by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by Richard Hall

We had waited two weeks for this. Now, huddled in the parade ring and watching the other eleven runners being saddled up, we were not so sure. Maybe, amongst them, there was another talent not previously spotted by the formbook?

Now that the time for dreaming had well and truly stopped, the doubts started to creep into our thinking. The task had seemed a lot easier on paper. Now, faced with real, living, fit, and strong rivals our confidence ebbed. Yet we had given ourselves no choice but to let fate take its course. Encouraged as we may have been by our four legged investment’s performance a fortnight earlier, we could no longer continue to dine solely on his potential. It was time for him to deliver. The Higham run had bought him on, he was fitter than he had ever been, and there were no known superstars up against him. He had to run well. As Lucinda (Barrett Nobbs) got on his back and walked him around, I knew both she and the trainer, John Ibbott, felt the burden of our expectations sitting heavily on their shoulders. For weeks, no months, they had been saying that the horse had the ability to win a decent Maiden. The second placing behind No Penalty had hinted to us that this could be more than just loose talk to keep the monthly cheques flowing. We had started to believe it ourselves. A poor showing would force a severe backward adjustment to our spectrum of reasonable ambitions. It would prune our budding hopes before they could blossom, and was therefore unthinkable. Only as I left the paddock to place my bets did I fully understand this. At that moment I realised exactly how much was riding on this race. It went way beyond the financial.

The plan was to hunt him round for the first circuit, using the pacesetters as shelter against the howling gale. Recognising that he has not yet learnt to properly negotiate bends, Lucinda charted a wide course and, despite the extra distance involved, she gave him the widest arc possible. His jumping was superb. He had learnt from Higham. He seemed to gain a length or two at every fence. After a lap of the track he was still travelling well. So too were most of his rivals.

As they turned out into the country for the final time, leaving the brick wall of head wind behind them, one or two decided that it was time to race in earnest. The pace hotted up.  Ernford Smokinjoe, Carvilla, Divine Mist and Alfie Moon started to put daylight between themselves and the remainder. Along with Tooley Park, who had been given a patient ride by Nick Pearce, our fella, Tartar Sabre, tried to cover the move. Down the backstraight, Lucinda felt him hit a flat patch. It was as if he’d done enough and had nothing left to give. She shouted at him, and immediately felt him wake up. He closed the gap. She hit him once with her whip, and he knew what was expected of him. He changed gear again and suddenly he was up with the leading quartet. Divine Mist fell at the next fence, the fifth from home. Our opposition had lessened in number. Within a few strides we were in front. Jumping the fourth last our lead had grown to three lengths. One horse, Tooley Park, was trying to come with us, but the others were struggling and the deficit was growing fast.

Mrs H and I were watching by the mound at the final fence. We looked at each other, believing for the first time that day that “our” horse could actually do it. I felt myself searching for things that could go wrong. Looking for things that would prevent it happening, not yet daring to accept that we would win. Just three fences and a bend stood between “our” horse and victory. Sabre cleared the third last like Desert Orchid on a good day. Our lead extended with it. Lucinda eased him into the notorious second fence from home, and nursed him over it. He was safe. She kicked on for the home straight, and then the nightmares began. He failed completely to negotiate the bend, and, aided by the furious head wind, he swung as wide as he possibly could. Tooley Park, in contrast, hugged it like a seasoned campaigner.

By the time Lucinda had straightened him out, Sabre’s four length lead had completely gone. If anything Tooley Park was now in front. At the final flight, however, our fella had galvanised himself back into a one length advantage. We held our breaths. Despite a slight loss of her balance, Lucinda got him over it. Now it was just the run in to worry about.

Nick Pearce is not a jockey to ever go down without a fight. He saw his opportunity and threw the kitchen sink into getting up on the line. Lucinda in contrast, having had significantly less experience in fighting out finishes, chose to just hold her mount together and coax him home in a less demonstrable fashion. Two sets of bobbing backsides disappeared from our view, each racing for the glory of the post. We had to rely on the commentator to tell us what was happening. First he shouted one horse in front, then he implied the other. He ended with his customary “it’s close”, which meant that he did not want to influence the judge’s decision by naming who he thought had prevailed.

