by Richard Hall

We have just past the vernal equinox and, if you were an alien looking down at East Anglian point to point meetings this year, you would have thought three quarters of the human population had just come out of hibernation. The car park was full long before racing. Ford Fiesta’s and 4 x 4’s alike sprouted picnic tables around which people sat in canvas backed chairs eating salad and chicken and ringing townie friends on mobile phones to talk of life beyond the McDonald’s roundabout. Casual jackets and trainers replaced country tweed coats and green wellies as the prevailing fashion. The purists of the sport were swamped by the fair weather brigade. History tells us that this will be the pattern now until the season ends. With the firmer ground the quality of racing will diminish, but that does not matter. Fun, fresh air and frivolity will replace the dour sincerity of those who were just there for the sport. Spring is now, winter is history, and summer is the promise of a better future around the corner. It is a good time to be alive, a time for change, for the young and the rejuvenated.

Not many of the sport’s new “sunshine” friends would know the difference between a Hunt Race and a Confined, nor would they care. It is a subtlety that only the regulars would understand. In general the all season loyalists tend to sneer at the Hunt races on the grounds that they attract small fields and are contested by jockeys with bags of enthusiasm, but limited experience or ability, riding horses who’s better days are either behind them or who will never come. To the rank and file Hunt member, however, they are the highlight of the year. This is the one chance they, and their one horse, have of realistically winning an event. It is not open to the semi-professional yards from other areas; it is contained to their hunt. They have the arena in which they can race against the people they gallop alongside in the hunting field. For some it is the pride that is important; they need to show that they either are, or own, the best in the vicinity. For others it is the opportunity it can give them; either to taste victory or to expose their riding skills to those in a position to offer more mounts.

Lucinda Barrett Nobbs fits very much in to the latter category. She works as a groom to the Waveney Harriers Hunt Master, John Ibbott, who has helped her entry into the sport. Last year she rode a schoolmaster, Mr Foodbroker, around most of the East Anglian tracks without ever troubling the judges. This year the yard have put up Dancing Ranger, a purchase from the West Country pointing fields, for her to compete on. Injury kept him off the track for most of last season. Today was his seasonal debut. He would come on for the run but, although now a twelve year old, the formbook suggested that he could still play a part in the finish. The bookies and punters agreed. He opened at 3/1 and was backed down to 2/1 second favourite in the five runner field. Treasure Dome, owned and trained by the Hon Secretary and former trainer under rules, John Whyte, was the 4/6 favourite. He was to be partnered by Alan Coe who was by far the most experienced of the jockeys and the only one in the field not affiliated to the Waveney. Harry Tartar from the Parker family, and ridden by son Dominic, was the third favourite at 5/1. Annie Bowles, unable to ride her Society Lad due to the unsuitable going, partnered Musical Hit (the second of the three Ibbot runners) who was generally available at 7/1. Jack Bevan, one of the hunt whipper-ins, completed the field riding his own horse; the 33/1 shot Bright Torino, a cast off from the Bloom yard. Although he had no real chance of winning, Jack was positive that the horse (who had given him “one of the best experiences in life in jumping downhill fences at Ampton and Horseheath”) would translate the improvement shown on the gallops onto the racecourse. It was the experience, and the “showing improvement”, that was important to him.

Dancing Ranger led for the first couple of fences. He jumped big and easy, without losing ground. Treasure Dome joined him at the third with Musical Hit and Harry Tartar tucked in behind. Bright Torino was slowly away and trailed by ten lengths. They raced at a comfortable pace in that order for the first circuit, the lead alternating easily between the first two in the betting, and Bright Torino closing to condense the gap between first and last to six lengths. At the tenth Harry Tartar unseated Dominic Parker. At the fifteenth Alan Coe kicked for home on Treasure Dome. The move caught Lucinda unawares and coincided with her mount “going lame for a stride or two”. A five length gap was quickly established. It looked as if Dancing Ranger would be hard pressed to hang on for second as Musical Hit closed, and appeared to be going easily in third. Bright Torino could not respond any more and Jack allowed her to come home in her own time.

