by Richard Hall - East Anglian Correspondent

The crowd must have thought they were stuck in a time warp as the leaders made their way to the final fence in the opening Hunt Race. The parallels with last year were there for all to see. In 2003 Treasure Dome, ridden by Alan Coe, overcame a length deficit at the last to outbattle Lucinda Barrett Nobbs on Dancing Ranger. The general consensus of opinion was that the race was won and lost by the jockeys rather than the horses. 

This year Lucinda, now aboard Lambrini King, again held a length advantage approaching the last. Again her closest pursuer was Treasure Dome, for whom, in the absence of Alan Coe, the services of the equally competent Harry Fowler had been engaged. 

If Lucinda had any negative thoughts they did not show. She asked her mount for a big leap and she got it. So too, however, did Harry Fowler. Ominously the gap closed. History looked set to repeat itself. Lucinda, however, had other ideas. She picked up her whip and, in perfect rhythm with her mount’s stride, began riding to the line. Lambrini King responded. Harry Fowler could squeeze nothing more from Treasure Dome. The gap extended again. In those two hundred yards she turned last year’s failure into this year’s success. 

2004 is Lucinda’s third season in the saddle, and this was her first victory. There will doubtless be more to come. The result was also sweet for John Ibbott, Lambrini King’s owner and trainer, and one who embraces the true Corinthian spirit of point to point racing. Not only did it publicly justify his faith in his stable jockey, it also rewarded his perseverance. He spent three years preparing this horse (the one that he personally hunts with) for a return to the track – on it’s last public appearance in 2000 it fell at the first in a steeplechase under Rules, having previously shown absolutely nothing over hurdles! He may be hard pressed to win with Lambrini King in a higher grade, but in today’s performance the previous three years were undoubtedly vindicated.

Lambrini King (photo by David Ruddle)

Richard Hunnisett was another for whom history did not quite repeat itself. His Shanavogh had won on all his previous course outings, and the combination were sent off at odds on to capture the Mens Open. Their task was made considerably easier at the start when Phillip York’s well backed Hatch Gate refused to set off with the rest of the field. Shanavogh soon adopted his customary front running position and after a mile the field appeared to be well strung out. At the seventh fence, however, a new script was introduced when horse and rider parted company. At the same fence Galeaway also fell. This left Gallant Glen a rather fortunate benefactor and jockey Matt Mackley (who was again preferred to Stuart Morris) managed to avoid the loose horses and steer the second favourite to a comfortable fifteen length victory. This was perhaps deserved compensation for last week’s unlucky exit whilst leading at Cottenham! For a while it looked as if Gatchou Mans might make a race of it but he faded badly and only just held Phillip York’s second string, Win The Toss, who came with a strong late run, for second.

There was also one less runner than intended in the Ladies Open. This time, however, punters got their money back. Simon Andrew’s Irish import Ical got loose whilst being led into the parade ring and somehow found itself running round the course, hotly chased by a hunt horse. After a good fifteen minutes she was eventually caught and withdrawn. The race itself went to Tim Bryce’s Placid Man, ridden by Alex Embiricos. Still only a ten year old, this horse earned a rave review from the Racing Post when winning a Grade E Fontwell chase last year (“looks capable of holding his own in much better company than this”) and went off a shade of odds on. Despite a blunder at the first, and an almost constant battle with his jockey (who seemed to want to permanently steady him), the result was never in doubt. He jumped spectacularly, for the most part, and made all the running to win as he liked from Fair Kiowa who, in turn, finished a long way ahead of the third. He promises to improve again and, along with other interesting recruits from National Hunt (such as Dusk Duel, also an ex Nicky Henderson inmate), he will undoubtedly help raise the standards of Ladies Opens this season.

The Red Boy added to his Cottenham victory last week, and became the first horse this season to achieve a double, when impressively taking the Confined. Once again he was ridden up with the pace, as indeed were three of the other four runners! On the first circuit the lead changed hands several times as each, including the recalcitrant Pampered Gale and the enigmatic Endeavour, vied for pole position. The only horse apparently content to be was Alex Embiricos’ Highland Rose who, when pulling up two fences out, gave every impression that she would be better for the race.  

At the start of the second circuit Andrew Braithwaite injected mid race pace and The Red Boy gradually pulled clear. Endeavour was a remote second when depositing George Cooper at the last. This left Royal Action, on whom Paul Chinery had miraculously survived a blunder at the previous fence, a rather fortunate second, and Pampered Gale, the only other finisher, an equally fortuitous third.

