Kingston Blount was bathed in sunshine for its third meeting of the year last weekend – in sharp contrast to the wet, muddy conditions on the opening two race days – and a near-record attendance enjoyed picnics, barbecues and seven competitive contents with no fallers. Clerk of the Course Stewart Nash and his team had been watering since Thursday to ensure the going didn't become too firm, and their efforts resulted in an official description of Good, Good to Firm in places and a fair turnout of 51 runners from the 116 entries.
Star of the show, as she has been so often this season and last, was Christopher and Fran Marriott's marvellous mare Dabinett Moon, who chalked up her fifth win in a row in the JRL Group Ladies Open. Held up early by Claire Hart, the eight-year-old moved into second behind Gina Andrews at the bottom of Crowell Knoll on the first circuit and – always jumping well, joined the leader five out before easing clear at the next. Start Royal made an attempt to close three out, but was always second best and a mistake at the penultimate sealed his fate. Dabinett Moon eventually won by fifteen lengths – ten times her winning margin over Start Royal in their last contest at Whitfield, with West Cork Flash a never dangerous third.
"She's amazing, just amazing," gushed Christopher of Dabinett Moon. "Gina set out to make it a test of stamina but our mare is awesome. She switches off during the first circuit, closes the gap, then says 'time to go'." Fran concurred. "She's just getting better and better," said her trainer. "She's not eligible for Hunter Chases this season, but we'll keep her going as long as Claire has a chance of winning the Lady Riders title. We'll probably come back here for the next meeting." As many readers will know, Dabinett Moon is a descendent of the Marriotts' foundation mare Windfall, and the good news is there are more to come. "Dabinett Moon's half sister Apple Days had a filly foal by Passing Glance on Monday," confirmed Fran. "And we're looking for a name," laughed Christopher. "Maybe someone has a good idea – as long as it's something to do with apples!"
Title-chasing Claire Hart initiated a double, leaving her three behind leader Gina Andrews, on another mare – Kazuri Kate – in the West Berkshire Racing Club Conditions Race, but was made to work a lot harder for this success. On Your Max, Tulsa and Total Rebellion set a fast pace, which the eight-year-old struggled to follow. When Phil York kicked clear on On Your Max after the final open ditch, with Tulsa in pursuit, Kazuri Kate looked booked for a place at best. However as the leaders tired, the mare closed, and untidy jumps at the final two fences took the wind out of On Your Max. Despite being hampered at the last, Kazuri Kate won by two lengths, with Tulsa a further two back in third.
Kazuri Kate is also trained by Claire Hart and owned jointly by her uncle Simon and Janet and Robert Bartlett. "That's her sixth win for us," said Janet – who has owned many horses over the years, including Furimist, who was Simon's first winner as a rider! "She gets behind and hits a flat spot, but just keeps coming. She's incredible." Simon concurred. "She just gets into a rhythm and stays forever. I'd love her to be able to live up with the pace, because waiting until the last is quite frightening!" The decision to come here was last minute, as the mare's co-owners confirmed. "We were going to go to Garthorpe tomorrow, but thought the ground would be better here." Kazuri Kate, who has had a light season – having picked up a bug after winning at Barbury and being off for ten weeks as a result – will keep on the go in aid of Claire's title challenge and may go to Chaddesley Corbett next.
"She really needs a race that lasts six and a half minutes and softer ground, but she's really gutsy and I'm delighted with her," was trainer-rider Claire Hart's assessment of Kazuri Kate, but Claire saved the truly lavish praise for Dabinett Moon. "What else is there to say about her? I think she's unbeatable. Start Royal (a 24-time winner) is an absolute machine, but she's just… wow!" She's got such a huge turn of foot and so many gears." It was Claire's 19th winner of the season, but she was cautious about her title chances. "I'll keep trying as far as I can and will hopefully finish runner-up at least, but the horses come first – don't forget I train them as well!"