At the seventeenth Dancing Ranger seemed to gain a new lease of life. He not only had repelled the now tiring Musical Hit, he actually began to close again on the odds on favourite. As they approached the last he had drawn level. For probably the first time, Lucinda, and most of the crowd, actually believed that she would win. She jumped the better and landed marginally in front. All she had to do was get to the post without being overtaken. Not surprisingly Alan Coe did not make it easy for her. He was fitter, stronger, and, having been in that position many times before, certainly more experienced. On top of this one sensed that, between the last two fences, he had tried not to use all the petrol in case a driving finish was called for. He blazed for the line, whip flashing and riding for all he was worth, demanding his charge give the required response. Lucinda made him fight. She kept Dancing Ranger up to his work without showing him the whip. It was close. The official verdict was a head. It was not a fairytale ending. David had not slain Goliath. Experience had prevailed, and Treasure Dome, second in the race last year, was led into the winner’s enclosure.  An exhausted Lucinda Barrett Nobbs, barely able to carry the two and a half stone of lead in her saddle to the weighing room, beamed with exhilaration. Only later would the “if only” scenarios play out in her mind. She must console herself with the fact that she is very much in the springtime of life. There will be many summers ahead.

The second race of the day, the Confined, was contested by horses in the autumn of their careers. The youngest of them, Pampered Gale, was ridden for the first time this season by James Owen and clearly benefited from the stronger handling. He gives the impression that he has been allowed to “get away” with not giving his all this year, and was clearly expecting to be allowed to drop off when the pace quickened on the second circuit. James Owen however niggled at him and kept him going, only easing off when the first two had flown.

When Pampered Gale lost touch five fences out, Pangeran (the odds on favourite) and Wise Advise had the race between them. It was the former who made the first move, which the latter covered before lack of stamina told two fences from home. From that point the Neil King horse came away as he liked to record the trainer’s first victory of the season in the saddle. 

After the race I reflected on Pampered Gale’s performance. He was a favourite of mine last year, yet seems to have lost it completely this term. Today’s performance was probably his best of the year and James Owen’s determination not to let him just give up when it got uncomfortable may prompt a resurgence. It may, however, just reinforce the horse’s obvious belief that racing is not fun.

It is at this point I see the flip side to the situation regarding the Turner’s and their former jockey, Andrew Sansome. I had previously hinted that the decline in the Turner fortunes might somehow be linked to the fact that Mr Sansome no longer rides for them. Yet, whilst Andrew’s hard and uncompromising style may have conjured up victories, they may have had a cost. Pampered Gale and Bruan (who was to contest the Intermediate later in the afternoon) are obvious exhibits in support of this theory. Both have unquestionable ability, and both won more than once for Sansome last year. They both, however, ended last season with a sharp reversal in form and a definite reluctance to respond when asked to exert, a trait they have carried into the current campaign. At the time no-one could have criticised Andrew Sansome’s jockeyship (as those who saw Bruan get up in the final strides to beat Holy Moses at Horseheath will testify) but could it be, with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, that the long term fortunes of the stable would benefit from a gentler approach?  Maybe the Turner’s have reached this conclusion?   

On the other hand I could just be reading too much into the situation. The horse may simply be “wrong”, in that he has an undetected ailment.

In racing there are so many more questions than there are answers.

The Men’s Open was a much simpler affair, or so the betting would have suggested. Jackie Jarvis who had annihilated a Hunter Chase field on firm going at Fakenham a couple of week’s earlier, was sent off at 1/3 in the six strong field where the only real question was who would finish second; Gatchou Mans, who had responded to the more experienced handling of Christian Ward Thomas to win a Hunt race at Ampton a week earlier, or Royal Action, who’s only victory of the campaign had been in a Hunt race at Marks Tey?

