by Richard Hall

The Cambridgeshire crowds gathered but the rain clouds kept away and, for the first time this season, out came the picnic tables and glasses of chilled white wine. A bumper crowd, a liberal smattering of sunshine, perfect going, decent sized fields; what more could a racing fan ask for to while away a Sunday afternoon? A winner or two perhaps? Ah yes, but not everything in life falls so easily into place. 

The highlight of the day, from a spectator’s point of view, came, for a change, in the Ladies Open. The East Anglian stalwart, Thurles Pickpocket, positively ridden by Sam Hodge, had made a bold bid to pull away from the field since joining the leaders at the start of the second circuit. The combination came around the final bend with a diminishing three length lead from Mai Point. Two lengths further back the long time leader, Gigi Beach, was threatening a revival with O’Fiaich’s Hope and the veteran Hoodwinker staying on from the out of pack a further eight lengths behind. As they jumped the last all five had a realistic chance on victory, with a maximum of four lengths covering them all. Gigi Beach’s chance was the first to go; the horse stumbled on landing throwing jockey Hetta Steele out of the saddle. Supporters of Mai Point were the next to have their hopes extinguished. Obviously short of peak fitness, he could only crawl over the final fence and was allowed to idle home. O’Fiaich’s Hope did not have the gears in his engine to catch the other two but he stayed on well, suggesting there might be a race to be had with him on a more testing course later in the season. This left Thurles Pickpocket with only Hoodwinker to repel. He could not do it. Jane Williams, riding her own horse, produced him late with a storming run that bellied his fourteen years, to snatch the lead half way up the run and record the partnership’s third success of the season. The enthusiasm with which it was achieved suggests that the old boy is refusing to grow old gracefully, and he intends to play a part in plenty more races yet! Disappointment of the race was the favourite, Paradisio, who, in running wide at the bends, failed to build on the promise of his High Easter debut. He should perhaps be given another chance on a less tight course.

The Mens Open was won by a horse who, as a two year old at the tail end of the 1995 Flat season, had his first race in public for the John Gosden stable. He finished eleventh of twenty three; less than fifteen lengths behind the next year’s Derby winner, Shaamit. Things have not all been on an upward curve for Sawa-Id since then, but he certainly reminded us pointing enthusiasts that, when his mood is right, the speed is still there. He cruised clear in a matter of a few strides between the third and second last fences to record a long awaited East Anglian victory for jockey Rowan Cope and trainer Caroline Bailey. Master Pilgrim, who had been made to look very flat footed when the winner kicked on, failed to last home and was overtaken by Step In Line for second. The latter had been given a sympathetic ride by Andrew Braithwaite, and was hunted around at the rear of the field for almost two miles before being asked to improve. This change in tactics (he is usually pushed up with the pace for as long as he can be) obviously reaped an immediate benefit as well as hinting at better to come. The winner, however, was in a different class and, providing he is kept in Pointing or Hunter Chase company, he will be a formidable force wherever he goes.

The days two Maiden races provided few finishers from the seventeen horses that contested each division, but each produced thrilling finishes!

Division One saw only four make it across the line. Yodeller Bill refused to race, Court Award was pulled up after the first where rider Andrew Ayers lost his irons, Golden Thyne fell whilst leading at the sixth … and so the catalogue of misfortune continued until Cousin George, who was looking all over the winner, fell three from home. This left Bush Hill Bandit (a gallant second to Little Farmer and again to Run Monty earlier in the season where, on both occasions, the third horse was a long way adrift) four lengths clear of the nearest pursuer. That came in the shape of The Small Farmer, who, after a poor day’s punting, I had invested on at 20/1 to reverse the day’s fortunes. I was cheering loudly as they jumped the last and realised that my hours in front of a computer screen were about to be rewarded. The Small Farmer had not only made up the four lengths, he had a length advantage when they hit the ground. Come on my son! Bush Hill Bandit and Harry Fowler, however, did not feel I had had enough excitement. They dug deep and came back at “my” charge. As they passed me (halfway up the run in) they were only a neck down. James Diment then started to work for my recovery. I had no idea who had won, staring at a two pairs of backsides giving their all. It took a long three minutes for the judge to confirm that Bush Hill Bandit had got up by half a length! A long way back in third came Budle Bay, who had raced prominently before fading three quarters of a mile from home. He confirmed my pre-race assessment of not staying the three mile trip.

A similar fate awaited a companion of mine in Division Two. He had been impressed with Sounds Promising at Market Rasen who, he said, had run well for a long way until getting very tired and pulling up. Figuring that Cottenham would suit him better he took full advantage of the 33/1 on offer. The Small Farmer had knocked the stuffing out of me and, as it was the final race of the day with terrible overrounds, I chose not to chase my losses and content myself with a few small Tote forecasts. Sometimes you just have to accept that it is not your day!

