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19th March 2005
by Richard Hall

There was something in the air making optimism compulsory. It may have been in the two layers of clothing that the ten degree rise in temperature permitted me to dispense with, or possibly, with the vernal equinox just two days away and the sun already reigning higher and longer, it was in the positive change of light and land. More likely, I thought, it was the echoes of past glory. At this meeting last year Tartar Sabre recorded his first (and, to date, only) victory, by a head from Tooley Park. I caught a real sense of déjà vu as I watched him in the parade ring. I remembered the euphoria I had felt twelve months ago, and I yearned for another dosage. On paper it was a closely matched contest. With five of the nine runners all rated within two “pointer form” points of each other, there was no reason to fear any of the opposition. Surely, I felt, there was more than just wishful thinking behind our camp’s optimism; logic too could support our case? Sabre was as fit as he could be, he had the assistance of good to firm going, and he was proven over the course (although he did come wide at the final bend last year). If he could just jump a little bit better than he had done when runner up in his previous races at Higham and High Easter, surely he was the one they all had to beat?.

My fellow punters disagreed. After the typically cautious early market offerings, where the bookies priced the entire field at between 2/1 and 4/1, they had backed Stuart Morris’ mount, Bell Rock, into clear favouritism at 6/4. Sabre was sharing second best at 5/1 and I carefully calculated my stake to return the same amount as I had won last year. Mrs H, the dog, and I, then walked to the same spot on the mound from where we had cheered Sabre to victory three hundred and sixty four days earlier. We are not superstitious people; we just did not want to risk changing the things that had worked so well for us in the past!

I felt that addictive combination of nerves and excitement as the horses circled at the start. Everything was done that could be done. It now only remained for luck, fate, and perhaps a little bit of individual brilliance, to play its part. After what seemed like an eternity the starter finally let them go.

Sabre jumped the first within a melee of horses. On landing one of them stumbled, ejecting his jockey unceremoniously from the saddle. For a millisecond, before I took in the colours, my heart sank like a stone. Thankfully was not Sabre. He was still amongst them, and going well. As they went past the grandstand and on to the first complete circuit, he maintained his position just behind the leaders. At the seventh he made his first noticeable error, which caused him to slip back to fifth position. He is strong and tough, however, and recovered well. With a circuit left to travel he had regained third, behind Esendi and Jupiter George, and was travelling as well as anything and better than most.

At the thirteenth our hopes took another knock. He met it completely wrong and almost came to a standstill. Lucinda (Barrett Nobbs) quickly got him back into his stride and the damage, in race terms at least, was minimised. At the fifteenth he was racing alongside Bell Rock, whom Stuart Morris had bought almost unnoticed out of the pack, just two lengths off the second placed Jupiter George, who appeared to be in the process of throwing in the towel. A further two lengths ahead was Esendi, on whom Joe Diment had decided to quicken the pace.

At the sixteenth Sabre and Bell Rock had passed Jupiter George, although the leader, if anything, had increased his advantage. Much to Stuart Morris’ obvious dismay, Bell Rock took the opportunity to show that jumping errors were not the sole prerogative of Tartar Sabre, and completely threw away any chance he had with a horrendous error. This left Sabre alone in his pursuit of Esendi. Surely he could do it know?. The gap closed as they approached the seventeenth. It was back down to two lengths. Behind them, in third, Jupiter George had found his second wind and seemed to also be closing on the leader. Only two fences remained. We were looking good.

At the eighteenth Sabre had reduced Esendi’s lead to a length and was sitting comfortably on his hind quarters. In accordance with instructions, Lucinda was waiting until after they had entered the home straight before delivering the winning challenge. Jupiter George was now within two lengths, but was being hard ridden by James Owen. I was confident that Sabre had his measure. It was just a question of what, if anything, Mr Diment had saved on the leader.

Sabre met the fence wrong. He got in too close and hit the top. Lucinda stayed on, but the easy momentum had been interrupted. Jupiter George seized the opportunity and passed us. He raced up on Esendi’s outside. Lucinda then had to decide whether to tuck in behind these two around the bend, or to go a long way out and give away more ground in doing so. She wisely chose the former.

