by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent

I did not go to Higham on Saturday. There were a few jobs around the house that I could not postpone any longer and, to be honest, the likely four or five runner fields did not look that appealing. From what I can gather I did not miss too much, other than the spectacular pointing debut of Alex Embiricos’ Mr Hawkeye who, I am told, absolutely slaughtered the Maiden field.

The sad postscript to Higham was the unfortunate demise of Paula Twinn’s Mai Point, who collapsed shortly after passing the post in the Ladies Open. Mai Point, by Blakeney out of Quilpee Mai (from whom Paula and her father, David Claydon, have also bred the highly promising Mai Knight), was one of the first horses I formed an attachment to when I was introduced to the East Anglian pointing scene. I remember her as a bold jumping, front runner, and so headstrong that there were not many jockeys capable of holding her. She was particularly effective around Higham, although my overriding memory of her is at Ampton where she completely ran away with her jockey (Hannah Grissell?) and charged at the first downhill fence with the speed of a bullet and the determination of a kamikaze pilot. Fortunately Ms Grissell managed, at the last possible second, to steer her away from the fence and avert the inevitable accident! 

Having just heard that Mai Point had been cruelly deprived of a second career as a broodmare, it was typical of the “life must go on” spirit of the pointing community that her half sister, Mai Cure, was declared to make her racecourse debut in the opening race on the Marks Tey card; the Maiden. There was to be no fairytale ending, however, and the five year old daughter of Terimon, after jumping well and racing in midfield for nearly two miles, tired badly and was pulled up a few fences from home. 

The race was ignited by a scorching pace set by fellow debutant, Phatic, ridden with customary determination by Andrew Sansome. With only a half dozen fences remaining he had succeeded in burning off most of his rivals. Only the more experienced duo of Monarch Ruler (George Cooper) and A Fine Story (Tony Williams) remained within striking distance. Marks Tey is a tough course and few horses manage to make all the running there. Phatic was no exception. He tired badly from the fifth last, where Monarch Ruler drew upsides and then passed him in a matter of a hundred yards. A Fine Story followed him through. The pair were soon well clear. A game of cat and mouse followed. George Cooper tried to save enough energy to see his mount home, whilst Tony Williams, intent on delaying his challenge until after the final fence, cruised patiently behind. It was George Cooper who got it right, keeping enough in the locker to comfortably see off A Fine Story’s late thrust. 

There were two incidents surrounding that race that I found particularly disturbing. Both left a nasty taste in my mouth, which I still cannot rid myself of. I did wonder if my own prejudices were unduly influencing how I felt, and therefore spent a few, soul searching, hours deciding if I should report them. In the end, I decided that I must. This year I consider that my reports have largely painted East Anglia pointing in a positive light. I cannot, therefore, just turn a blind eye to the negative aspects. 

The first “incident” is not a matter of life and death, although the word “robbery” comes pretty close. There were massive crowds at Marks Tey today, so massive that the car parks had difficulty housing them. I would estimate that there were at least five times more people present than there were at the previous Marks Tey meeting. Many were there just for the beer, wine and sandwiches, but many too had taken advantage of the Bank Holiday to come and give the Point to Point experience an honest try. It was East Anglia’s opportunity to entice a few more supporters.  

In contrast the number of bookmakers present had more than halved from the normal contingent. This was probably due to competition from Huntingdon, Yarmouth and Fakenham (who’s Hunter Chase events also had the knock on effect of depriving Marks Tey of representatives from the powerful Turner, Kemp, and Bloom stables – subsequently giving it a rather threadbare look!). Those bookmakers that were present and trading certainly grasped the opportunity to engage in a spot of legalised mugging. The opening race had an over-round of 180. Once a year visitors queued patiently, as only the British can, to hand over their fivers and tenners. They knew no better, they did not understand the concept of “fair odds”. All they wanted was to enter into the spirit of the event and enhance their enjoyment of it by having a small financial interest in the outcome. It was like watching unsuspecting visitors to Tenerife being conned to “Find the Lady”, or similarly being handed a winning scratchcard that would lead to an afternoon’s hard Timeshare sell before the “surprise” prize of a bottle of cheap wine was finally handed over. They were lambs going willingly to the slaughter. With one bookmaker, those who did back a winner had the added indignity of being sent “over by the car” to queue while they waited for the “Weighed In” signal. Only then would a clerk slowly begin the pay out process. 

Things did not improve as the afternoon progressed. The second race, for example, had an over-round of two hundred! For those that cannot believe it I have taken a photograph as proof. It would be unfair to print the name on the board as all the robbers were as bad as each other! If people wish, however, I can (separately) give a roll call of all those participating?

The second “incident” was, in my opinion, far more serious, and I will be careful to report the event just as I saw it (and as was later told to me by those more directly involved). As far as I can, I have left out any subjective opinion.

I was watching the race from the second last fence. About thirty seconds after the leaders had passed us, the long time trailblazer, Phatic, came into view. Andrew Sansome was clearly trying to pull the horse up. The combination eventually came to a standstill between the inside wing of the fence and the roped off posting that was there to keep spectators a safe distance away. Satisfied that the momentum had been stopped, the jockey then tried to persuade the horse to canter steadily back to the horseboxes. Phatic, however, did not respond to what was asked of him. Instead he stumbled into the ropes and managed to get his foot entangled. At this point Andrew Sansome dismounted, threw the reins to a bemused member of the public, declared that the horse was “a dog”, and began the long journey back on foot. He did not once turn around to see what he had left behind.