The betting suggested that the Transaction Mens Open Race, run over the shorter distance of two miles five furlongs, would go the way of Alan Hill's Consigliere, and the consistent 13-year-old looked to be in command under trainer's son Joe for most of the race. Prominent early along with Phil York on Broughton's Bandit and David Mansell on Swallows Delight, Consigliere led from the fourth to the eighth then again after the final ditch, but – not helped by a couple of untidy jumps – could not shake off his pursuers and Swallows Delight pounced to lead at the last, before going away to win by three lengths with Broughtons Bandit ten back in third.
Swallows Delight may be 11, but it was only his third win, for reasons which owner Adrian Sparey was quick to explain. "He's not a three-miler, so we run him in short distance Hunter Chases. He's been to Cheltenham every year since 2012, to Aintree twice, and is always there or thereabouts – and he only cost 1,000 from Ascot Sales. He loves this track," continued Adrian. "He won his Restricted here. (Trainer and jockey's wife) Julie said he was fit and well and two and a half mile points are perfect for him. We'll see how he comes out of this, but may go for the two-miler at Stratford."
"I thought he'd have a chance," smiled winning rider David Mansell afterwards. "The favourite had a hard race last time and I knew the ground would suit mine. He can cope with soft ground in points, but wants better going." David had his own explanation for Swallows Delight's strike-rate. "He runs at places like Cheltenham and Aintree, but is just below that class. The Handicap Hunter Chase at Newton Abbot, which he won in 2014, was ideal for him." David laughed again when I asked how his season is going. "Dreadful! I've only had three winners." Those three are the latest in a career total of, "I don't know – it's getting on, about 180 I think" but the 52-year-old has no plans to hang up his saddle. "Why should I? I've only just got the hang of the job!" was his parting comment.
Local trainer Alan Hill rarely makes the short distance home from Kingston Blount without a winner, but today was one such day. Second with Start Royal and Consigliere, he was second again in the closing Richardsons Accountants Members race, his "big plan" for Olympic gold-medal cyclist Victoria Pendleton to ride her first winner between the flags on According To Sarah being foiled by his own son! Joe Hill was a late booking for Tim Underwood's Tempelpirate, the leading horse of 2014 with nine consecutive wins, but off since then. According To Sarah was taken into the lead at the fourth, but the odds-on favourite was always tracking her, jumped to the front at the final ditch and soon went clear, winning easily by 15 lengths. Dunara Castle got the better of a close battle with Lucky To Be Alive for third.
"He touched up a leg when winning at Upper Sapey," victorious owner-trainer Tim Underwood told me about the nine-year-old's long absence. According to Tim, the horse has only been "He was only 75% fit today, but he only needed to be! He's only been in work for a month." Tim himself, at 68 years young, was due to ride Tempelpirate today – "I jumped ten fences at Peper Harow last week" he confirmed, but is sidelined again, this time due to a shoulder muscle injury. So will we see him in the saddle this year? "Hopefully," came the response, and he was equally guarded about plans for Tempelpirate. "I don't know. We'll see what he's like tomorrow," was all Tim would say.
It was winning jockey Joe Hill's 14th win of the season, but his first for a trainer other than his father Alan. "It's good of Tim to let me ride him – he only called late this morning," confirmed Joe. "I'm so busy at home that I don't have time to ride out for other trainers." The rider was keen to point out that his sister Gaby won a match for this race seven years ago at the age of 16, beating a 61-year-old Tim – nice symmetry! He is happy with his season so far, having missed four winners due to a broken collarbone, and the plan now is to match last season's total of 16, which would see him pass the 50 mark between the flags.
The opening Restricted, sponsored by The French Horn at Sonning, went the way of 16-1 outsider Emgee, trained by Andrew Campbell. Settled in mid-division behind early pace-setters Deise Vu, Torran Na Dtonn and Why Lie, Shane Quinlan moved the seven-year-old Sandmason gelding into second behind Torran Na Dtonn three out, then quickened round the final bend to lead at the last and score by two lengths, with long-time leader Why Lie ten lengths third.
