by Richard Hall

I pulled back the curtains at eight o’clock in the morning to see that it had not only rained persistently overnight, but that it was still coming down. I should not have been surprised. It was Ampton, and Ampton in January or February means a quagmire underfoot. Today was no exception. As we arrived vehicles were being pushed through the mud into the deeper recesses of the car park. It was the same every year. No matter when the fixtures were arranged for, they were always amongst the wettest weekends of the year.

Less than sixty five horses had been entered for the six races, and that may have combined with the weather and the closeness to the rearranged fixture at Higham the day before to account for the small crowd. I felt sorry for the organisers and the track staff who had paid a significant sum to have the footpaths shut off for the day to prevent anti hunt activists infiltrating the meeting. Their efforts were not being fairly rewarded. Still the large police presence seemed to be enjoying themselves – almost twenty members of the public each to protect!

The first race, a Confined, attracted only three runners and seemed to be a match between the dual course winner The Rural Dean, and Pampered Gale ridden (for the first time) by Zoe Turner, who replaced regular pilot Andrew Sansome. These two were both content to let Holmby Copse, the rank outsider ridden by fifty two year old novice Tony Humphrey, dictate the pace. As they set out on the third and final circuit it became clear that they had given him a bit too much rope, and the two principals had to begin riding to close the gap. Pampered Gale did not jump fluently and any ground he did gain was lost in the air. The Rural Dean too was not firing on all cylinders, and looked woefully one paced when asked to quicken. Meanwhile Holmby Copse kept on galloping all the way to the line to record an easy victory. First blood to the bookies!

Punters had a respite in the Open Maiden when Andrew Ayers continued his fine run aboard Robert Gardiner horses when steering Aughmor River (unlucky behind Whichway Girl at Cottenham) to a comparatively easy victory at odds of 7/4. He set off to make the running alongside Neil King aboard Grey Fusilier, and the rest of the field barely got within five lengths of them throughout the contest. Patrick Millington on Thyny Glen plugged on through tired horses to take third. Budle Bay, a seven year old Caroline Bailey debutant, ran well for a long way just off the pace but tired quickly four from home and was pulled up.

The Intermediate field was four strong. As far as form and betting went, however, it was another two horse race, this time between the Cottenham winner Always on The Line, and Paul Jones’ smart, but lightly raced, Master Jock. Anne Bowles, riding her Society Lad tried to “do a Holmby Copse”, but neither Gerry Hamner or Andrew Merriam would allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security and both kept her well within their sights on the first two circuits. A mile from home Merriam kicked his grey on, but Master Jock soon closed to keep him company. As they turned up the hill it was the Hanmer mount that displayed the greater stamina and stayed on under strong driving to score by five lengths.

Six went to post for the Mixed Open, but once again there appeared to be only two with any realistic chance. They were the Private Pete, the Stuart Morris ridden favourite (available at evens just before the off) and Richard Hunnisett’s Springlea Tower, freely available at 5/2. At one point I seriously considered backing them both, but then decided that I was doing it for fun, not for a livelihood!  Private Pete got up, but only just, and only on the line. Even then the vast majority of the crowd had thought that the Fred Hutsby ridden Prate Box had prevailed by as much as a length and were both amazed and astonished when the judge called it the other way. Not surprisingly the bookies did not pay out until after the weigh in. Unfortunately the meeting was not videoed, and those that doubted the validity of the result will never be convinced otherwise.

The Restricted produced the biggest field of the day, with fourteen going to post. Only four completed the slog, however, and it was Earlymorningcall who outstayed everything to score by a length. The ex National Hunt horse, Gangster, ran promisingly enough in his return to points to take second, with Sound Gossin claiming third for the Hickman yard. Bard of Drumco was the only other finisher and, for me, the horse to take out of the race. The ex Irish eight year old was always up with the pace, came back again after being passed four out, but tired badly up the final hill He should have no trouble scoring in less desperate conditions, a remark that may also apply to Nick Pomfret’s Intrepid Gal who travelled well and made steady progress to hold every chance two fences out. The conditions and the hill found her out too but this maiden winner had reasonable form over hurdles and, if given time to recover, will soon be adding to her tally.

The final race of the day was a Novice one and featured Senso, whom I had backed several times last year (without collecting) in Ladies Opens on the strength of an eye catching run at Marks Tey. On every subsequent occasion jockey error had denied the horse his opportunity of being involved in the finish, either unseating or giving him far too much to do. This year it was good to see that Caroline Eagle was going to partner him in novice events. This apparent realisation of her own ability, and her new willingness to learn the art in a more suitable grade, persuaded me to give her another chance. The horse had the ability; all she had to do was not make a mistake. I invested my money and sat back to watch. They made it as far as the first fence before horse and rider parted company! Mezzo Princess set off at two mile pace. The remainder of the field bunched at a more sensible speed (barring Nonplussed who was clearly being hunted around a safe distance behind just to give his owner rider an experience). After two miles Garrison Friendly, a runner up at the course last year, set off with fourteen year old Cormeen Lord to close the gap. Half a mile out they had both swallowed up the pace maker, who nevertheless kept going for third. The younger horse displayed the greater stamina for owner Noel Wilson and pulled clear up the hill to give Sara Hickman her first winner of the season. He finished the least tired horse of the day, and may well go on to give his competent jockey more victories in that grade.