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13th February 2005
by Richard Hall

Country lanes. Ploughed fields. Pubs with names like The Slaughtered Lamb where generations of local farmers and dormitory townies come together for renditions of Duelling Banjos. Low flying aircraft, laden with the Stansted cargo of commercial travellers, silently suspended in the darkening sky. The staccato of hailstones thumping onto car roofs and bonnets. Harsh, icy winds that slash, like razors, through flesh and inadequate clothing. An exposed wilderness, without warmth or shelter. Welcome to High Easter on a Sunday in February. A location strictly for diehards, Eskimos, and downright nutters!

There was a new pressure on Tartar Sabre today; that of expectation. Since his last run, a promising third to Lord Euro in an Intermediate, people had begun to take notice of him. “Improving” was the word most often used. The Pub Team, in their preview of the Restricted on the pointingea website, gave him as their first alternative to Round The Isles, the representative from the powerful Caroline Bailey stable. James Crispe, writing for the regional newspaper had gone one better, giving him as his outright selection. Failure would no longer go unnoticed, or written off as “expected”. He was considered to be a serious contender now.

The ground was softer than we would have liked, particularly at the bottom end of the course which, by “our” race (the sixth on the card) was positively heavy. Times had been slow too, with only the Ladies Open breaking the seven minute barrier. Sabre had not raced on anything worse than good to soft and we were not sure how he would cope. It was another learning experience we had to go through.

The two perpetual front runners in the eleven strong field, Federal Case and Sealed Orders, ignored the pattern of “crawling for the first circuit” that had been set in all the proceeding contests. They went a good clip from the word go. By the fourth fence they were twenty lengths clear of the slow starting Tartar Sabre, who, in company with Jupiter George, headed the chasing pack.

By the ninth fence their lead had been reduced to a couple of lengths. Sitting cosily behind them in third, Lucinda (Barrett Nobbs) asked Sabre to steady and take an extra stride as they approached the obstacle. Sabre ignored her and took off from outside the wings. He hit the fence and pitched on landing. Lucinda was thrown forward to neck level. Fortunately she kept her feet in the stirrups and was able to reposition herself within a few strides. The mistake, though, had cost them several lengths. Going out onto the final circuit Jupiter George had regained third, closely followed by Round The Isles, who had been eased into closer contention by Rowan Cope. Sabre held fifth position, with a noticeable gap back to the remaining runners.

Sealed Orders was the first of the leading quintet to tire and fall away, closely followed by Jupiter George, who could not quicken in the ground and was eventually allowed to pull up. At the thirteenth fence had an advantage of just under two lengths, but, behind him, both Tartar Sabre and Round The Isles looked to be travelling well. The remainder, headed by Ical and Hi Tech Man, were a good ten lengths behind and looked to be labouring.

As he did at Horseheath the previous week, Federal Case fell four fences from home. This left Round the Isles and Tartar Sabre clear. Barring falls, the winner’s and runner’s up spots were guaranteed. Only the key question of who would fill which slot still remained.

Rowan Cope kicked on. Hoping for a tow up the hill from the back straight,. Lucinda was content to tuck in behind. Rounding the bend on the inside track she was forced to snatch Sabre back as the leader moved sharply over to deny her that berth. Sensing the interruption to his opponent’s rhythm, Mr Cope asked the favourite to quicken. The response was immediate and, at the second last, Round The Isles had pinched a five length lead. Sensing that the chance of victory had gone, Lucinda rode Sabre home with hands and heels. There was no sense in giving him an unduly hard finish, just so that she could reduce the losing deficit. With the third horse, the hard ridden Hi Tech Man, comfortably held, it was far better that Lucinda kept him right, mentally and physically, for another day. It was no disgrace. The winning time, at seven minutes five seconds, was, I think, the second fastest of the day.

Run Monty eventually claimed the third spot, a distance behind Sabre. He was the only other finisher. Hi Tech Man, who had looked destined for that slot, took a crashing fall at the last. He was so exhausted that he stayed on the ground, recovering, for a full five minutes after the race was over. Eventually, and to the relief of the gathering crowd, he allowed those in attendance to winch him back to his feet.

“Our” Restricted may have taken on an added dimension had Eurogaedel’s connections chosen to run him in that, rather than the opening, four runner, Hunt Race. With his long term interests in mind they probably made the right decision as the six year old, a green winner of his only previous start at Ampton last year, was allowed to go a comfortable pace before asserting on the final circuit and easily pulling a distance clear of last year’s winner Glenalla Braes.