The first of the two Maidens saw another ex National Hunt recruit, Esendi, put his experience to good advantage and make short work of the largely unexposed opposition. Always in the first three, Esendi took advantage of Battle Honours’ eighth fence fall and was not headed from that point onwards. What Next, from the Hickman yard, ran a race full of promise to finish second. He was hunted up for the first circuit and picked off stragglers in eye-catching fashion on the second. It will not be long before he is winning. The race was marred, however, by the death of Mistrio, carrying the same colours that were earlier successful on Gallant Glen. He was prominent throughout and was the only one to ever threaten Esendi’s supremacy. He gave his all, and was a tired third when falling fatally at the second last. 

A similar tragedy dampened the second division of the Maiden, when Beat The Retreat broke a rear leg after jumping the third. It was a sombre reminder, if one were needed,  of the price that is sometimes paid for the sport.

The race went to Jacob’s Choice. He was ridden and trained by Phillip York, who seems to be making a habit of successfully introducing five year old debutantes at the course. Held up a long way off the pace on the first circuit, he quickly made up ground on the second and hit the front a mile from home. By then most of the others had played their hands, and he stayed on gamely for a ten length victory. I suspect that time will show this to be an above average Maiden, and I noted several possible future winners. George Cooper’s Another Leader, big and imposing in the paddock, ran prominently for a long way and kept on gamely for third. He will perhaps be better going right handed on a more galloping track such as Horseheath. Ruth Hayter’s Brookfield Bass, after being tapped for mid race pace, ran on determinedly after the winner had flown to claim second. Abbey Days, representing the Turner yard, was not fully wound up but raced prominently on the bridle until tiring three out, and Paul Chinery’s Sharp Sarah suggested there was better to come from this gentle introduction.

The Intermediate cut up and only five of the twelve entries went to post. Most were in need of the race, and Star Glow easily justified long odds on favouritism to give Phillip York the only double of the day. He led from pillar to post, with Fine and Dandy fifteen lengths second and Tartar Sabre, the only other finisher, a distance behind in third.

Star Glow (photo by David Ruddle)

The Restricted concluded the day’s racing and saw course specialist Paddy’s Dream, under a bold ride from Nick Moore, attempt to take the race by the scruff of the neck a mile from home. He raced through the field to snatch the lead from Josh’s Choice (who surrendered tamely from that point) and Great Jubilee, Stuart Robinson’s ex Martin Pipe inmate, and raider from south of the river. Initially the initiative looked to have worked, as a three length gap was established. Four from home, however, Great Jubilee had worked himself smoothly back into contention. He joined Paddy’s Dream again at the next fence. After taking the second last he established a one length lead, which, despite Nick Moore’s best endeavours, he maintained, rather cosily, all the way to the line. A lightly raced six year old he justified the programme’s prophecy of “sure to win again”. I am equally sure that the remark can be carried forward to his next race!

As I have grown accustomed to at point to points, I went home thoroughly satisfied with the way I had chosen to spend the day. Despite the sadness of the two deaths, there were many positives to take home. Justice had been done in the Hunt Race – it had been won by a bone fide hunt member and not a “hired gun” – and there had been impressive ptp debuts from Placid Man and Jacob’s Choice. The Red Boy had suggested through the manner of his victory that he could be the season’s big improver, and may well prove himself up to Open company. The bookmakers too added to the friendliness of the day, and did not rip people off with a disproportionate Rule 4 deduction following Ical’s withdrawal from the Ladies Open. Even though they could have exaggerated it, they only claimed the minimum 5p in the pound. They even called me back to take my change when I absent mindedly walked away without it!

Before closing, however, I feel a compulsion to ask them how, in the days of Betfair and 100% books, they can justify betting at nearly 200%? Before they argue that they don’t have to justify it, can I point out that the future of the sport depends on people continuing to pay at the gate to get in. Being ripped off to such an extent is hardly an encouragement to do so.

I admit that on most occasions books are set at the broadly acceptable 130% over-round. In one of the Maiden races today, however, as well as one at Cottenham last week and at numerous times last year, it was above 180%. This is almost at the extortion level, and I can see no justification for it. Perhaps a bookmaker will be bold enough to enter the Internet Discussion Forums and explain?