by Richard Hall

A Saturday in early March is a difficult time to attract a large crowd. The weather has not yet turned for the better, so the posing picnic brigade stay away, and the fan who is not totally committed (i.e. one who may have a life outside the sport) has already had eight meetings in as many weekends and his appetite is not quite what it was. This leaves just a dependable hard core of regulars and the hunt supporters for the organisers to build on.

One way of offering an extra inducement would have been to put on extra races, or to divide, in advance, those with large entries. The Maiden, for example, had thirty entered, and, with a safety factor of eighteen, looked ripe for such an approach. The organisers however chose not to, no doubt unable or unwilling to find an additional sponsor at such short notice. As a result, a large percentage of owners, obviously reluctant to have their inexperienced charges facing the hustle and bustle of what they believed would be a large field at such an early stage in their careers, chose to take them elsewhere. At this time of year the season is in full swing all around the country and, unlike in January and early February, there are plenty of other options within easy driving distance of East Anglia. In some instances these owners may well have taken their Open and Intermediate runners with them, rather than go to the expense of sending two horseboxes to two different parts of the country.

The consequence was that only nine bothered to declare and, I feel, everyone lost out. If the race had been divided in advance we would surely have had double that number interested in competing? This would have also guaranteed a seventh race for the paying public and may have persuaded a few more to leave the comfort of their armchairs and Channel Four racing. As it was there were many empty paces in both the inner and outer car parks.

The race itself threw up an interesting recruit in Cantarinho, a five year old Aldebrook gelding making his point debut for the Kemp stable. He was very green in the paddock, and looked nervous and a bit unruly. The stable obviously thought a bit of him for, as soon as his lad had him settled and walking, he handed an acquaintance a wad of notes with the request to get “twenty five each way”. His price fell from 8’s to 6’s but he was only fourth in the betting. Fine And Dandy (a faller two out when challenging at High Easter) headed the market at 5/4, with Gunner Be True (with a string of placings to his credit) at 7/2 and Table For Four (an interesting recruit from Charlie Mann’s stable) available at 5/1. As with most of the Kemp runners, Cantarinho was asked to make the running. He did it gamely and with three fences to go only Fine and Dandy, who had been patiently ridden by James Owen, presented any danger. On the run in, Cantarinho came away again. Whilst Fine and Dandy was being hard ridden, David Kemp did not even have to raise his whip hand. The horse obviously enjoyed the experience and kept going well after the winning post. David Kemp complained as he was being led in that he thought he would never manage to pull him up!

The victory was not spectacular, and the bare form may not amount to much, but the horse willingly did all that was asked of him and will certainly come on leaps and bounds for the experience. He is, I would suggest, one to follow. Another that may similarly be better next time is Ruth Hayter’s selected representative, Present Moment, also a five year old. He ran well for a long while under typically gentle handling from Christian Ward Thomas, and, like Brookfield Bass last week at Marks Tey, will undoubtedly have picked up a positive attitude to racing as a result.

David Kemp repeated the pillar to post tactics later in the afternoon on many people’s bet of the day, Bard of Drumcoo in the Restricted. Today’s opposition was significantly weaker than that met in his earlier outings at Ampton and High Easter, and he was allowed to dictate throughout without being exposed to the mid race injection of pace that had caught him out before. Call The Tune ran well in second and Westfield John confirmed that he is probably a better horse on a sharper course when fading from two out to finish third. Carlton Brae, in fourth, was given a tender ride by Alexander Merriam who was riding her for the first time. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the race was the 2/1 (in places) available about the winner. This was probably due to the “Stuart Morris factor”. He was riding Ruth Hayter’s Marmalade Mountain (a lucky second to Native Status in a Hunt Members last time) and the bookies were reluctant to go bigger than 5/2.

Stuart Morris had earlier kept up his excellent record in raids on East Anglia when taking the Mens Open on Gallant Glen at 6/1. The race was run at a good pace with Endeavour (evens) and Minino (9/2) taking each other on from the word go. Morris moved easily behind and joined them in a line of three as they took the downhill run for the final time. As they came to the third last it was Minino who gave way first, and Gallant Glen who swept past both he and Endeavour to gain what was looking to be an easy victory. A few yards after hitting the front however, he seemed reluctant to race and Endeavour regained ground between fences. At the last they were upsides and my money was on the gallant Endeavour to sprint clear on the run in. George Cooper’s mount, however, in his truly enigmatic style, had other ideas. He failed to negotiate the fence and fell; not for the first time snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory! This left Gallant Glen to be pushed out and kidded home. Royal Action, who had been tapped for toe early on the second circuit, ran on resolutely to collar Minino for second. This was still further evidence of his improvement this season and he is a horse that would probably stay forever. Perhaps a four mile Hunter Chase could be within his grasp? The veteran Corston Joker showed his first glimmer of form for the year, and he may improve further when the going firms up.

