by Richard Hall

One of the great things about point to point is that it attracts people from all sections of the community and, in general, people take the opportunity to be themselves. They behave naturally. The gamblers huddle around the bookmakers boards, the horsey folk around the paddock and the winners enclosure, the tourists walk the course and visit the trade stalls, and the landed gentry assemble around the boots of Range Rovers with personalised number plates to pick at open salmon sandwiches and drink expensive champagne from crystal classes. Everybody tolerates each other, although each group probably hides a gentle smile at the idiosyncrasies of the others. It is the way things are; everybody slots quietly and unobtrusively into the style that they are most comfortable with. No pretence.

We arrived at the course early for Cottenham’s final meeting of the season and, having read the programme and decided that it wasn’t quite warm enough to take the dog for a walk around the course, were wondering what we were going to do before the first race. Then, as if heaven sent, three families arrived to fill the void. They parked their cars (an eight year old Rover, a six year old Toyota, and a Land Rover lookalike) alongside each other with as wide a distance between them as they dare. Out they disembarked, taking a whole host of furniture with them. A paste table was soon erected, over which an immaculately stiff and white tablecloth was neatly arranged. Then came the B+Q canvas picnic chairs. These were carefully spaced to cover the maximum amount of space to see and be seen in. Conversation was loud, exaggerated and inane. Never mind the quality, feel the width. An audience was sought. This was obviously the normal way to behave at a point to point; they had read it in an edition of Country Life at the doctor’s surgery. Then came the chicken legs on paper plates, the sandwiches in endless Tupperware containers, the sparkling wine, the salad in a big glass dish, the Heinz cream, the Bakers Oven cakes, and bottles of mineral water for the younger children. As the Mums made a meal of serving, the Dads got stuck into the wine. Gradually the conversation got even louder. Names were dropped and, with each one, glances into the audience became more intense. After a while the fresh breeze cooled them, prompting Matalan fleeces to be fetched to cover exposed flesh. When passing acquaintances were pulled temporarily into their midst shooting sticks were produced for them to sit on. And there they sat for the rest of the afternoon. Occasionally they read the programme and asked each other questions like “Didn’t this horse run in the Grand National?”

We managed to pull ourselves away from the show in time for the first race, the Members, Subscribers and Farmers. This provided just as much of a spectacle. There were only four runners and they were soon down to three when the rider of the second favourite, Another Hublick, decided to fall off shortly after his mount had cleared the first fence. Lonesome Traveller made the running and it looked for a long while that Tell Monty, the favourite, had decided that he just wasn’t interested in competing. On the second circuit, however, he changed his mind and sprinted past the field to take the lead. On the back straight he had a rethink, and slowed again, allowing the other two to catch him up. With the turn for home in sight something regalvanised him and he charged on again. At the last he had the race at his mercy. The jockey was possibly the only one present who thought otherwise, and, determined to prove everyone else wrong, decided to emulate his colleague two circuits earlier and fall off after his mount had cleared it. Lonesome Traveller’s connections must have thought Christmas had come early and cheered their horse all the way up the run in to victory. Profesor Tag completed the course for the first time in his history to take the runner up spot.

Racing proper got under way with the Countryside Alliance Members Race for Novice Riders. Even here, though, a comedy of errors was to influence the outcome. The favourite, Dalligan, was going easily in second when swerving to eject William Pewter through the wings of the eighth fence. As he did so he forced the well-backed Monyman, who was hot on his heels, to run out. For a while it looked as if the rank outsider, Adamatic, would be the chief beneficiary. He took up the running after the trailblazing Absolute Limit had run out of steam, and found more every time Lord Knox came at him. He made a bad blunder at the second last and, although Craig Jarvis did remarkably well to stay on board, it clearly knocked the stuffing out of him and he was a spent force thereafter. By then Caroline Flyer had produced Neil King’s Wrekengale from a long way behind to make up ground and jump into a clear lead. He finished like a fresh horse and was well clear of Lord Knox at the line. Wise Advice, who had been badly hampered early, ran on well to take third.

The P.O.R.A. Mares Race went to Rachel Barrow on Mai Point, at long odds on. He led throughout and soon had the field falling off behind him. Turning for home only Mulberry remained within striking distance and, although he stuck to his task well, he simply could not match the pace of the winner.

The Land Rover Mens Open Race cut up badly, with only three of the twenty entries declared. Hatcham Boy was sent off the two to five favourite but the fast early pace set by Rathgibbon ensured that he had to be ridden throughout o keep in touch. When Rathgibbon folded after two miles Andrew Sansome sent Dynamic Lord to the head of affairs, obviously hoping to expose the suspected speed weakness of the favourite. A three-length lead was soon established, and was never reduced. If anything Dynamic Lord stayed on better after the last to run out a comfortable winner.

Spring Gale was a similarly hot favourite for the Ladies Open. Zoe Turner kept him up with the strong pace set by Mill O’The Rags throughout, and the pair were quickening well clear of the field in unison when Spring Gale made an uncharacteristic mistake three fences out, sending Ms Turner sprawling to the turf. Mill O’The Rags was left to come home a distance clear of Pongo Waring and provide doubles for his trainer, Neil King, and rider, Rachel Barrow.

Although nine went to post for the Restricted only three were ever in with a serious chance of winning it. As they entered the final straight it would have taken a brave man to have his mortgage on the outcome. Neil King had a narrow lead on his course winner, Balla D’Aire. Andrew Sansome had been prominent throughout on Royal Way, and came back for more. Just behind them Ben Pollock was producing Crackrattle, who had been a little outpaced earlier, with a fine late effort that threatened to swallow them both. They all jumped the last well but it was Balla D’Aire who found most on the run in to keep the other two at bay, proving that, on good to firm ground at least, he does stay the three miles well. Crackrattle lost nothing in defeat and finished second. He has had only six races, on different extremes of going, and is still improving. I suspect that a more demanding test of stamina (as required by his half brother, Kingsmark) will bring out the best in him. Royal Way wandered a bit under pressure on the run in but was a long way clear of the fourth. This was his best performance to date and good to firm ground clearly suits him.

The Open Maiden that concluded events may not have been the best race that Cottenham has ever staged, but it certainly produced one of the closest finishes it has seen. The wonderfully named Parsonhumfrywebber had, as usual, been tailed off on the first circuit. This time, however, a mile from home Emma Bell managed to inspire him to actually get competitive. He seemed like a sprinter up against marathon runners and made truly rapid progress to put himself in the lead jumping the second last. At that point you would have thought the race was over. He still led over the last but the jockey had to start getting serious to keep him up to his work. Suddenly Give Him A Chance, who had earlier seemed to have squandered his opportunity with some sloppy jumping at both the seventeenth and eighteenth fences, was within a length and rallying. On the run in Harry Fowler bought Give Him A Chance alongside. This inspired Parsonhumfreywebber to sprint again. As they approached the winning line they drifted apart, one on the near rail, the other one the far rail, both giving all they had. They went past together. No one in the grandstand could separate them.

I saw Emma Bell being led in as we all waited for the result. She looked flushed with effort and excitement, and bore a beaming smile all over her face. She clearly thought she had won. The joy evaporated the instant the judge’s verdict was announced. Give Him a Chance had been declared the winner. A moment later Harry Fowler rode in. Beside me his parents were grinning from ear to ear, dialling friends on a mobile phone to announce their victory. Heads or tails? The difference is so narrow.