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Saturday 7th May 2005
by Richard Hall

This was Yarmouth sea front at the end of September. A few hardy pensioners in raincoats hobbling down windswept streets where, only a few weeks earlier, the beautiful people had once paraded in sun drenched tee shirts. Every other amusement arcade and kiss me quick tat shop is boarded up for the winter. A few hardy traders remain, desperately hoping for a last minute rush to turn their fortunes around. They stare down the promenade looking wistfully for coach loads of tourists that they know will never come. The season is over. All that remain are for the last rites to be formally read, and then everyone can pack up and go home.

The mood was accentuated by the dearth of runners. The ground staff, having anticipated showers, did not water, and firm going prevailed. Friday night’s downpour was too little too late, and the only bearing it had on proceedings was to make slippery patches on the bends. The East Anglian year would end not with a bang but a whimper. The wake, it was announced, would be at Huntingdon racecourse this coming Tuesday, where four Hunter Chases would bid a fond farewell.

Looking over the lush green landscape, housed within an ever-changing sky of both bright blue and deep grey, the announcer interrupted the well-worn broadcast about the demise of hunting under a Labour government to give the Hunt Race runners. There would be only one; Jim’s Belief. At two o’clock precisely he cantered gently from the parade ring to just beyond the final fence. On the given signal he turned and came back again. The Jockey Club rules having been obeyed, connections were then able to claim the prize money and have their picture taken with the accompanying trophies. No doubt it was something they will treasure for many years to come! No doubt too, that the thin crowd also believed it to be well worth a sixth of their entrance fee and travelling expenses?

Half an hour later than scheduled, racing proper got under way with a four runner Confined. James Owen on Runningwiththemoon increased the pedestrian tempo five fences from home and, by the third last, had taken a good five lengths out of Baron Bernard, his closest pursuer. Although the runner up gave his all, and did actually manage to reduce the deficit to three lengths at the post, the outcome was never really in doubt and, as David Kemp had no rides at the meeting, it sealed the East Anglian Jockeys Championship for James Owen. Fittingly, a close personal friend of his, Kelly Smith, was responsible for training the winner for the diminutive East Anglian legend; Ray Newby. There were no third and fourth placed horses as Magic Lodge slipped on the last bend and bought down Table For Four in the process. Fortunately everybody involved suffered only superficial damage.

Four was again the magic number of runners to contest the next race on the card; the Ladies Open, although only one of them, Pampered Gale, came from within the region. They all held chances at the second last, but it was the Fernie raider, Linlathen, who got first run and made it tell. Despite showing obvious signs of tiring, Gemma Hutchinson’s fifteen year old still ran out two lengths to the good of Storm Castle and Lucky Master.

Having quickly recovered from his exertions earlier in the day, Jim’s Belief turned out again for the five runner Mens Open, for which he was installed the 4/7 favourite. Under James Owen’s masterful hands he led the field at a married man’s pace before engaging a different gear and kicking for home at the same point Runningwiththemoon had done an hour or so earlier. Initially it looked as if the result too would be similar. A two length gap readily appeared and the opposition looked to be coming off the bridle. It was not to be, however, and, rounding the top bend, Jim’s Belief and James Owen became the third day’s victim of the slippery underfoot conditions. Their departure left the way open for another Fernie raider, The Vintage Dancer, ridden by his owner, Greg Kerr, to make the long road journey home seem a lot more worthwhile. He gratefully saw off the challenge of Silver Lake, with Patrick Millington’s Valman the only other finisher in third.

As another shower threatened, I took refuge in the car. I had an ulterior motive too. I switched on the radio and managed to pick up the faint strains of Radio Norfolk. Norwich had taken the lead against Birmingham to keep up their hopes of beating the drop. Four weeks ago, and six points adrift at the bottom, they looked dead and buried. Could this be the greatest escape of all? I quickly retuned to Radio Five. Fellow strugglers Palace and Southampton were drawing. Brilliant, the best result possible, and, unless West Brom could beat Man Utd later in the day, it would leave Norwich’s destiny in their own hands next Sunday when the final fixtures would be simultaneously played. I refrained, however, from premature celebration. It was only half time and plenty could still happen. Norwich have a long history of trying to sit on slim leads and getting stuffed in the final minutes of a game. It was far from over.