In the meantime the member of the public that had been presented with a horse fighting to free himself, began to panic. He tried to persuade a huntsman to take it. The huntsman, however, could not get near. Phatic was flaying about. Before any of us really knew the full extent of his problems, the horse went down. Our first thought was to free the tension on the ropes, which we did by pulling the posts from the ground. Someone then produced a knife so that the rope could be cut and the horse freed completely. Phatic, however, did not get up. His eyes had rolled, and he had collapsed from sheer exhaustion. In his unconscious state he fought for breath. His mouth was as wide open as he could get it and his chest and stomach heaved with the urgency of a life and death battle. He was desperate for oxygen.

He was still unconscious when the vet and the horse ambulance arrived. It did not look good. The vet confirmed the blindingly obvious; that Phatic was exhausted and we could do nothing but give him time to recover. The man from the horse ambulance continually poured water over the struggling animal in an attempt to cool him down and aid recovery. After five minutes, however, he was still breathing with an alarming desperation that resembled a steam engine pushing for maximum output. The vet used a stethoscope to check his heart. Someone, whom I assumed to be the trainer, answered a mobile phone and told the caller that the horse was not dead yet.

After a couple more minutes Phatic regained consciousness. Slowly the frantic gasps for air lessened to a more normal level. It looked as if the worst was over. After a huge sigh the horse tried to roll himself up. He did not quite manage it, but at least he did manoeuvre his legs to be underneath him. For a while he knelt there, like a groggy boxer unable to beat the count. His eyes seemed to scan the crowd in a plea for help. Eventually he tried again, this time managing to get to his feet. His triumph was short lived though. The effort was too much and his legs were not yet strong enough. He swayed and stumbled, finally collapsing to the ground.

We waited again. The battle was not yet over. Five more minutes passed. The vet used the walkie talkie to ask the stewards to delay the next race until the episode was bought to a conclusion. They agreed. Shortly after, the horse celebrated by trying yet again to stand on his feet. He managed it. This time he stayed up.

He stood like a statue for ages, soaked in sweat and water. After a full ten minutes relieved connections were given the vetinary go ahead to try and walk him back to the horsebox. The journey was a slow one. The second race was, by now, fifteen minutes late. Half way up the hill, Phatic could not go any further. He stuck his heels into the ground and refused to budge. Somehow he was coaxed into the horse ambulance. The doors were shut behind him and he was driven from the course. When I saw him again, over an hour later, he was still standing in that same position. He had been given steroids, but still did not possess the energy to move of his own accord.

When the second race, the Restricted, was eventually run it provided a quick double for George Cooper and his partner Cherie Cunningham when their Rip Kirby stepped up on all previous form to deny the fast finishing Ginger Bug by a length. The abysmal vein of form experienced by the Ruth Hayter / Anthony Howland Jackson horses continued with the failure of Federal Case to trouble the judge, despite holding every chance three fences from home.

The Men’s Open suffered from the Easter disease of having far more races in the region than there are horses available to support it. Only three declared. As Minino was rated ten and fifteen pounds higher than his rivals the only real question was whether or not he would consent to start. After he jumped off in angelic fashion (as if he had never given anyone a problem in his life) the result was a formality. He barely came off the bridle to beat Nordic Spree by a distance.

The Ladies Open too attracted only three runners. When the bookies priced them up at 1/3, 5/4 and 5/2 I decided to call it a day. I did not manage to get out of the crowded car park before the course was closed to traffic, however, and therefore had the pleasure of listening to James Crispe in the commentary box describe the favourite, Fair Kiowa, falling at the second last when ten lengths clear. This left the race at the mercy of Corston Joker, who was not winning out of turn.

I apologise to anyone who clicked onto this report wanting a positive, upbeat, account of a day in the pointing field. For the first time in my life, however, I did not enjoy the experience, and I cannot pretend otherwise. Small fields, as at Higham two days earlier, were one reason. The contests they produced were meaningless, and lacked any tension or excitement. In hindsight it is folly to attempt to cram two point meetings in on a late season weekend that also saw two Hunter Chases at Fakenham. The events, however, are blatantly not scheduled to produce quality racing. They are put together merely to exploit the fact that the public are desperate to pay money for somewhere to go on a Bank Holiday weekend. Never mind the quality feel the width!

The equally cynical disregard shown by the bookmakers was another contributory factor for my early exit. It is difficult to get that angry with them, however, when people queue up to be exploited. James Crispe, to his credit, did try and steer the public to the Tote, but that on it’s own is not the answer. I have said it before and I will keep saying it; the only way of overcoming the problems is for the  Area Organisers to accept responsibility for policing the terms under which these traders do business. 

The third reason was obviously the Phatic episode. Although not the fault of any of the organisers, the sight of this poor creature’s prolonged struggle for life, enacted in front of a huge crowd of potential “regulars”, was East Anglia’s biggest own goal of the weekend!