by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by David Ruddle

When the declarations for the Men’s Open were announced my first reaction was that of disappointment. It seemed as if the cream of the entries had all absconded, leaving the spoils to be contested by what might loosely be described as “yesterday’s milk”. I had rarely witnessed such a bad line up for what should have been the showpiece race of the day. The outcome, however, reminded me that quality and excitement were two separate, and mutually exclusive, things. 

The Red Boy was installed as the 1/2 favourite. This alone was signal enough for me to leave the race well alone from a betting perspective. On his day, and provided he is not given too hard a time, he can live with the best East Anglia can offer. At other times, though, he has won black belts for conjuring defeat out of should have been certain victory. An example of this occurred as recently as Cottenham’s last meeting, when, on the run in, he surrendered a ten length lead to Shelia McKenzie. It earned his luckless jockey, Andrew Braithwaite, a £150 fine for what the stewards considered to be a pre-emptive impersonation of Kieran Fallon allegedly lining his punting pals pockets! But what could possibly beat him? Only two of his five opponents, Little Worsall and Dunrig, had any form whatsoever, and one had to delve a long way back to find it! Furthermore Dunrig was in the hands of the Turner’s who, prior to today, had only Zoe’s victory on Celtic Duke at Marks Tey a fortnight earlier to show for their many, many runners this season. If ever there was a stable out of form, they were it!

The race was run at a suitably pedestrian pace (it turned out to be one of the slowest of the day). Entering out onto the final circuit, however, the spear carriers had dutifully departed, leaving the principles to act out the finish. They raced along the back straight separated by a couple of cigarette papers. Turning for home Dunrig decided that it was hurting too much and dropped himself off the other two. In the home straight Andrew Braithwaite conjured more from The Red Boy and he quickly established a ten length lead from Little Worsall who was ridden by his owner, Frazer Marshall. Two fences from home it was all over. James Owen, though, decided that he may be able to snatch second place and began, for the first time in their partnership, to get serious on Dunrig. It worked. He got a response. He jumped the last upsides Little Worsall and was clearly going the faster of the two.

Meanwhile, up front, Andrew Braithwaite, still ten lengths ahead but one hundred and fifty pounds mindful of what had happened at Cottenham, kept The Red Boy up to his work. It made no difference. Despite all his urgings, fifty yards from the post the horse decided to slow to little more than a walk. Both Owen and Marshall saw the signs and renewed their efforts. Dunrig got up on the line to beat The Red Boy by half a length, with Little Worsall only a head behind in third.

It was a brilliant piece of riding by James Owen, who might well have had The Red Boy’s Cottenham performance in mind when he first started to stoke up his mount. The result also went some way to vindicate Andrew Braithwaite’s tender handling of the horse at the Cambridgeshire course. Those that have followed The Red Boy’s career closely will know that the horse can “hit a wall” when put under pressure, finding it difficult to take enough oxygen on board to keep going. Whether he is encouraged by carrot or stick it makes no difference. He cannot give what he does not have.

The Turner’s fortunes looked to be continuing on the upward slope in the Ladies Open when the hot favourite, Placid Man, gave Alex Embiricos a nasty fall at the second fence. This left the race wide open for their The Wiley Kalmuck to add to the five successes he had enjoyed in the previous season. He did not have things all his own way, however, as Hay Dance, ably assisted by Lucinda Barrett Nobbs (and owned by this column’s photographer, David Ruddle), ran his best race for three years to make Zoe pull out all the stops. The pair finished a long way ahead of Mai Point in third.

In the very next race, the Countryside Alliance Members, the Turner’s again looked to be the prime beneficiaries of an early fall. This time it was George Cooper and the customarily front running Endeavour who were literally cast in the role of fall guys. By the third fence James Owen and Westfield John, fitted with a pair of blinkers for the first time, found themselves in an uncontested lead of fifteen lengths. Accompanied only by the loose horse, they maintained the advantage for the duration of the three miles and passed the winning line to record the fastest time of the day, and thereby seal a stable treble. For a brief while on the second circuit it looked as if Royal Action may reduce the deficit and give the crowd something to cheer about over the last few fences. His effort petered out tamely in the home straight, however, and he finished a tired horse. He was, nevertheless, a distance clear of Ardnut, on whom Rosina Page won a close battle for third from Gin N Ice and Good Thyne Murphy.