The younger hose Maiden will probably turn out to be seen as a “hot” race. The winner; Pampered Lad, who was owned, trained and ridden by Andrew Pennock, showed real battling qualities to get back up on the run in after being overhauled at the second last fence. It was a considerable improvement on his seasonal debut at Higham when a distant, and lucky, third to Joves Shadow. At the tender age of six, it already looks as if he will be best suited by a test of stamina. That is not something that could be said of the runner up, Alfie Moon, who was given a trademark peach of a ride by Nibby Bloom. He was bought with a sweet run from four fences out, took it up just before the second last, and appeared to be travelling well until running out of juice just before the last. He nevertheless showed a good attitude to respond to Nibby’s urgings on the run in and will surely find a race soon. Although his form is steadily progressive he must have been showing something at home for quite a while as he has been punted on every time he has run!

It was the third, Rakatia, though, who will probably have the brightest future. I cannot remember ever seeing such a promising performance from a horse so tenderly ridden. He was put out at the back on the first circuit, gently asked to close on the leaders at the start of the second (which he did with apparent ease), allowed again to settle at the rear as the leaders kicked on, and not touched once with the stick (or even squeezed and asked for an effort) as he again showed clinical efficiency in picking off tired rivals from four fences out. He finished full of running and left me with the distinct impression that, had the race been a furlong or two longer, he would have won it without even noticing he had been in it!

The older horse Maiden mysteriously went off without the favourite, Cosmic Sky, who somehow went missing between leaving the paddock and (not) arriving at the start. His withdrawal appeared to leave the race at the mercy of market rival, Eva’s Songbird, but he did nothing to halt Tory Hayter’s losing run and looked very one paced in third. Nibby Bloom again rode a gem of a race, this time on Manhatton Storm (who seems to save his best for High Easter) but, as with Alfie Moon, he had to settle for the bridesmaid slot, this time behind Abbey Day’s who broke the Turner stable’s duck for the season. Abbey Days had been given a pipeopener at Horseheath the previous week, where he raced far too freely, and was ridden with considerably more restraint on this occasion. Always within striking distance on the second circuit, and looking to be travelling better than anything a good five fences from the finish, James Owen saved his telling challenge until just before the last. I know the horse has been quite highly of thought but, for the last couple of years, was prone to little niggles that kept him off the track. As Turner horses usually show improvement in their maiden season, it may well pay to keep on his right side if, and when, he appears again.

David Kemp, James Owen’s great rival in last year’s regional jockey championship; rode an equally cool race on Madmidge in the Men’ Open to collar the long time leader, Minino (who, under Alex Merriam’s guidance, had shown non of the recalcitrance that had peppered previous performances) on the run between the final two fences. Virtually put to sleep for the first couple of miles, Madmidge showed a good attitude, and not a little acceleration and stamina, to win with a little bit more in hand than the official margin may indicate. This represented yet another successful step up in class for the comparatively cheaply bought, and syndicate owned, horse who had begun 2004 by finishing out of the frame in a Higham maiden. It also suggested that the owners may now be justified in letting him take on Hunter Chase company. Indeed, what started off as an optimistic dream may soon become reality for the Next Stop Cheltenham Partnership!

The Ladies Open looked one of the most competitive races on the card, yet produced the day’s easiest winner in Caroline Holliday’s Heracles (an acquisition from R.H Buckler’s National Hunt yard) Held up in the rear during the early stages, whilst others (notably Montpelier, another Alex Embiricos inmate formerly under Nicky Henderson’s charge) fought for the lead, Heracles made smooth progress to take charge four out and came home, almost a fresh horse, a long way clear of other ex chasers in Stromness and Pride of Kashmir, who finished second and third respectively. Storm Castle, who had won this race in the previous two years, finished fourth and gave the impression that he will strip fitter next time out.

Heracles looks to be a pointing star in the making, and is yet another strong addition to the Ladies circuit. These events, not so long ago arguably the weakest contests on the East Anglian cards, now seem to be the strongest – thanks no doubt to significant sums of money spent at various “Horses in Training” Sales.

The concluding race of the day for those brave enough to see it out (by then the Eskimos had all gone, leaving only the diehards and nutters left) was the P.P.O.R.A. Club Members Moderate Race (will this start a new trend, e.g. Dreadful Maiden Races, Ropey Restricteds?).The winner, Yeoman Sailor, looked far from that adjective, however, as he sprinted clear in the final mile under the care of Neil Harris. The grey son of Roselier did appear to tire a bit in the final two hundred yards, however, which allowed the rallying Lord Ken to get within five lengths at the post.

Yeoman Sailor was twice successful for Mark Pitman in 2000, and twice placed in two outings in 2001. He did not see a racecourse after that and something plainly must have gone wrong with him. There was little evidence of “damaged goods” about his performance today, though, and, even at eleven years of age, he must be earmarked for a few more visits to the winner’s enclosure.

Much as Mrs H and I enjoy our pointing, we could not get back to the car fast enough. We turned the engine on to warm up the heating, and clasped our hands around cups of hot liquid poured from the Thermos as we waited for it to take effect. Only when we sensed feeling returning to our fingers did we dare put the coffee down. Leaving our jumpers on, we said goodbye to the arctic and the narrow country lanes, and headed for the A120. Never before had the Stansted service station seemed so attractive!

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