In the home straight Sabre had three lengths to make up. He passed Esendi before the last and took off almost within a length of Jupiter George. He stumbled slightly on landing but Lucinda pulled him up quickly and it only cost them half a stride. He looked to have plenty of running still in him and, as we did last year, Mrs H and I watched two sets of backsides disappear into the distance, throwing everything into the drive for the line. We knew we were closing, the commentator had confirmed it, but we could not possibly make out if we had got up or not. “It’s Close” announced Steve Payne over the microphone “I’ll leave that to the judge”.

As we had done on March 20 th 2004, we raced to the grandstand looking for familiar faces to tell us our fate. We found none. We saw Lucinda being led in as the announcement came over the tannoy:. “First number twelve, Jupiter George. Second number twenty two, Tartar Sabre.” This year it was our turn to experience the reverse side of the coin. The margin of separation was an identical head. It may as well have been a mile. We felt no elation, or unbound joy. Whilst we had the consolation of knowing that we had run a good race, and that horse and jockey had both come back safe and sound, there was little to lift the soul. The bookies would not be digging deep into their pockets to pay us out. There would be no trophy or glassware to decorate the mantelpiece, and the space on the wall we had reserved for the photograph of Sabre’s winning connections celebrating his Restricted success would remain, for the time being at least, blank.

As we made our way into the unsaddling enclosure we were met by Peter and Jennifer Smith; Jupiter George’s proud owners. They are a lovely, generous, couple and, although from Northampton, staunch supporters of East Anglian pointing. Peter was beaming from ear to ear. “Fifteen years and eight horses I’ve waited for this moment” he told me. Jennifer was still shaking from the excitement of it all, but the first thing she could say to us was “Sorry”. It was hard not to feel happy for them. I quickly drew consolation from the fact that the winners were more deserving, and readily accepted their invitation to join them in the celebrations. If we had to be second, there was no one else I would rather have been beaten by!

The spoils for the opening Hunt race also found a deserving home with Roy and Sally Green, although the manner of their victory can only generously be described as fortunate. Their horse, Stick or Bust, was never travelling well, and jockey Matt Smith found himself a remote third of three from the word “go” as the outsider, Brave Emir, set a blistering pace. That lead was maintained until just before the final fence when the favourite, I’ve No Say, came with a smooth run to deprive him of it. Stick or Bust was a full twenty lengths adrift, and would probably have been pulled up had there not been £35 prize money for finishing third.

In racing, as in life, miracles sometimes do happen. I’ve No Say jumped the last perfectly (possibly too well) but his owner/rider, Christina Arling, could not stay in the saddle. She hung around the horse’s neck for a few strides, before gravity eventually prevailed and forced her to the ground. Brave Emir; tired, and rolling with it, was gifted a golden opportunity. Jockey Tony Williams looked round to see Stick or Bust still ten lengths adrift. All he had to do was get home. Matt Smith had other ideas. He knew Brave Emir was running on fumes, and that he still had a chance. He began riding Stick or Bust with vigour. The gap closed and, despite Brave Emir living up to his name and giving all he had, it kept getting closer with every stride. At the grandstand they were level. At the post Stick or Bust had somehow managed to get his head in front. I had backed him at 5/4. Surely my luck was in the ascendancy? How could Sabre possibly lose after this?

My luck soon came down to earth with a bump. After viewing the horses in the paddock , I deserted my original selection (Leatherback) in favour of Helmsley Flier, who had good course form and looked fitter than even Kelly Holmes or Kate Moss (lots of tightly toned muscles, and not an ounce of fat).

Helmsley Flier ran well for the first mile, although not in his customary pacemaking role. That position was assumed by Breezy Betsy, whose efforts assured that the time would not be a slow one. As the field raced in Indian file up the straight for the second time, Helmsley Flier dropped back through it. At the thirteenth he was ten lengths adrift. At the fifteenth he was twenty five plus.

Up front, Breezy Betsy had surrendered her advantage to Leatherback. She had run her race and it was only a matter of time before she was pulled up. Leatherback’s turn in the vanguard did not last long, however, as Alex Embiricos on the favourite, Chicago City, confidently eased her way to the front and kicked for home. Three out the advantage was four lengths but Leatherback stuck to his task well in response to James Owen’s urgings, and Alex could not get the race into the bag in the manner that she had hoped.