We walked hastily to the unsaddling enclosure. We passed connections of Tooley Park. They clearly thought they had got up and were already celebrating. We saw friends coming out of the stands. “You’ve held on,” they said. Another friend came from the opposite direction. He had watched the race from fifty yards or so beyond the winning line. He was not sure, but suspected that we may have been beaten.

We watched and waited as the horses were led back. Tooley Park came first. Connections would not lead him into the winner’s enclosure. Nick Pearce dismounted and looked to the crowd for the verdict. Nobody really knew. Lucinda, John and Sabre followed them a few seconds later. They too stopped short of entering the enclosure, not knowing which slot had been allocated for them. Their body language betrayed the fear that a rightful victory had been snatched from their grasp.

For an agonising few seconds, both sets of supporters stood looking at each other. Conversation and speculation ceased as we waited in silence for the official verdict. If ever there was a definitive explanation of the chasm between winning and being a gallant second, this was it. Finally the anguish ended. The loudspeakers kicked into action. “In race six the horses passed the post in the following order”. There was a pause. I braced myself. “First, number sixteen, Tartar Sabre”.

The next few minutes were a haze of elation. I remember kissing Lucinda, who had real difficulty taking in the fact that she had actually won, and I remember giving James Crispe probably the naffest interview he had ever done with a winning owner. The drama of the moment had frozen my senses, and I was completely lost for words. Going through me was relief, excitement and sheer delight, in probably equal proportions. I was pleased for the jockey, pleased for myself, and pleased for John Parker, who had bred the horse and had syndicated him to us last summer. I saw him out the corner of my eye, telling anyone who would listen that he had a full brother to him at home, if anyone was interested. Above all, though, I felt pleased for John Ibbott, the trainer, and his wife Melanie. They had kept going for many years without a winner, turning up, without fail, every other week or so, trying to put an optimistic spin on every setback they encountered. It was they who spotted the horse, they who saw it’s potential, and they who put the syndicate together so that it would come into their yard. Their faith, perseverance and judgement had been justly reward. And more importantly, who knows, there could still be even more to come?

I took in very little of the preliminaries to the race that followed Sabre’s triumph, the second division of the Maiden. Before I knew it the runners were at the post and under starter’s orders. It went, deservedly, to Troubleshooter, who chose the most difficult route to victory by making all the running and thereby bearing the full force of the mighty headwind in each of his journeys up the home straight. He had already won a corresponding race, albeit a three runner one, by a distance at Brocklesby last year, but had had the victory withdrawn when the Turf Club subsequently found a banned substance in his urine sample. He joins Tartar Sabre’s Higham conqueror, No Penalty, in a small club of horses able to boast dual maiden successes!

Troubleshooter’s victory was a comfortable one, and he had a bit up his sleeve at the post. Dream On Then showed resolution, despite a shortage of finishing pace, in keeping on for second. Others to take note of for future engagements were Memsahib Ki Behan, who ran well until the lack of a previous outing told, and Alex Embiricos’s Conquistador, piloted by Nick Moore, who seemed to be left a bit flat footed down the back straight but came again like a train after the final bend to only just be denied the runner’s up berth.  

Earlier in the day Alex had partnered her previous course winner Highland Rose in the Ladies Open. Today’s opponents were considerably more talented than the hunt field they had demolished on that occasion, but the end result was the same. Alex made her move as they swung out onto the final circuit, and the gap just grew, and grew and grew. She eased down on the run in but still had a dozen or so lengths to spare over Spring Gale, the odds on favourite, and market rival Free who was making his season debut for Gemma Hutchinson and will undoubtedly come on for it. 

The winner is possibly still improving and has obviously found his forte in Ladies Open’s. He has also demonstrated a liking for Cottenham and should not be allowed to go unbacked there at such generous odds in future (he had been freely available at 10/1).

