to win with.

I was not impressed with The Stickler’s previous performance, when second to Ballykilthy at Cottenham, and thought the third home that day; Shot of Jollop, held much more scope for improvement. I duly ridiculed the 6/4 on offer about Ben Pollock’s horse and plunged on Nibby Bloom’s mount to bring my betting bank back to level on the day. It proved typical of my luck that Shot of Jollop failed to build on his Cottenham performance. Despite showing resolution in keeping on well to regain second after being headed by Phil York on Luteur Des Pictons at the second last, he lost ground at every fence and never looked like getting within challenging distance of The Stickler, who is clearly on an upward curve.

As usual, I took stock of the day on the drive home. Despite having my scintillating company all to herself, Mrs H managed to doze as I did so. I felt a mixture of emotions: I was pleased at Tartar Sabre’s typically game performance, and the fact that we had finished in front of such a seasoned campaigner as Celtic Duke. The distance we had been beaten by was a little concerning, though, even allowing for the fact that winner is clearly very useful. I was frustrated and angry with myself for inadvertently erasing all the photos I had taken whilst showing off the snap of Lucinda delicately balanced around Sabre’s neck, although this was cooled by a brief moment of elation when, on the radio, Dean Ashton headed in a David Bentley cross to put Norwich 1-0 up against Man Utd. Too little, too late, it may be, but certainly it was something to cheer. A tinge of sadness was in the melting pot too, not just for Alex Embiricos and George Cooper who were being treated in hospital, but also for the connections of Jupiter George and Chicago City who faced anxious and possibly expensive times ahead. Racing had two very distinct and contrasting sides, and there was a very thin line between them. Whilst success can be exhilarating, the other side of the coin can be equally as devastatingly; as the thought of Paul Taiano watching the Grand National from his bed in the Stoke Mandeville hospital so amply illustrates.

Halfway through writing this review the phone rang. It was Jennifer Smith. Jupiter George’s injuries were worse than first thought, and they had made the awful decision to have him put down. Naturally, she, Peter, and their son, were devastated. After imparting the news, they struggled for further words. Mrs H could find nothing that would make their pain any less. Nobody could. The conversation was a short and inadequate one. My heart went out to them. They have owned point to pointers for fifteen years. In that time Jupiter George was the only winner they had ever had. Now even that one precious memory; that solitary day of pure, unadulterated joy, is soiled forever and a sense of sadness will always sour it. Sometimes it makes you wonder if the sport is just far too costly?

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