Race fitness told between the last two fences and as Chicago City, who was making his seasonal debut, began treading water Leatherback underlined the benefits of several previous outings by regaining the initiative. His relentless gallop ensured he reached the last with a two length lead, which he extended to ten by the time he passed the post. Five lengths back in third was Pharbeitfrome, with Helmsley Flier, who finished with a rare rattle and in the manner of a fresh horse, fourth.

The Mens Open saw an impressive display from the evergreen fourteen year old, Jemaro, who was assisted in the saddle by a certain Richard Burton. He set off in determined fashion with the well backed Poitiers and Demasta in hot pursuit. His high cruising speed saw off their challenges by halfway, and it was left to Montpelier to pose the most serious threat. He joined Jemaro at the twelfth, took the lead at the thirteenth, and ran out of steam before the sixteenth. There were no such stamina limitations surrounding the favourite, however. Jemaro simply kept going at the same relentless pace he had set from flagfall, and pulled further and further away from the remainder. He eventually won by a distance in the day’s fastest time of five minutes and fifty seven seconds. Homme de Fer ran through beaten horses to claim the runner up berth, with Montpelier crawling home in third a further twenty lengths away.

Jane Williams made it three wins in East Anglian Ladies Opens this year when her Little Brown Bear, a summer recruit from Richard and Carrie Ford’s National Hunt yard, took the Ladies Open a shade comfortably in a time only a second slower than that of the Men’s race. Previous course winner, Gray Knight, made most of the running and looked capable of posing the biggest threat before his stamina reserves exhausted at the second last. Little Brown Bear, who had been prominent throughout, quickly seized the opportunity and instantly put daylight between himself and the chasing pack. Highland Rose and Find Me Another had a rare battle for second, with the latter, who had to be constantly niggled at a long way from home, just prevailing. This was probably the most competitive race on the card and each of the first four home should all be winning again soon.

Ten went to post for the First Division of the Maiden. Market favouritism was shared between Ballykilthy, who had been second to It’sallinthestars at Higham earlier in the season, and the well backed The Stickler, who had filled a similar position behind Serves You Right at the same course a fortnight ago. One horse dominated the race itself and, fortunately for my pocket, that horse was Ballykilthy. He led from start to finish and, despite surrendering significant ground with an ultra cautious jump at the second last, came home several lengths too the good from the hard ridden The Stickler. One to note for the future was Shot of Jollop who was making his seasonal debut and came from a long way back to finish an eye catching third. He was given a trademark Nibby Bloom “novice ride” and can only come on for the experience.

The bookies thought Division Two would be a similarly unequal contest and installed The Small Farmer as the 4/6 favourite, with Sealed Orders, at 7/1, the next best of the twelve that went to post. The race did not pan to be such a lop sided affair with Robert Abrey’s Epop benefiting from front running tactics and stepping up on last weekend’s fifth to Baron Halebop at Ampton (his only completion in five outings) to make the favourite pull out all the stops on the run in. The winning time was three seconds faster than the First Division, and on this evidence, Epop looks nailed on for a similar contest next time. The one proviso is, of course; that the fitted cheekpieces continue to work their magic!

Sealed Orders was readily held in third when falling spectacularly at the last, and looks as if will struggle to find a race. Two that I think should not have too much difficulty in that quest are Sassparilla and Sam’s Sister. The former was making her racecourse debut and looked an imposing sort in the paddock. She raced prominently for a long way and will come on leaps and bounds. The latter, like Shot Of Jollop in the race before, made smooth headway from a long way back to put herself in contention at the second last. Lack of race fitness bought that progress to a rapid end, however, although she did show resolution in keeping on, albeit at one pace, right to the post.

With racing over I went to find Mrs H. I did not have to look far. She was still with Mr and Mrs Smith and their friends celebrating Jupiter George’s win. I noted that the champagne bottle we had been saving to commemorate Tartar Sabre’s long awaited Restricted success was amongst the empties waiting to be discarded. Knowing that, had the verdict gone the other way, they would have thrown the well stocked larder and drinks cabinet they always transport in the boot of their car open to us, I smiled inwardly at the reminder of one of the reasons why Point to Point is such a great sport. Where else would you find such camaraderie? Where else would you meet such genuine and honest people?

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