by Richard Hall

It has been feast or famine on the East Anglian circuit so far this year. Out of five racing weekends two have been blanked off by the weather. As a result the rearrangement to the following Saturday, just in front of a scheduled Sunday meeting, has meant two weekends of double headers.

Today was part two of the second full weekend. The cold and drizzle added to the general  “treadmill” feeling that permutated amongst the regulars. Perhaps two in two days is just a bit too much of a good thing? Maybe the main part of the enjoyment is in the looking forward to, rather than just in the taking part? Perhaps all four of the affected meetings suffered as a consequence of cramming the fixtures too closely together and, instead of doubling the enjoyment, perhaps some of the pleasure was halved? As in the last “double” weekend many people chose to attend only one of the days, thus reducing the crowds, the financial reward for the Hunt, and the sense of spectacle. Horses too were double declared and runners as a percentage of entries were low. What were potentially mouth watering encounters between several high grade horses cut up to fields with one, perhaps two, potential winners and a few hitherto mediocre animals making the numbers up. All a bit of an anti climax, like fish and chips on consecutive nights. Maybe the rearrangements should have been tacked on to the back of the season, but that’s another debate.

Having said that, all bar three of the twenty three entered for the Restricted took up the engagement (two of those not doing so having run at Cottenham yesterday). The race was consequently divided, making seven races on the day and a total of fifteen over the weekend.

Division One bought together three winners at the previous Higham fixture three weeks earlier, in Paddy’s Dream, Star Glow, and Itsmyturnow. The latter took on the pacemaking role, accompanied for the first couple of miles by Surprisedly Gifted who ran his best race since winning a course Maiden twelve months prior. When it came down to the business end, however, the two joint favourites, Itsmyturnnow and Star Glow, quickly put ten lengths between themselves and the pack. Three from home Phillip York asserted on Star Glow and his rival, possibly having set too strong a pace, could not respond. The gap widened as Itsmyturnow tired. He still had enough left, though, to prevent Run Monty depriving him of second. Paddy’s Dream, not at home on the holding ground, was fourth.

Division Two produced one of the most exciting finishes of the day. It also provided textbook examples of how to ride a race from the front, and how to produce a horse late. Round The Bend has often been accused of being a short runner, and was just outstayed by Fair Ally when gambled on at the course last year. The money went down again today, from 5/1 into 3/1 and, despite the horse sweating up before the tapes rose, Louise Allan was able to dictate the pace on him throughout. Three quarters of a mile from home she had wound the pace up so gradually that only Crackrattle, who had been hunted round on the first circuit, was able to go with her. Knowing that he would not pass that early, she got a breather into her horse before kicking on again three out. The two length gap quickly became four, but Nick Pearce on Crackrattle had also something left to give. Gradually he reeled in the deficit. As they approached the last he was only half a length down. Louise Allan got the better jump but, despite hitting the bottom of the fence, Nick Pearce did not lose momentum. On the run in it was nip and tuck with Crackrattle eventually prevailing by half a length.

Mr Pearce was also involved in the day’s other close finish. Riding the headstrong Game On in the Maiden, he found himself this time allocated the role of pacemaker. Pick of the paddock was the Hickman yard’s Irish purchase Asthefellowsaid, but he fought for his head early and was pulled up after two miles. Only four of the eleven who started out remained after the thirteenth fence. Game On, Captive (from the Turner yard), and debutants Charlie’s Angel and Return the Call. For a while it looked as if those with racecourse experience would fight out the finish, as an injection of pace saw the debutants momentarily struggle. Captive fell three from home, however, and Game On started to show signs of tiring between the final two. Phillip York needed no further encouragement and galvanised the five year old Charlie’s Angel, drawing level at the last and finding more in the locker to produce on the run in and get up by a length. It was hardly a gentle introduction, but the winner responded gamely to her rider’s urgings. Return The Call, given a less energetic ride by Stuart Morris, also closed on the run in and was only a further length adrift in third. He may well be one for the notebook.

Phillip York had to content himself with second place on Jackie Jarvis in the Men’s Open, a position he filled earlier in the season behind Shanavogh and Richard Hunnisett. His conquerors today were the same combination, leading, as they did three weeks earlier, from pillar to post for a comfortable victory. The twelve year old is a model of consistency and this was his third course win inside twelve months. Royal Action ran well in third, finishing a lot closer to the first two than the formbook suggested he should.