Five turned out for the Restricted, and with recent Higham winner, The Stickler, at an unbackable 1/3 hopes were not high for an exciting contest. As with Norwich four weeks earlier, however, odds are not necessarily a guaranteed reflection of performance. Although The Stickler came smoothly to win his race at the twelfth, depriving the long term pacemaker, Stick or Bust, of his duties, he did not succeed in shaking off the threat. As they approached the last his lead over that horse was only a length and, adding to the sustained unpredictability, Run Monty had responded to Matt Macklay’s urgings and sat within a half length of the second.

When the three horses landed after successfully negotiating the final obstacle, it was impossible to call the winner. The Stickler had slightly less far to travel, but the other two appeared to have the greater momentum. I watched as three sets of backsides raced up the hill to the post, whips flaying in search of that one telling effort. Nobody not on the line itself could have known the verdict before the judge, after a long delay, announced that Stick or Bust had got up by a neck to collar the favourite. Run Monty was only a head away in third. A great race, and a great, if unexpected, success for owners Roy and Sally Green who would surely qualify for an “East Anglian Supporters of the Year” award if one were to be given.

Having invested my fiver on Run Monty, I raced back to the car to catch the final minutes of the football. Norwich were not playing well and their goal was under ferocious and sustained attack. I feared the worst. It had happened so many times before. Any minute now Birmingham would equalise. News came through that Palace had taken the lead against Southampton. It was not good. If that score remained we would have to rely on them losing at Charlton next week to stand any chance of survival, regardless of what Birmingham did. The minutes ticked away without incident, then the seconds. Dean Ashton ran the ball into the corner. The referee blew the final whistle. Norwich had won. At least they had left themselves with a chance! I switched over to Radio Five. Palace still led Southampton 2-1. The commentator said that there was five minutes remaining. Not wanting to depress myself, I decided to devote my full attention to the day’s one remaining race.

A Maiden had been chosen to bring the final curtain down on the East Anglian year, for which the day’s biggest field of nine had been assembled. Although I wanted to bet, they were a motley crew and I had real difficulty in penetrating the scrabble tiles masquerading as form to make a selection. In the end I opted for Cosmic Sky. Although he had run far too freely and been pulled up on his previous three outings, he did have some form; notably when falling at the last when a clear leader in Joves Shadow’s Maiden at Higham in the early weeks of the season. At 5/1 I thought he offered better value than the disappointing Alfie Moon, who had again been punted into favouritism at 2/1, or the market’s second best, Mr Millington’s Pernickity King at 3/1.

True to form, Cosmic Sky went off into a clear lead early on. Not many horses dictate through every yard of Marks Tey’s stiff three miles two furlongs (No Penalty excepted) and my hopes were not high. When both the market leaders joined him at the thirteenth, I saw the writing on the wall. As they emerged from behind the bushes though, he had regained the advantage and my hopes were rejuvenated. Perhaps, this time, he had saved something for the finish? Four out he was two lengths clear. Nibby Bloom was sitting pretty on Alfie Moon in second though, and looked a real threat. I was expecting a trademark Bloom challenge between the last two to jump into the lead at the last and win going away. Despite his age, he is an absolute master at kidding a reluctant horse home.

Not this time though. Rupert Stern asked Cosmic Sky for a little bit more before the second last and, in the space of seconds, his race was won. Not even Nibby Bloom could counter that, and his mount finished a very long, but official, ten lengths behind. As Pernickity King had fallen when well beaten in third, it was an even longer distance to the next horse home; Penawel. For the first time ever, my season had ended with a winning bet!

From there on the good news continued. Danny Higginbotham scored for Southampton in the dying minutes to ensure that both they and Palace took away only a point each from the fixture. On the journey home I listened to West Brom gain only an undeserved point against Man Utd. Norwich now are masters of their own destiny; living proof of the old cliché; “Never Give Up.”

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