by Richard Hall

Despite the sharp and sudden decline in the weather, the biggest East Anglian crowd of the year turned out for the Essex and Suffolk Hunt. We arrived an hour before the first race and proceeded, in Indian file, at funereal pace from over half a mile from the entrance. It was the same last year. Perhaps itís the childrenís pony race; perhaps itís the large number of complimentary passes issued, or maybe simply the chance of networking, or the social or economic advantage of being seen to be there. Whatever the secret is, it works. Year after year this Hunt attracts more spectators than any other in the region. I suspect, however, the secret recipe to be more than just a love of the sport. Again, in parallel with last year, a good third had departed by the end of the fourth race, their duty obviously done. Of those that remained a large number were, by then, rather inebriated. Most had spent the entire meeting huddled around an assortment of well stocked car boots to guzzle free alcohol and kiss each other excessively on both cheeks every time their paths collided. Still, each to his own! I am sure that there were some there who thought me, with camera, notebook and binoculars, to be the odd one out!

Twenty seven runners turned up to contest the six races, and all bar the opening Hunt race, which was won by the 1/5 favourite (Endeavour), produced an exciting finish. Many thanks (again) must go to the Turner family, who provided a runner for every race in which they were eligible to. One hates to think what would happen to the East Anglian scene, particularly at the tail end of the season, if they were ever to withdraw their support.

The Turnerís jockey, James Owen, could have been forgiven for imagining himself as the Duke of York trapped in a pantomime of the sublime, for such was the swing in his fortunes throughout the day. Things began badly in the Restricted, for which six went to post. Four of them were still in with a shout five fences from home, but when Zafan, who had been travelling sweetly until then, hit the bottom of the fence and pulled up immediately after, the contenders were down to three. Owen chose this moment to make his move. The injection of pace caught his market rival, course winner Marmalade Mountain, completely flat footed and, as the peacemaking Lone Star tired, he quickly established a six length lead. As they raced between the last two fences he looked to have the race in the bag. Marmalade Mountain was closing, but only gradually; the deficit was still four lengths. Persian Hero flew the last. Too well. He over jumped and James Owen hit the deck. His certain victory was denied. A surprised, but delighted, Christian Ward Thomas steered Ruth Hayterís Marmalade Mountain around his fallen adversary to record what had to be one of the luckiest victories of his career.

In the bag? Persian Hero jumps the second last well clear of Marmalade Mountain

Luck has an uncanny way of evening itself out however. Not only did Mr Ward Thomas go on to unseat at the second on Cheerful Aspect in the Mens Open, but Mr Owen found himself in completely the opposite position in the days concluding race; the Open Maiden. Riding the odds on Captive, he was challenging, but seemingly held by Bede, as they approached the last. To make sure of victory Neil King saw a stride on Bede and asked him to go for the ďbig oneĒ. He produced a massive leap, but stumbled on landing. His jockey was unable to hang on and exited through the side door. Owen seized the opportunity with a wry grin. Lady Luck had paid him back.

Neil King shows an ungainly posture as the Open Maiden field take the tenth

Sandwiched between the ďup and downĒ was a ďhalf way upĒ. This came in the Confined and was, on the book, the most open race of the day. Four of the five runners were priced at 4/1 or under, with only Treasure Dome at greater odds. David Kemp had set out to make all the running on Wise Advice, who had finished a close fourth to Fine Times in a Cottenham Open last week. Andrew Braithwaite had stalked him on the favourite, Step In Line, but found little when the leader produced another gear four from home and went out with all the panache of a cheap light bulb, a remark that also applied to the raceís other grey, New Ross. This left the Turnerís Westfield John as Wise Adviceís only serious challenger. The two jumped the second last in unison. Nothing separated them at the final obstacle either. On landing, James Owen and David Kemp both gathered their mounts and charged for the post. No quarter was asked and no quarter was given. The commentator, as is prudent in East Anglia, could not separate them. ďIíll leave it to the judgeĒ. There was then a long delay. Apparently the transmission failed. When it was restored we learnt that the judge could not separate them either, and a dead heat was announced.

Nothing separates them over the last. Wise Advice (David Kemp, near side) and Westfield John (James Owen) fight out the finish of the Confined

David Kemp had earlier been fortunate to take part in the Mens Open. His mount, the 14/1 outsider of four, Whatchowillie (obviously named in a fit of puerile inebriation), had tested the Starterís patience by refusing to line up with the others on three occasions. The Starter persevered with him, however; each time asking his three rivals to ďtake a turnĒ. Eventually Whatchowillie consented to run, and, as usual with runners from the Kemp stable, he soon found himself in pole position. As mentioned earlier, Cheerful Aspect, Ruth Hayterís potentially promising recruit from Henry Dalyís National Hunt yard, was an early casualty. This left the market leaders, Neil Kingís Pangeran and the Turnerís Corston Joker, as the only dangers. The latter was never going well, having to be scrubbed along from the outset. His backers were resigned to not collecting a long way from home. Pangeran, however, looked to be travelling with plenty in hand and was ridden with the confidence of one who knew he could take the race whenever he wanted. He made a mistake at the sixth last and the gap between him and the leader grew to ten lengths as they rounded the top turn. Many thought he was merely being given time to recover but, as they came into the final straight, he failed to respond to Neil Kingís urgings and Whatchowillie went further and further away from him. The stewards completed the formality of inquiring into the winnerís improved performance, but accepted David Kempís explanation that the horseís jumping had improved with schooling and he really appreciated the firm going.

Full of running! Watchowillie takes the last in the Menís Open well clear of his rivals

The Ladies Open too only attracted four runners. With the favourite at 6/4 and the third favourite at 9/4, they were nevertheless well matched and the result was in doubt right unto the line. Amy Stennett set out to emulate the previous victories of Endeavour and Watchowillie by making all the running on Ruth Hayterís Cinnamon Club. Mai Point gave Rachael Barrow a painful fall in mid race and, when Hay Dance predictably began to tire after two and a half miles, it was left to Zoe Turner on Spring Gale to make a race of it. They had hunted round for the first circuit and a half, deliberately leaving their effort late. They jumped the second last a good four lengths down. This had reduced to two lengths at the last. Amy Stennett had judged Cinnamon Clubís reserves well, however, and the combination still had a headís advantage on the line.

Amy Stennett and Cinnamon Club take the second last with a diminishing advantage over Zoe Turner and Spring Gale

Two victories for the Turnerís, two for the Kempís, two for Ruth Hayter, and a stroll in the park for George Cooper and Endeavour. Despite the smallish fields, it had been an enjoyable, eventful and competitive days racing. Having expressed doubts beforehand as to whether East Anglia could sustain two meetings on firm ground on one weekend, I was glad I had made the effort to attend. I had been justly rewarded. I wonder though, with both the Turnerís and the Kempís apparently preparing to contest Fakenhamís Hunter Chases on the Monday, whether those who have saved themselves for the Marks Tey meeting will be able to say the same?