In the Club Members Race Endeavour had another good day and comfortably justified market support under George Cooper to lead for most of the journey. Gatchou Mans, Rustic Revelry and Sean’s Minstrel all ran good races in defeat. The former was particularly impressive on his season’s debut, coming back at the last to have another bite at the winner. He overjumped, however, and fell. To his credit, Andrew Braithwaite remounted to claim fourth place.

Three weeks ago Jenny Gordon left the meeting deeply upset at the £120 fine imposed on her when finishing two necks third on Bitofamixup, having made up over six lengths from the last fence. She made sure that no such “not trying” accusations, however ludicrous, could be levied at her today by setting off at the head of affairs in the four runner Ladies Open. After only two fences the outsiders, Silk Vestments and Man of Steele, had been dropped, leaving only Celtic Duke as a potential threat. The two went round for most of the race as if joined by a five length piece of rope. Zoe Turner did manage to create slack four from home but when Jenny asked her mount to quicken again he did so willingly and the rope pulled tight again. As they presented her with a keepsake memento after the race was she really heard asking a steward if he wanted to buy it back for £120?

Rachael Barrow riding Martin Ward’s Castle Road won the opening Hunt Members. The trainer was responsible for three of the six runners with Henry Hill training two of the others, including the runner up Campbellhill.

And what of the bookies? There were fourteen present today, seven less than at Cottenham. Excellent value was available in the Ladies Open with Celtic Duke offered (in places) at 4/6 and Bitofamixup (in places) at 6/4. Other than that the over-rounds were high, but without ever reaching the depths plummeted at Horseheath. The statistics are shown below. Wherever possible I have tried to take the best odds available (from a selection of boards) some three or four minutes before post time (i.e. just after the main betting action).

Race One - 6  runners, 134% over-round (Evens favourite)
Race Two - 9 runners, 147% over-round (Odds on favourite)
Race Three - 10 runners, 150% over-round
Race Four - 10 runners, 147% over-round
Race Five - 4 runners, 108% over round (Odds on favourite)
Race Six - 11 runners, 143% over-round
Race Seven - 11 runners, 145% over-round 

Over the last couple of days I have made some interesting (to me) observations about our bookmakers. There tends to be telepathic collusion in the levels of profit they will take (thirty to thirty five pence in every pound staked). Individually they seem content to take a level share of trade at these margins rather than go for a bigger share of the pot at a slightly smaller margin. None of them want to rock what is obviously a fairly comfortable boat. On a level down from that, they tend to fall into three categories;

Firstly there are the gamblers (possibly three in number) who are, effectively, betting in reverse. They will form an opinion on a race and “call short” on the horse they fancy. They will push out prices on main market rivals (if necessary) to attract money and, if you are quick on your feet, you can often get value if your opinion differs from theirs. They actually risk losing money in some instances and, for that, I hold them in some degree of respect.

Secondly there are the ice cold, professional, bookmakers. These form the majority. They open up to 250%+ over-rounds and gradually soften the odds until takers come forward. They want reasonably balanced books but, as pointed out on the websites, they will not offer realistic odds about rank outsiders and seem quite happy to have these horses running for them (well, at these margins they can afford some degree of imbalance!).

Finally there are the timid introverts who hate standing out in a crowd. There are at least two of these. They will never position themselves geographically on the extremes and they will never offer a price better than that which is generally available elsewhere, even if they have no money in the book for the horse! On an optimistic day their best sales pitch can be summed up in the phrase “our prices are normally no worse than anyone else’s”. They exist on the crumbs. In a true supply and demand market, where margins would be at a more sensible level (i.e. average 125% over-round), those crumbs would not be enough to feed them and they would starve. On a personal level, it niggles me that they are still trading.

I would be interested to hear the opinions of other punters in the East Anglian area. Perhaps even a bookmaker would be willing to put pen to paper and bring another perspective to the debate? My own thoughts are that the over-rounds of the last couple of days are not extreme enough to warrant the kind of tactics that were contemplated by consumers to break the alleged petrol pump cartel. They are, however, not far from the point where we need to be screaming, “enough is enough”, and they do need to be monitored!