Earlier a faller had also played a key part in the most hotly contested race of the day, the Restricted. This time it was Annie Bowles on No Nay Never who hit the deck. While Annie stayed on the ground to enjoy first aid treatment her mount kept going and, around the bottom bend, pushed out several horses, including Paddy’s Dream (who went through the wings of the next fence) and Bell Rock (who was making a move on the leaders at the time). In the wake of this chaos David Kemp on Madmidge and James Owen on Captive found themselves left with a healthy lead. Bell Rock recovered sufficiently well to join them as they turned out of the back straight, but the leading pair were merely enjoying breathers and, when they kicked on again, the James Tudor ridden horse had nothing left to offer.

A close finish seemed likely when Captive reduced Madmige’s advantage to a mere length as the pair bypassed the dolled off fence, three from home. David Kemp is well practiced at riding from the front, however, and had kept a little bit up his sleeve. He gently touched the accelerator again and Madmidge responded by putting four lengths between himself and Captive at the post.

Hunt races, if keenly contested by novice jockeys from the host hunt, can be the highlight of any card. When, as today, only three horses turn out (two under the same ownership) and all have experienced pilots on board, then the event is seen as little more than an embarrassing reflection on the lack of real commitment within that hunt to point to point racing (other than for the revenue it generates). In today’s event Ballad, ridden by Tony Williams, led all the way to defeat the Martin Ward pair of Castle Road (Harry Fowler) and Wise Advice (Lisa Marriot).

The last race on the card, the Open Maiden, was won in convincing fashion by the favourite, and provided just compensation for both horse and jockey. The horse, No Penalty, won a similar event by a distance at Marks Tey two weeks ago, only to be disqualified for losing his weight cloth a mile from home. The jockey was The Red Boy’s luckless Andrew Braithwaite, who was recording his first winner since a broken collar bone induced a compulsory rest.

The horse clearly has talent, but is one of those coiled springs that lives on their nerves. It took two people to walk him around the paddock (as it did at Marks Tey) and he was on his toes the whole time. By the time he was finally allowed to race he had sweated up quite badly. Needless to say he went off like a train and, because Andrew Braithwaite was able to get a small breather into him a mile or so from home, he finished like one too.

It is at this point I have to admit that I saw little of the race as a whole. At the end of last year I acquired a quarter share in a very green six year old with only one outing under his belt. We gave him an introductory run at Higham’s first meeting of this season, where (we think) he ran a promising third to Star Glow. We really quite fancied him in Division Two of the second Maiden on the “Debacle Day”, but he jumped badly before unseating at the fifth. He ran again today, and, quite honestly, he was the only horse I saw in the race.

Lucinda (Barrett Nobbs) rode him (Tartar Sabre) in a very positive fashion. On the first circuit she managed to maintain a clear second position and keep within four or five lengths of No Penalty. The combination achieved this despite some less than perfect jumping. After completing the first full circuit, “we” failed to handle the bends and slipped back to fifth. Three fences later, though, we had recovered our position and were in the leading group of three, separated by less than two lengths. Everything else had dropped away. We had the race between us.

At that point I really did begin to think the unthinkable (that we could actually beat No Penalty) and felt my stomach knot in excited anticipation. Coming out of the back straight No Penalty had kicked on again, but we were still within three lengths and we had dropped the Turner horse, On The Day.

No Penalty is a good animal though, and he slowly, but surely, extended the gap to twenty lengths on the line. With each stride I felt a sense of anti climax. My short lived dream was not to be, not today anyway. Our fellow, however, still covered himself in credit and finished a long way clear of On The Day, who was the only other horse to complete. 

In the car driving home I felt plenty of “if only’s” (like, for example, he’d jumped better, or he’d handled the bends) but there was also much to like about the way he stuck to his task, and the apparent ease with which he had put himself back into contention. As the trainer reminded me, I must not forget he is still only a novice, and this was his first proper “all out” completion. With schooling and confidence, his jumping can improve. Perhaps a galloping track will suit him better? What he has shown though, is that he does have ability. If the trainer and jockey can keep both his body and soul intact we can look forward to the real possibility of several tomorrows!