Before racing I had walked the course and stopped to chat to a mother and daughter who were entrenched by the second downhill fence with a tripod, like an angler’s rod rest, pointing at the fence and the dramatic skyline above it. “I come here every year,” said the mother. “It’s the only meeting I do go to. I can take between five and ten shots every time they jump it. I snapped about a hundred altogether last year. Got a great one of George Cooper being thrown in the air.”

She must have been pleased with the opportunities this year’s racing gave her; there were several close shaves and a fair number of fallers. Two of the most spectacular were on the first circuit of the Restricted Race when Rachael Barrow and Tony Humphrey parted company with Castle Road and Holmby Copse respectively. This left Society Lad and New Ross to cut out the running between them and hopefully expose any lack of fitness in the first and second favourites (Millenium Way and Sense of Adventure) who were both making their seasonal debuts. New Ross’ effort faded five from home but Society Lad, ridden by owner Annie Bowles, still led the field to the third last. Earlymorningcall was being hard ridden alongsides, but it soon became apparent that both the market leaders were merely being waited with. They soon reeled in Society Lad and, at the last, they had the race between them. It was Sense of Adventure under Nibby Bloom, who had the greater acceleration to pull a length clear on the run in leaving James Owen on the Turner horse having to content himself with yet another placing!

Although a ten year old, this was only Sense of Adventure’s fifth race and his third victory. He had been off for all of 2002, and his last run in 2001 had been when a good third to Fair Exchange at this corresponding meeting. He is clearly a horse that is difficult to keep right but, when he does make it to the racecourse, he should not be dismissed lightly.

Society Lad ran his best race for a long while for his sporting rider and his trainer John Ibbott, neither of whom can be described as being amongst the sport’s big boys. Their enthusiasm should not go unrewarded however, and they can surely take the Members race at the Waveney Harriers meeting at Higham on March 23rd?

The Ladies race cut up badly again, this time producing just four runners. The Turners have had a runner in all such events this year, and I hate to think what dire fields we would be left with if they should ever decide to leave the arena. This time their Spring Gale recorded a facile victory, coming with a smooth run from three out. At one point it looked as if Gatchou Mans might offer a degree of resistance, but he made a bad mistake at the second last and Amy Stennet did exceptionally well to ride him out for second.

The concluding race was the Hunt Members, with six lining up. Wrekengale, ridden for the first time this year by trainer Neil King, was made the even money favourite with Parsonhumfrywebber at 2/1 and Kingfisher Star at 4/1. These three dominated the race with Kingfisher Star, who made several jumping errors, and Parsonhumfrywebber, ridden for the first time by Andrew Braithwaite as regular pilot Emma Bell had chosen to ride her own Blue Monk, shared the donkeywork between them. At the fourth last (the downhill) Blue Monk made a mistake and effectively bought his promising reappearance to an end. This left Wrekengale as the only danger. He closed on, and eventually overtook, Kingfisher Star but he was no match for “The Parson” who finished in his customary manner, but this time with a head start! It was a conservative ten length margin at the post.

The result must have left Ms Bell with mixed feelings. She was obviously pleased with her horse’s performance but she must also be worried that she will not get to sit on “The Parson’s” back in public again for quite a while. He went really well for Andrew Braithwaite who was able to keep him interested, not only in contention but up with the pace throughout, and still produce that electrifying finishing speed at the end. The owners must surely be tempted to ask him to ride again?

As has become customary, I will not close without a comment about the bookmakers. They truly need to be congratulated today. There was a comparatively small crowd for the sixteen of them to get stuck into, but at no time did the overrounds go above 140%! Even in the Maiden 137% could be achieved! OK they were not with one book at one time, but they were gettable if you shopped around. Perhaps an element of competition is creeping back?

I was perplexed by their actions at the last race, however. Seven of them just packed up their boards without taking a bet and, unable to leave the course until racing had finished, just went and sat in their cars. Was this really a question of “if I can’t win, I’m going to take my bat and ball and go home”?