All went according to the script. As they rounded the turn for home Jackie Jarvis seemed to be travelling easily in front, six lengths clear of Gatchou Mans who had jumped patchily but was beginning to stay on. Royal Action had clearly lost the battle for second and was out of contention a further ten lengths back in third. The finish appeared to be a formality.

Christian Ward Thomas clearly brings out the best in Ruth Hayter’s grey and the pair had obviously not read the script properly. They closed the gap. At the last Phillip York and the favourite still had a two length lead. It was not enough. Gatchou Mans stayed on strongly to take them on the run in and come away to win a shade cosily.  This was clearly an improved performance and the runner up, obviously useful, did nothing wrong. He should be backed until beaten.

The Ladies Open presented odds on favourite backers with an opportunity to recoup losses. Mai Point never gave those who took it a moment’s worry. Rachael Barrow afforded Paula Twinn’s ten year old a perfect ride; settling him to stalk the leaders before asking him to take it up two fences from home. He responded efficiently and without undue exertion. This is progressive form, following the pattern of last year where he clearly needed the opening runs of the campaign. Now that he has hit form he is another that should be followed until beaten. O’ Fiaich’s Hope ran another solid race in second, with The Wiley Kalmuck third.

The Open Maiden, the fifth race on the card, has to be a contender for the worst Maiden of the season. The only one of the thirteen strong field with any recent form at all (other than pulled up, refused, or fallen) was the 6/4 favourite, Sounds Promising, who was just collared by Nelsun at Cottenham a fortnight earlier, with the third a long way adrift.

Sounds Promising again set off as if he had a train to catch. He was fifteen lengths up after three fences. Matt Mackley got a breather into him on the second circuit when Barbed Broach and Bede both managed to get within four lengths. He kicked on again four out however, and was the easiest winner of the day. His winning margin was helped by Bede running out at the fourth last and, and by Barbed Broach pulling up a fence later with something clearly amiss.

Dominic Parker had pronounced himself unfit to ride Henry Tartar following brother Harry Tartar’s early exit in the Hunt Race. Lucinda Barrett Nobbs was the jockey to benefit and, armed with the confidence of her earlier efforts, rode a mature race to bring the Parker horse home in second place. Although never in with a chance of victory, he made smooth progress through the field on the second circuit and had both Bede and Barbed Broach comfortably in his sights before their premature exits. He is still only an eight year old and, despite the dire nature of the opposition encountered here, may have done enough to suggest that he has a race in him.

The final race of the day, the Intermediate, saw Phillip York’s Star Glow attempt to gain his sixth victory of the season. At 1/3 he was a short priced favourite to dispose of his five opponents. They were headed by Run Monty (previously a Maiden winner at Marks Tey) who was priced at 5/2. The Turner’s Bruan was 20/1, with 33/1 available about each of the other three, New Ross, Nousayri, and Pharangel.

Star Glow’s task was made easier by the first fence fall of Run Monty, and as they began the second circuit, he was travelling so well that the result looked a formality. It was not Phillip York’s day, however, and Star Glow fell at the same fence his main rival had a circuit earlier. The fence faced the sun and, whilst it was not low enough to be directly responsible, perhaps both horses (or jockeys) had been temporarily blinded in their periphery vision?

This left the reluctant Bruan in a clear lead. James Owen gave him a lovely ride (as he had done earlier on Pampered Gale), gently urging him to give the little bit more that he did not want to yield voluntarily. He kept him in front until just before the last, where lack of fitness told and he tired badly. New Ross, under Alexander Merriam, kept on at the one pace to deprive him of victory. Pharangel went badly lame on the run in allowing Nousayri to claim a remote third.

As the bumper crowds fought for the exits, I stayed behind and watched the last race runners make their way to the paddock. James Owen’s body language spoke volumes. He was hunched and dejected, clearly a young man who feels he can do little right. He should, however, take heart from the fact that lasting success is not built instantly and the firm patience he extends to his mounts (particularly the “problem” ones) will undoubtedly pay dividends in the long term. Like Lucinda Barrett Nobbs, he is somebody with fair number of summers ahead of them.