by Ian Marshall

The meeting was well attended, both by spectators, and thankfully this year by horses as well. Word had obviously got round that near perfect ground would be produced and that the fences were very fair. A total of 75 runners in the eight races was a dramatic improvement on 2003. Although it was breezy, the sun shone amid some heavy showers and the venue reiterated that it was here to stay. There were no marquees due to the high winds, but alternative arrangements were hastily made and empty horseboxes used in their place, so that the day moved along smoothly after all.

The four-runner Hunt Members race started off matters and went to Ballad, who justified short-priced favouritism. Ballad was in command from three out and comfortably held Crown Rule and Roebucks Way. Special mention should go to San Antonio, an unregistered hunter, and Simon Clement. They came home a long last, but in their own time and not at the point of exhaustion. The course was completed within their capabilities and they embodied the Corinthian spirit of the sport.

The PPORA Restricted was dominated by Yorkshire raiders and saw Black Collar maintain her unbeaten record. Mark Walford brought the five-year-old mare to challenge long-time leader Schoolhouse Walk between the last two fences and she went on to score by two lengths. Black Collar had created a big impression when winning at Charm Park earlier in the month and the second there, Snizort, has won since, while two others have been placed. If appearing in a confined, she will take all the beating, getting all the allowances. Schoolhouse Walk and Guy Brewer only gave second best on the run-in. Benefiting from an aggressive ride, Lord Mantonís gelding reveled in his role at the head of affairs and this was his best performance since taking a maiden at Whitwell-on-the-Hill last year. He seems to enjoy being allowed to dictate. Lord Mantonís other runner, Lights On, ridden by the owner, was eased 12 lengths back in third and consolidated his impressive victory in a Brocklesby Park maiden the previous weekend. Mandate Man under David Thomas was fourth and well held.

Quite a competitive Mens Open produced the most exciting finish of the day. Ramirez and Mashwe were locked in combat all the way up the home straight, took the final fence as one and fought hammer and tong up the run-in. Nick Kent and Steve Charlton asked for everything from their respective mounts and were given everything in return. Neither deserved to lose. The closest of climaxes went to the judge and, after a lengthy deliberation, the verdict went to Ramirez by the shortest of short heads. Two brave horses and two top-class pilots gave the crowd full value for money. Ramirez proved that he was more than able to hold his own in opens, as this was his first attempt, and is an improving animal. In my report of the Brocklesby Park fixture on 13th March, I suggested that Ramirez would be up to taking a restricted, however Nick Kent has kindly clarified that the horseís Market Rasen victory was in a contest classed as a club race, rather than a hunt race, so he was in fact not actually qualified to run in restricteds. Mashwe was pretty forward for her reappearance, having missed the whole of 2003, and it would be no surprise to see her return to winning ways soon. Red Rebel (Rowan Cope) raced prominently, but couldnít quicken in the latter stages, finishing third. In fourth place was Princess Derry (Guy Brewer), who showed up well for a long way.

The well-backed favourite Nokimover under Gemma Hutchinson claimed the scalp of Macfin (Louise Allan) in the Ladies Open. Given an enterprising ride, Nokimover asserted with half a mile to go and was kept up to his work late on to defy Macfin by six lengths. Nokimover had met a real tartar in Supreme Citizen on his previous run at Brocklesby Park. It was no bad effort from Macfin, who had already won two ladies opens this season. He has been revitalised by the application of cheek pieces. There were 17 lengths to Master Adam and Kate Edminson in third. With jumping his strong suit, a small ladies open may be within his scope. Pharlindo and Annabel Armitage were fourth, but have not yet fired on all cylinders in 2004. Bloomfield Storm was always in rear, but barely in touch, and was never traveling before being pulled up by trainer/rider Jill Dawson just after halfway. There was some support in the ring for the partnership that won the race in 2003. All does not seem well with the horse though and, unless problems including dehydration can be sorted out, it may be some time before he is seen again.

The first division of the older horse maiden was taken by the progressive Aunt Gladys under Guy Brewer for trainer Mary Sowersby. It was only the nine-year-oldís third outing and she may be a slow learner, but could make up for lost time. Rakaposhi Raid (Paul Newton) provided the sole competition from the home turn and wasnít the worst hurdler in the world. Man At The Top and Mark Bennison did at least get round for the first time to claim third, albeit well adrift. The favourite Beau Jake (Richard Armson) took a fearsome hold and was a spent force some way out, ending up fourth.

A gamble was landed in the second division of the older horse maiden, when Althrey Dandy received an extremely positive ride from Lenny Hicks. Leading from flag fall, they ran their rivals ragged for an all-the-way success, sauntering home by 15 lengths. Having raced just once under Rules and once before in points, the handsome chestnut has had his fair share of problems, but clearly possesses bags of talent. Not even his only mistake of the race at the last could stop him and, if staying sound, he may follow up. Ridware George was second under Sue Sharatt and has bits of form, interspersed with lesser efforts. Half a length back in third was Earl Token (Richard Armson), who looked a little one-paced, but might manage a maiden. Fourth was Bethin (Paul Newton). Shalabibubbly didnít mount a serious challenge and was quite disappointing.

The younger horse maiden was run over about 2m5f and division one was won by a decent recruit in Sizer. Jockey Niall Saville held the seven-year-old up at the tail of the nine-runner field, before taking closer order on the final circuit and drawing away from the top of the home run. It was a polished display from a horse that was a real tearaway when running out on his debut at Witton Castle in February. Briery Fox (Joe Docker) couldnít be faulted for resolution and Holly Campbell ought to be able to find him a race, even after four consecutive runner-up slots. A clear third was Civil Gent (Guy Brewer), who showed a good attitude having made much of the running. A very moderate juvenile hurdler, he showed aptitude in his first outing in points. Bright Dawn was pulled up prior to the last, leaving Deep Design to take fourth under Chris Dawson.

The second division of the younger horse maiden was the slower of the two and Jethro Tull and Guy Brewer grabbed the plaudits to give the rider a double on the afternoon. Sent off odds-on, Jethro Tull outlasted the badly exposed Tom Tobacco (Rowan Cope) in the home stretch. Jethro Tullís Hornby Castle conqueror High Fields had won a Dalton Park restricted next time. Maxine Stirk will look for a suitable opportunity for Jethro Tull, who is for sale. Callitwatulike (Chris Dawson) was third and Lancastrian Island (Richard Armson) fourth. Both are coming on with experience.