by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent
Photos by Richard Hall

I knew that whatever happened to Tartar Sabre in the Restricted today, I should not expect to reach the emotional heights that I did after his Cottenham victory. Two vital ingredients were missing. The first was that once only, magical moment when dreams transcend the barrier between fantasy and reality, and the second was the difference between hope and expectation. We went into today’s race believing that he would run well. We were no longer speculatively tilting at windmills. We knew we were there on merit, and that our horse had the ability to match our ambitions. On top of that we thought the galloping course would suit him and, although we were not sure how he would handle the downhill fence, we knew that he was fit and raring to go. 

The bookies, however, took a different view. I could hardly believe it when someone told me that he was trading at 14/1 in the early exchanges, and I rushed to take advantage. Others must have backed him too, for he finished up at 5/1, having touched 7/2 for a while. The overly generous opening odds reminded me that life is all about perceptions. Sabre was from a small, unfashionable, yard, and a half brother to two not so good pointers of old who also carried the “Tartar” prefix. On top of that a novice jockey who had yet to demonstrate that she could mix it with the big guns was riding him. Sabre was being judged more on his connections than on anything he lacked in the formbook. I wondered how many winners I had overlooked, and how many short priced losers I had backed in my life, by sharing a similar misguidance? It is a lesson I will take forward with me. 

As he was led onto the track, the horse demonstrated both his well being, and his greenness. He wanted to get going before his handler was ready to release him and, as a result, he pulled and crabbed into the wooden railings on the other side of the course. Fortunately he was not hurt and his jockey, Lucinda Barrett Nobbs, managed to stay on board. I took it as a good omen, having remembered Endeavour doing a similar thing a couple of years back before winning a Men’s Open. 

Sabre’s win at Cottenham has done wonders for Lucinda’s confidence. Today she gave ample illustration of her growth from “wannabe” to “going to be”, and rode him better than I have ever seen her ride anything before. She set off in a prominent position, but when others wanted to go faster she tucked Sabre in behind and, without ever being worse than fifth, she allowed him to run his own race for the first circuit.

As the race began in earnest she, in company with Alex Embiricos on Filou du Bois, moved him up to sit alongside the long term leader, Germany Park. At the seventh fence from home Germany Park fell, leaving Sabre and Filou du Bois a long way clear of the third. The race had become a duel. The two contenders both looked to be travelling well. Our odds had shortened to evens. 

Alex made her move first and went on. As they began the descent downhill in preparation for the long, stamina sapping climb back into the home straight, Lucinda decided it was time to play her hand. She moved Sabre upsides, then she pushed him on. At the dip she had opened up a three length lead. They were going to do it!

They went out of sight as they manoeuvred around the final bend. The commentator said nothing about running wide, and I knew we had negotiated it well. That was one less thing to worry about! Suddenly, however, the commentary was not telling of a horse coming home alone, but of the leader tiring and the second closing. As they came into sight, at the third last fence, there was little in it. Filou du Bois, though, was going noticeably the better. Sabre had hit the wall and had no more to give. The hill had proved too much for him. He clouted the second last a good three or four lengths down. Lucinda picked him up and kept him going for second place. He was ten lengths down at the line, with the third, Magnus Maximus, finishing well to claim third, a further five lengths away.

Alex Embiricos went straight on to saddle Conquistador for jockey Nick Moore in the concluding race of the day, the Maiden. This was run after an hour’s delay that enabled the crowd to listen to the live Grand National commentary broadcast over the tannoy system.  As well as producing the largest field of the day, with sixteen runners, it looked as if it would also produce the easiest winner of the day when Conquistador began the final uphill climb with a lead of thirty lengths plus over his nearest pursuer. Like Sabre before him, however, the hill took its toll on a young, inexperienced, horse. At the third last his lead had diminished to twenty five lengths. He jumped the second last slowly, but still had a ten length advantage over Marciano, who had broken from the pack to give serious chase. Approaching the last he looked like a boxer out on his feet. The gap had reduced to five lengths. Nick Moore virtually got off and lifted him over the final obstacle. The combination emerged from it still three lengths to the good. They pushed and stoked for the line, running purely on adrenalin. By that time, however, Marciano’s stamina had also been exhausted, and even Joe Docker could not coax any more from him. The gutsy Conquistador kept going to record his first victory, and a double for the Embiricos team on the day.

