The second hottest day of the year and a good-sized crowd brought the curtain down on the 2020/2021 season at Kingston Blount on Sunday. Staged for the first time in 51 years as a late addition to the fixture list, the South Oxfordshire Club fixture – billed as "Champions Day" – saw 78 runners and double-figure fields in six of the seven contests. The start was moved forward for all races, so distances were short of three miles and only 17 fences were jumped in the three-mile contests.
While some of the national awards had already been decided prior to racing, three were up for grabs – Gentleman Novice, Lady Novice and Leading Horse. And rider Ben Sutton proved the star of the show – one behind Conor Houlihan at the start of the day for the first of the above-named titles, he completed a first-ever treble to clinch the championship by 11 wins to nine.
Ben's opening winner was Sir Mangan – owned by his father Nick – in the 13-runner Emmett and Stone Mens Open. Championship rival Conor's mount Definite Dilemma was preferred in the market but Sir Mangan was always going well, jumped into the lead at the first fence in the back straight and won comfortably by four-and-a-half lengths from stablemate The Brassmoulder, with Cheltenam De Vaige unable to make an impression five lengths further back.
"He's a very impressive horse," said a delighted Ben after drawing level with Conor. "We didn't get the start we wanted, but I switched him to the outside and took hold of him coming down the hill, hit the front and he kept jumping. I thought his tank was emptying but he's so game – he battled on and found more on the run-in. I was thinking about quitting the saddle last year," admitted Ben. "But after I was second on him in a Ffos Las Hunter Chase, I didn't want anyone else to ride him!"
This victory was a fifth of the year for the gallant 13-year-old, giving him an unassailable lead in the national Leading Horse championship and Joe Hill, representing his father Alan who trains the horse, said, "He's got fantastic enthusiasm for one of his age and we don't do much with him because he has a hard life – he's not the easiest of horses and Clemmie Jackson, who looks after him at home, does a wonderful job. He's been in for nearly a year now and it's amazing to think that he won on 1st November (at Kimble) and is still winning in mid-June."
The third title decider of the day was resolved in the Ladies Open, sponsored by the Bull and Butcher Inn, which had ten runners. And, appropriately in the blazing sunshine, it was Blazing Tom (sorry, couldn't resist that) who took the honours under rider Natalya Irvine, which made her national Lady Novice champion with four wins, all of which have come on the ten-year-old. Mid-division early, the pair progressed to third five out before passing two horses in the air at the penultimate fence. From then on, the result was never in doubt and they finished six lengths clear of the always-prominent Hawkhurst, with Killiney Court two-and-a-half lengths third.
Natalya, who came into the winners enclosure to great cheers, was typically modest about her riding performance, saying, "We were flat out all the way and I didn't think they'd come back to me." Pressed by live streaming co-hosts Lawney Hill and Martin Harris, she admitted, "My Mum and Dad (Stephen and Gaynor, who own the horse) aren't here today – I wouldn't let them come in case I disappointed them. I guess I'll have a drink to celebrate tonight – I don't think I'll have a choice."
Trainer Tom Ellis – notching up a 30th winner of the truncated campaign and national champion for the third year in a row – was more forthcoming, telling me, "It's great for Nat and we've had a good year, winning the trainers title again and with (wife) Gina being leading lady. Blazing Tom's a good fun pointer for Nat, who's gone from strength to strength this year and whose confidence is high. To be honest, we haven't done anything special with him – he was fit when we bought him (from Jonathan Tudor) and his pointing form was good in Wales, where he was never out of the frame when completing."
Back to Ben Sutton, he went one clear in the title race when taking the Connolly's Red Mills Novice Riders Race (Level 2), for which 14 went to post, on outside ride Rolling Dylan, owned by leading rules trainer Philip Hobbs and trained by Laura Parker. It was Ben's only winner of the season not owned by his father Nick and he gave the ten-year-old a textbook ride, moving into third going into the back straight, improving a place three out and taking pole position at the last from long-time pacesetter and joint-favourite Grageelagh Girl before going on to score by four lengths. Fellow market leader Gabrial The Great ran on late for two lengths third.
This victory confirmed Ben as champion novice, with Conor having no more rides, and he admitted, "It feels really good. My instructions were to sit handy and produce him at the last, which I did, and he jumped really well and kept galloping. I want to thank Isaac Buncle and Tom Dixon, who normally ride him, for letting me have the mount."
With winning trainer Laura climbing in the Brecon Beacons with a group including her boyfriend, jockey Ben Jones, it was Mum and Dad Tracey and Kevin who made the long journey from Somerset with Rolling Dylan and Tracey confirmed afterwards, "He's as honest as they come. Laura works for Philip and trains him for some of the lads in the yard to ride. She used to ride in points herself and her sister Natalie also rides, including the likes of Virak."
Ben completed his treble – and a double for father Nick – on his Alan Hill trained home-bred Festival Dawn (so named because she was born during Cheltenham week) in the Elliotts of London Open Maiden, which saw 11 face the starter. The nine-year-old had been knocking on the door all season and claimed a well-deserved victory, taking the lead coming down the Crowell Knoll hill on the final circuit and quickening clear four out to score by an unchallenged 12 lengths from hot favourite Misstree Song (leading lady Gina Andrews' only ride of the day) with outsider Equus Flight coming from another parish to finish eight lengths third.
"I'm speechless," said an emotional Ben afterwards. "I've never even ridden a double, let alone a treble and I can't quite believe it. I was told to hit the front round the final bend but found myself in the lead downhill. I thought she might stop but she didn't… and she jumped brilliantly. I want to thank my Dad, everyone at the Hill yard and my jockey coach David Crosse." Joe Hill told me, "She deserved that – she hasn't been beaten more than four lengths in three previous runs this year and has been unlucky. We're delighted for Nick and Ben and there's more improvement to come."