Despite his starting price, Emgee – who won his Maiden in similar style at Lockinge – was fancied by his trainer. "We ran him at Cheltenham but the day got to him. He beat two good horses at Lockinge and ran well before that when third here. We've had so many issues with him," continued Andrew, "But he'd be a really good staying chaser. He's for sale, but we won't give him away, and we'd like him to stay in the yard." Andrew still has plenty of ammunition among his young horses at his Condicote yard, with "another five" ready to run between now and the end of the season.
Emgee was a first pointing completion, let alone winner, for Shane Quinlan, who only reverted to amateur status two weeks ago, having ridden nine winners as a conditional – mostly for David Dennis and Neil Mulholland. "I came over two years ago," said Shane, 21 from Glanwood near Cork. "I decided to take out an amateur licence again because I need more experience and want to get schooling and meet people," he admitted. "I had three rides over the Bank Holiday weekend and schooled for Andrew on Thursday. I reckon I'll do another season in points."
Merrydown Vintage won the Restricted on this card last year and his first visit since resulted in a repeat victory, this time in the Cub Cadet Intermediate. The nine-year-old was always prominent, took over the lead from Royal Benifet at the seventh and went clear after the final ditch. Velvet Royale looked to be going well in behind, but had nothing left as Phil York quickened the pace and – despite making a mess of the second last – he kept the partnership intact to score from ten lengths from Velvet Royale, who held off Rise To It to get second by a neck.
"The horse needs a good galloping track," confirmed his owner-trainer, Ray Fielder. "He's genuine, he always gives his best and he continues to improve. He struggles if the ground isn't fast and it's no good if he can't start racing until April!" Ray – who hopes to get two more runs into Merrydown Vintage this year, including a potential return here for the Hunt Members race at the next meeting – has had a permit to train under National Hunt rules before and confessed, "That idea's in the back of my mind. He's my only horse in training now – I'm getting too old!" laughed Ray, whose good horses in the past have included Lillie Lou and Tidal Reef.
It was a 298th career victory between the flags for winning jockey Phil York and he admitted he'd be disappointed if he didn't reach the milestone of 300 this season. "I hope so," he said when asked about hitting that target. "We've got quite a few still to run." Phil, who turns 50 on Friday but has "No plans to celebrate", joked about a Racing Post article last week that knocked ten years off his age. "God, I feel ten years younger," he smiled. "I rode three winners last weekend.
The Event Rider Masters Maiden for younger horses didn't look the strongest event of its type on paper and went to a joint-favourite who had pulled up on her last four outings, in the form of David Kemp's Nandini – a third winning mare on the card. Well-handled by Rupert Stearn, paying his first visit to the course, the six-year-old led from flagfall and made virtually all before holding off the late challenge of fellow mare Annie Jordan by a length with another joint-favourite, Ober Water, making late progress for a never dangerous third.
David Kemp, saddling his tenth winner of the year, was keen to talk up Nandini. "She's not temperamental," he said of her uninspiring form figures. "But she's a mare, and it's probably hormonal. If she has bad experiences when she's in season, it plays on her mind. She's a fantastic workhorse and a great jumper, with tons of ability and this may get her back on track. She wants decent ground and we may have another go with her." It was the first winner of the season for owner Barry Belchem, who also has Horse & Hound Cup winner Moroman – sadly out for the season – with David. "Ten years – I'm a glutton for punishment!" was Barry's answer to my question of how long he's had horses with the Kemps. "Too long!" interjected David. "I was beginning to think I wouldn't have a winner this season," laughed Barry – who currently has four in training at the Thetford yard and whose other good horses over the years include Firmount Beech and Took My Eye.
Successful pilot Rupert Stearn, who normally rides for Ed Turner and his father Simon – and is best known for his association with George Cooper's Foulston's Ruler – explained how he came by the mount. "I rode Blue Benny for David at Horseheath, so came here to ride him again. David said 'You may as well sit on the mare' and there was no expectation." So was the front-running role planned? "I wasn't told to make it," admitted Rupert. "We just popped out, jumped the first and got an easy lead. It was a fifth winner of the season for Rupert, who has been race-riding since 2001 and whose career tally stands at, "Heading towards 90 – I'd like to know myself!" (I checked, Rupert – it's 83).