The favourite for the Men’s Open was another horse that had previously demonstrated a liking for the course, The Red Boy. He had been spectacularly caught at the shadow of the post in each of his two previous races and Andrew Braithwaite’s instructions today were obviously to sit off the pace and deliver his challenge as late as possible. The jockey followed his orders to the letter but, despite travelling ominously well, his horse once again produced nothing off the bridle when he needed it most. As at Higham a fortnight ago, he was beaten by a representative of the all conquering Turner yard. This time Militaire was the animal responsible. He put his season’s previous performances well behind him and kicked on after the second last to sprint clear on the run in. It was an impressive display and it certainly will not be long before he is winning again! Bush Hill Bandit, who, like The Red Boy, appeared to be travelling easily throughout, had no answer to Militaire’s finishing burst, although he did manage to deprive the favourite of second spot. Fine Times, the winner of the corresponding event last year, ran his best race of the current campaign to finish fourth. He may well do better when the ground starts to firm up.

When the sixteen-year-old veteran Algan, the winner of the King George in 1994, slaughtered a Confined field at Horseheath two weeks ago (after a near four year absence from the track) Lord Euro had fallen whilst holding a slender advantage.

The two horses renewed rivalry today, but this time Alex Merriam had decided to adopt different tactics. Instead of running from the front, and assuming the role of sitting duck, he decided to stalk Philip York on Algan and hold Lord Euro up to deliver his challenge at the final fence.

He rode the plan to perfection and, as he drew Lord Euro alongsides when the two horses swept into the home straight a long way ahead of the remaining three runners, it looked as if it would produce the desired result. Philip York, however, had obviously prepared for it and, despite his advancing years, Algan’s readily responded to the challenge and produced an immediate turn of foot to claw the advantage back before the final fence. He pulled further ahead up the run in, although Lord Euro was not messed with once it was obvious that he could not win.

Germany Park, another horse fresh from a Horseheath triumph, was made favourite for the Restricted and tried to repeat his successful front running tactics once again. The sheer effort involved in tugging against such a forceful gale for three miles (and in doing so acting as windbreak for his rivals) proved too much for him and he dropped tamely out of contention over a mile from home. The race unfolded into a match between Morph, ridden by the double seeking Philip York, and Stuart Morris on Archbishop, with the latter proving much the stronger between the last two fences where he helped himself to an unassailable advantage before being allowed to coast home up the run in. Lambrini King battled on doggedly, from a distance behind the front two, to snatch third spot from Germany Park on the line.

The Hunt Race, run in a heavy shower of horizontal rain, had opened the day’s card. Even though only four went to post, it was, for a welcome change, a competitive event, featuring horses of broadly equal ability, and provided suitable entertainment for the large crowd braving the inclement weather. Stablemates Lord Montagu and Stick or Bust shared pacemaking duties with Marciano, the favourite, never far away in third. He was the first to crack though when the race entered its concluding phase, and went from “threatening” to “fading” in a matter of strides. This left the Katie Thory pairing to fight out the finish between them, although Stick or Bust, with a decisive turn of foot three fences from home, had the outcome settled well before the line.

On the long drive home Mrs H and I unopened the crystal glasses that Sabre had won (and had somehow been thrust upon us), We reflected on how good life was. Having never been blessed with an abundance of money, we both felt pangs of self indulgent guilt last year when deciding to take up John Ibbott’s offer to invest in a quarter share of a point to pointer (enough to feel involved, and not too much to be a financial millstone). There were, after all, many other, more “worthwhile” things we could have done with the money, like topping up our hopelessly inadequate pension pots for example.

We felt smugly gratified, yet knew we would have difficulty explaining to others the thrill and excitement of it all. For those not so closely involved in equestrian sport, the bare facts mean little and, in the cold light of day, even question our sanity. “Yeah, you own one leg of a horse that won a little race with a hundred pound prize money and costs you many times that just to keep it. So?”

“So, we have a dream that’s still alive. That’s so. We are a part, albeit a small one, of something with much more meaning than the mere acquisition of material possessions. We have something to escape to.” Is that enough? On the drive home from Cottenham, reliving the events of the day again and again, it certainly felt so.