by Richard Hall

Perhaps fittingly enough for a meeting of draghounds, front runners provided the winner of five of the eight races, and, in two others, the eventual winner was always up with the pace and never further adrift than third.

The most spectacular pillar to post performance came from the course specialist, and rapidly progressing, Helmsley Flier in seemingly the most competitive race of the day; the Restricted. Last year he won a mediocre maiden here and, at the opening meet of the 2003 season, he showed improved form when, at 20/1, he was just headed on the run in by Always on the Line. Nothing got close to him today and he spread-eagled a thirteen strong field, drawing well clear on the second circuit, to win by a distance in the fastest time of the day. This, to me, was a huge leap in form and, still only a nine year old, there may well be more to come. When Patrick Millington failed to steer Ballycotton around the final bend, Nick Pearce squeezed through on The Vintage Dancer to claim a remote second. He departed at the last, however, leaving the patiently ridden Carlton Brae to stay on for the runners up berth, just ahead of Tritium.

Aughmor River was the only horse to ever have the winner in his sights, but, despite the heroic efforts of Andrew Ayers, he came a cropper at the infamous eighteenth fence – the one responsible for multiple fallers at the opening meeting in January. The much called for adjustments, however, appear to have done the job, and he was one of only two fallers there today. 

Eight went to post for The Men’s Open and, a mile out, three lengths still covered six of the runners. Vain Minstrel, successful last year in Ladies events but partnered today by William Hill, set himself up as the drag and, one by one they queued up to take him on. First to go was Brother of Iris, but he faded when asked to quicken (although he did run on again to take third). Secondly came Gallant Glen, a big, imposing, ex Irish chaser, but he too called enough when Vain Minstrel found another gear. He will be better for this run and showed enough to suggest that his turn will not be far away. Finally came Master Pilgrim, formerly with Venetia Williams. He drew up alongsides as they approached the last and it seemed as if Guy Disney had timed the run to perfection. He stumbled on landing, however, and the impetus was gone. Vain Minstrel pulled away again on the run in for a well-deserved victory.

Betting for the Ladies Open, which had cut up to just six runners, was described by bookies as “an opportunity to buy money” on Supreme Citizen at odds of five to two on. He looked to be justifying this claim when going well to press the long time leader, The Wiley Kalmuck, as they approached the third last. He did not get over it, however, and the Turner trained horse, a 20/1 rank outsider, was left to repel the rather one paced challenge of Tom Cobbler to claim his first victory in this grade.

The day had began with the Hunt Members and featured the undoubtedly talented, but consistently unfortunate, The Red Boy having his second race after a year off injured (he fell at the first on his comeback race at Higham). At odds on, he did not look a betting proposition and bookies struggled to get punters to either field for or against him. The pace was so slow that, after a fence, he found himself forced to make his own running. He injected speed as they went out onto the second circuit and only Ceewardie (having only his second outing) and Filou Du Bois, who had weaved his way cleverly through the field, were able to keep tabs on him. Half a mile from home Ceewardie dropped away, and Alex Embiricos tucked Filou du Bois into The Red Boy’s slipstream as they turned for home. The danger was short lived. Andrew Braithwaite asked his mount to quicken and he did so easily, pulling away to win comfortably and unextended. He was barely blowing as they led him in!

The fifth front running victory of the day came in the first division of the eight-year plus Maiden. Little Farmer, who had been sent hurdling following a second place in a Charing maiden last year, set off to disprove the form book suggestion that he would not get the three miles. He set a fierce pace and Phillip Hall was able to get a breather into him a mile or so from home. Bush Hill Bandit, who gave chase throughout, closed the five-length gap to just under two but had no response when the winner kicked on again. The favourite, Kustom Kit Grizzly, did not jump well and failed to live up to the promise of his Higham debut run. He came home a remote third.

In the second division of the eight-year plus Maiden it seemed as if the entire field wanted to adopt front running tactics, and they set off at almost sprint pace. It was a tactic that caused the joint favourite, Grey Fusilier, who had managed to establish himself at the head of affairs, to fall at the third. This left Westfield John and Play Alone to dispute the lead. Swiss Farm, who again ran in snatches before pulling up five out, and Alston House, who also tired badly and pulled up at the same time, joined them occasionally. With four fences to jump only three of the eleven who started remained.  Westfield John stayed on the strongest to give the Turner stable a double on the day, with Play Alone hanging on for second from Young Tribune who came from a long way back and was doing his best work at the finish.

With entries aplenty at the Higham meeting tomorrow it was good to see Corrie Mor turn out for the Intermediate. Following an earlier victory against Miss Toski, I had placed him firmly in my notebook as one to follow. I got 7/4, with a saver on Silver Spider, who had sandwiched two victories last year either side of some disappointing runs, at 11/2. I decided to pass on the other two principles; Bedtime Boys (who justified my decision by depositing Patrick Millington at the second), and Always On The Line, who was prominent throughout but did nothing for his chances when twice failing to negotiate the sharp right handed turn away from the horseboxes.

The race was always cat and mouse with none of the three remaining principals wanting to commit too far from home. Six out, seeing Always On The Line struggling, it was Stuart Morris who wound up the pace and sent Silver Spider into a five length lead. Paul Cowley went after him on Corrie Mor. I was waiting for the gap to close, but it never did. The petrol had all been used up trying to restrain the horse to settle in a slowly run first circuit. Stuart Morris claimed his obligatory winner and Silver Spider left me wondering what the key to him was? On a going day he is clearly more than a match for anything.

Paul Cowley did not leave without his obligatory winner either though. He steered the impressive Freteval to victory in the concluding younger horse eight Maiden. Hunted up for the first mile and a half, he cruised into contention and kicked on with four fences to go. The other joint favourite, Coole Glen, threatened to close but a mistake three from home dulled his progress. He had to be content with second spot from thereafter. The winner, ex French, had been prominent until three out on his reappearance run at Barbury three weeks ago, and has clearly improved for the outing. He should be capable of taking an Intermediate this year.

There was just criticism of the East Anglian bookmakers for the miserly odds offered at Horseheath a fortnight ago. I went to today’s meeting half wondering if it would be worth betting at all. I was pleased to see that, amongst the twenty-one bookmaker stands, there were half a dozen unfamiliar faces. They had obviously drifted eastwards from the Midlands and were not part of the alleged cartel. Isolated into one corner they nevertheless took a far amount of trade, and on more than one occasion, they were prepared to stand their ground in offering longer odds than the “home” team. As a result the punters benefited. Below are the approximate over rounds for the eight races, none of which are spectacular but, equally so, none of which are scandalous;

Race One - 10 runners, 135% over-round (odds on favourite)     
Race Two - 8 runners, 133% over-round
Race Three - 8 runners, 147% over-round
Race Four - 6 runners, 132% over-round (odds on favourite)
Race Five - 13 runners, 166% over-round
Race Six - 11 runners, 154% over-round
Race Seven - 11 runners, 152% over-round
Race Eight - 12 runners, 145% over-round

It is the first time that I have kept such detailed records and already I can begin to suggest behaviour patterns (e.g. better percentages in smaller fields – obvious, better percentages as they try to get money against odds on favourites – I suspect the favourites are running for the bookies, and worsening percentages as the afternoon grows!). The presence of “outside” bookmakers may have created false statistics however, and it will be interesting to see how they stand up in the less competitive heartland of Higham tomorrow!