Alan Hill completed his own treble on the day in 2020/2021 season closing race, a Conditions Race (Level 2) sponsored by the French Horn at Sonning for horses holding a South Midlands qualification. Long odds-on favourite Normofthenorth faced just six rivals and won as he pleased under Izzie Marshall, taking over at the end of the first circuit when leader Beau Sancy blundered and was pulled up, and winning unchallenged by the length of the run-in from the only other finisher Graasten. It was Izzie's ninth winner of the season and she finished a creditable second (for the third time) to Gina Andrews in the leading Lady Rider title.
"That's six wins from eight runs for 'Norm'," confirmed Joe Hill. "He's a really good fun pointer and could be a John Corbet horse next year – he's a better horse in the spring and likes faster ground. He needs to be fired up in the last mile and Izzie gets on really well with him." Joe continued, "It's great to have a treble at the final meeting and it's been a good year with 26 winners (Alan finished second to Tom Ellis in the trainer title) although frustrating at times – we had a hard first week back after lockdown and have hit form since. We've been lucky to have the likes of Izzie and Tommie O'Brien riding for us and the improvement Ben has shown this year has been fantastic."
Champion jockey James King rode his 33rd winner of the campaign on the improving Kaproyale in the 13-runner Farol Ltd Restricted Race. The improving six-year-old grey, trained by Fran Nimmo, was sent off odds-on following an impressive Garthorpe pointing debut and won as his price suggested he should. Held up early, he made steady progress to second four out, led at the penultimate and scored as he liked by four lengths from market rival Raleagh Flora. Eole D'Un Regard, who had tried to slip his field coming down the hill, weakened for nine lengths third.
Kaproyale was a best-ever 21st winner of the year (all since 10th April) for Fran's Station Yard racing operation, which she runs with her husband Charlie Poste (they finished third in the trainers championship, making it a clean sweep for South Midlands stables). "That was really exciting," beamed Charlie afterwards. "He's owned by a syndicate that includes Fran's Mum and Dad, Katie and Tim Sunderland and Denise and Nick Reynolds. We broke him in and sent him to Olly Murphy but it didn't work out for him under rules and Olly offered him back – he hasn't been with us long. He's got plenty of class and were looking forward to next season with him – he could be a Hunter Chaser in the spring." Reflecting on his season, Charlie added, "It was frustrating before Christmas because they were all running OK, but we've clicked into gear since. We've bought 11 three-year-olds in the last fortnight, got some exciting older horses too and can't wait to get started again."
James admitted, "I was nervous about the leader getting too far ahead, so we kept tabs on him, although I knew he had come back to his field at Bratton Down. Kaproyale has improved for his first run and that was a professional performance. He's a quirky character who takes some knowing." As for his first championship, James confirmed, "It hasn't quite sunk in yet. It's great to be riding nice horses and thanks go to Fran and Charlie and their team as well as everyone else I've ridden for."
The card opened with a Conditions Race (Level 3), sponsored by Bonners and Bablington Estate Agents, which had ten runners. It also went the way of an odds-on shot, in the shape of Luke Harvey's Drumlynn, who had benefitted from his recent Edgcote second after a break. Ridden by Ben Bromley, he was yet another winner on the day to take it up coming down the hill and looked a certain winner as he went clear three out. However, he slowed coming to the last on the well-watered ground and while the second favourite, the recalcitrant Waterloo Warrior, looked a threat, he did not go through with his effort (again) and the favourite held on to score by five lengths. Fleur Du Pommier was a further length away in third.
"All the credit goes to Alan Hill – a man who falls out with himself on a regular basis – for getting this meeting on," laughed Luke (the meeting's best-dressed trainer in a fetching magenta polo shirt and panama hat?) after the race. "He seems to have spent his entire week watering the course based on the videos he's posted on Facebook and it's great that there are so many entries for the last meeting of the season. I was determined to run 'Willy' here but he's had all sorts of problems and the going updates have persuaded me to come." As for the race, Luke chuckled again, "I told Ben not to take it up until coming to the last – that wasn't the plan!"
A number of awards were presented after racing. Former champions Polly Walker (nee Gundry) and Julian Pritchard congratulated Leading Lady Rider and Leading Gentleman Rider Gina Andrews and James King respectively. The other main point-to-point championship winners for 2020/2021 – in addition to the aforementioned Ben Sutton, Sir Mangan, Natalya Irvine and Tom Ellis were Luke Price (Leading Trainer – 7 horses or fewer) and Jason Warner (Leading Owner).
Area Chairperson Sara Moule presented the Kingston Blount and Kimble awards to the owners of Normofthenorth and Sir Mangan (tied for Leading Horse) and to Gina Andrews (Leading Rider) and Area Secretary (and PPSA Representative on the PPA Board) Ilona Barnett did likewise for the South Midlands Area:
Leading Horse: Sir Mangan
Leading Mare: Festival Dawn
Leading Trainer: Alan Hill
Leading Trainer: Dibby Brown
(5 horses or fewer)
Gentleman Rider: Ben Sutton
Lady Rider: Georgie Benson and Natalya Irvine (tied)
Novice Rider: Ben Sutton
Finally, Kingston Blount Clerk of the Course Stewart Nash had this to say about a successful season's racing at the Oxfordshire track. "On behalf of the organising committees of the three meetings here, I'd like to thank everybody who supported us, from the officials and our tireless volunteers to the owners, trainers and riders who brought their horses – not forgetting, of course, the spectators whom we were delighted to welcome back for the last two meetings. We look forward to seeing everyone again for our planned four meetings in 2022."