Sounds Promising set off as if he had a train to catch. Even the front running Nelsun could not get within eight lengths of him on the first circuit. Pretty soon the field was strung out and, from the eighth fence onwards, horses at the rear began pulling up with alarming frequency. On the second circuit the crowd expected Sounds Promising to come back to his field. He didn’t. Matt Mackley knew exactly what he had in his locker and was judging the pace to perfection. Only Nelsun remained as a potential danger. He had gradually closed but was still five lengths down as they jumped the second last. The Caroline Bailey / Rowan Cope revival was continuing, however, and the gallant grey (like Bush Hill Bandit, a gutsy second on both his previous outings this year) would not give up. I had a position in the stand this time and felt the pain of my companion as Nelsun closed on the run in and thrust his neck in front on the line. Again, as with Bush Hill Bandit, the true fan could not begrudge him the victory. He is nothing if not game, and he received the loudest cheer of the day as he was led into the paddock.

Richard Burton paid a rare visit to East Anglia to ride his own horse, Oh So Droll (a lightly raced Teenoso nine year old), in the Restricted. Bookies took the hint and, despite twelve opponents, he was never on offer at anything better than 6/4. Those skinny odds looked exceptionally generous when the horse was put into the race proper just before the third last. As with Sawa-Id, he dispelled any thoughts of defeat in a few strides. He came well clear. The Caroline Bailey trained Surprisedly Gifted had led for a few fences until the Burton runner got serious, and completed for only the second time since winning a Higham maiden by a wide margin over twelve months ago. He was caught for second on the run in by Alex Embiricos’ owner ridden Filou Du Bois, who continued the improvement shown with his recent High Easter maiden win. Whilst the second and third may find races before the season ends, there is no doubt whatsoever that the winner will win again. He had a progressive profile last year and, making his seasonal debut, can only come on still further for the run.

In my report from Horseheath last week I suggested that Gallent Glen was a rather fortunate winner of the Mens Open, and would probably have been second had Endeavour not fell at the last. He lined up for the Confined today in order to “gain further experience before having a shot at the Aintree Foxhunters”. I did not expect him to win and, as he was trading at evens, backed two horses to beat him. One of those was Breezy Betsy who attracted market support from 14’s to 8’s. She set off at a lightening pace and was a spent force after two miles. At this point Stuart Morris confidently sent Gallent Glen on to take the lead. The Red Boy covered the move and, suspecting Gallent Glen to want company, I fully expected him to draw alongside. He could not close, however. The chink I had suspected in the favourite’s armour was not there. He galloped on resolutely for a comfortable victory. No question marks about his attitude now! The Red Boy tired badly on the run in, where he was eventually overtaken by Springlea Tower who had been unable to live with Gallent Glen’s mid race injection of pace.

The day had begun with the Hunt members. It attracted just four runners, but only two with any aspirations of winning – the others were just there to give their riders a bit of experience. Round The Bend at three to one on, proved far too strong for the High Easter Maiden winner, Lucrative Perk, pulling away handsomely on the second circuit to win in the proverbial canter. 

A good day’s racing, bright sunshine, the opportunity to unwind from the working week, and the chance of some good, clean, fresh air. As I stepped into the car to drive home, all this faded into the background. The attitude of the Fitzwilliam Hunt in the way it organised the retreat from the car park wound me up to the point where I shall give serious consideration as to whether I will come to their meeting next year.

Most courses and hunts open up all exits to allow the public to leave as freely and as quickly as possible. In common with all the other courses, Cottenham has at least two exit points (there may be more). The Fitzwilliam chose to block one of these exits so that the general public could not access it from the main car park. It was left exclusively for the use of horseboxes and a few special hunt guests!! Meanwhile the other two or three thousand cars were all left to queue for nearly a mile on a barriered single track road, fighting off the other frustrated motorists who tried to push in at various interjecting points. At the end of this road people stood with buckets slowing down the exodus still further as they knocked on windows soliciting for loose change. It took me over an hour to get out. I had a two hour journey to get home after that. I then had to write this report, plus another one for my “proper” work ready for the morning, as well as prepare for a Parish Council meeting early on the Monday evening. It experience was simply not funny, and totally unnecessary!

No report would be complete without a mention of the bookies overrounds. They were, in chronological order; 109%, 121%, 144%, 128%,148%, 170%, and a staggering 196%!! Further proof, if it were needed, that Maiden races with more than six to eight runners are only for those punters with money to burn!