Northall Lad ran on in eye catching fashion to claim third place. After three previous failings to complete, connections were obviously anxious to give the Ra Nova gelding a confidence booster. Paul Cowley did just that, keeping Northall Lad out of trouble at the rear of the field and allowing him to gently run through beaten horses at the end. Four weeks earlier, at the previous meeting, he had threatened to give Germany Park a serious race before coming to grief at the fifth from home when the pair were a long way clear of the third. He was heavily backed on that occasion and, with this sweetener under his belt, he can be expected to soon unleash the potential he has obviously been showing at home.

Polly Gundry made the long excursion into East Anglia to ride The Kings Fling in the Ladies Open, and was made a short priced favourite for it. She gave her mount the perfect ride, moving through the field like a knife through hot butter to sit cosily and menacingly behind pacemakers Macfin and Linlathen, as they emerged from the final downhill charge.

Linlathen fell tamely away up the hill. He was not as fit as the other two, this being his seasonal debut, and he will undoubtedly come on for the run. Since the fitting of cheekpieces Macfin has been a reformed character, and he battled bravely under Louise Allan’s persuasions to keep The Kings Fling at bay as long as he could. As they approached the second last it looked as if he was gallantly fighting a losing battle. Polly Gundry had not moved a muscle, and appeared to be oozing confidence. Between the last two she asked her mount to quicken and claim his rightful prize. There was no response. Macfin’s two length advantage remained and could not be dented. He charged up the run in to record his third victory in Ladies Open’s at the course this year. If coming back for similar events in 2005, this plucky eleven year old should not be overlooked lightly!

Both Gallant Glen and Fane Counsel defected from the Men’s Open, depriving the crowd of what would have been a mouth watering clash between an established star and a highly rated youngster who promises to be an even bigger one. The seven horses that did declare were all rated several pounds below those two, but nevertheless produced a race worthy of the occasion. It went to Bard of Drumcoo, who has shown a liking for the course in the past, and sealed the second Men’s Open in eight days for the Kemp stable, who were successful with Cantarhino at High Easter last weekend.

Bard of Drumcoo was given a magnificent ride by David Kemp. He adopted his customary front running tactics for the first circuit, but dropped back to allow his charge a bit of a breather before bringing him to the front again at the sixth last. Keeping something in hand, he did enough to hold the determined, but one paced, challenge of Bush Hill Bandit, with the disappointing favourite, Grecian Star, a long way detached in third.

The Intermediate field was only seven strong, but it was so open that even the bookies had difficulty separating the first five in the betting, with only Lambrini King and Valman safely discarded.

Jim’s Belief joined the long list of horses that, on the day, had their energy sapped by the final hill. As he approached it he was five lengths clear, but found himself four lengths adrift after the couple of hundred yards it took to reach level ground.

Not for the first time this season, the finish was fought out between the two best jockeys on the East Anglian circuit at present; David Kemp on Madmidge, and James Owen on Persian Hero. Both had waited patiently to deliver their challenges and, this time, David Kemp claimed the honours as his mount sprinted clear to record his third success on the bounce. I suspect that he has not finished improving and will go on to comfortably hold his own in Confined company.

The two disappointments in the race were Archbishop, who had difficulty keeping up with the pace throughout, and Lord Euro, who folded away tamely after leading for just over a circuit.

The Hunt Race that began proceedings was both a farce and an insult to the paying public. The powerful Sporborg yard, who had held three of the seven entries, chose to rely on their stable star, Mister Ringa, who would have been more at home in the Intermediate – for which he would probably have started favourite. He faced two “opponents”, both of who were exposed types rated more than two stone inferior to him.

At 1/5 nobody wanted to back him, and nobody wanted to back against him. Some bookies did not even bother to waste ink by pricing the race up. Minimal amounts were traded, and, as the trio plodded around at their leisure, the race provided as much excitement as watching paint dry on a wet Tuesday afternoon in Yarmouth.

The East Anglian organisers really need to look at the future of Hunt Races. They are not attracting the numbers, let alone the quality, to make them worthwhile. Occasionally they will give opportunities to riders that would not otherwise have them, but, equally as often, they are contested by seasoned “professionals” such as Andrew Braithwaite, Andrew Sansome, Harry Fowler, James Owen, and Christian Ward Thomas. Why not, as someone suggested, replace them with Novice Rider races? When these events are allotted a space, large entries and declarations always seem to follow?

If, as I suspect, the authorities are not brave enough to make that leap from tradition, can they please remove Hunt Races from their customary place at the front of the card and relegate them to the finale? That way those of us who gain no pleasure from watching the equine equivalent of Paula Radcliffe jogging around a track to beat an exhausted Pat Butcher can at least leave early!