A MAN FROM MARS LANDS IN DEVON

Forty years ago pointing was a more regional sport, and more local within regions. True, things were changing: hunts could now stage both a mens’ and a ladies’ open, and those who wanted a sixth race (some still didn’t) could have a restricted open. But you could go as little as thirty miles and see completely different horses and riders from those thirty miles the opposite way the previous Saturday. There was some border-crossing, but not usually by very far.

Based in east Dorset, I paid for my pointing by reporting for some of the numerous publications and form guides then operating, all of which engaged their own racereaders. The late Eric Dymott lived nearby and we travelled together if we were covering the same meeting. The Taunton (now Wessex) Area was riding high and we  looked down on Devon and Cornwall, our stereotype featuring yokels on weedy little horses in races well under three miles, on violently undulating greyhound tracks with narrow, rickety fences. We regarded the organisers as penny-pinching tightwads who put on just five races and refused to divide if declarations were only a couple over the safety limit. Like most stereotypes, there was a small grain of truth in it: intrepid explorers penetrating as far as Lemalla returned with horrific tales, but some Wessex meetings were hardly Cheltenham either.

Though in Devon, the Axe Vale, in mid-week in early May, was a Wessex meeting then. Taking time off work to go there gave a delightful sense of illicit pleasure, and my memories are of good racing amid sunshine, sea air and the smell of warm gorse. Anything beyond Stafford Cross, however, had an edgy feeling of travelling to an alien planet. We did know Charles and Bill, correspondents who sometimes came into Wessex from Devon, and they were very friendly to us, though they always liked to maintain a psychological advantage: whenever we arrived they would ask which way we had come and, whatever the answer, it would be the Wrong Way. Once we went to Umberleigh via last year’s Right Way, only to find it was now the Wrong Way!

At first, our Devon trips were just non-working excursions to the final meeting of the season, initially the Exmoor, but soon the Torrington. In 1976 and 1977, however, for reasons never clear, I found myself sent (alone) to several Devon meetings. The first, the Tiverton Foxhounds at Halberton in March 1976, was a baptism of fire. It was only a month into the season and there were 19 in the mens’ open, 17 in the ladies, and an Adjacent Hunts divided at declaration – so 15 in the maiden was a breeze. I knew few of the horses or colours and there was nobody to help: Charles and Bill were acting as clerks of the scales and, unlike Wessex, there was no racereaders’ “read through” afterwards, the others in that area regarding the information as their private property. Somehow, I scraped through. Halberton, though nothing particularly special, was untypical of the area and an ideal course for big fields – a big, flat oval with sweeping bends. My abiding memories are of the incomparable Grant Cann landing the odds in a division of the Adjacent on Kasim Baba, only to find his next odds-on mount, Oliver Carter’s Lucky Rock, unable to catch Killerby (David Jewell) in the Open. I felt the superiority of Wessex had been justified when Jane Atkinson won the Ladies on Romany Biscuit in colours long familiar to me, though, in truth, she only just scrambled home from a pack of locals.

The week after Halberton I visited Clyst Honiton, a charmless spot near Exeter airport. Cleverly squeezed into an unsuitable site beside the railway, it was left handed, but with a pronounced kink to the right in the straight. There was a long run with no fences round the top bend.

Lucky Rock, now ridden by Tim Holland-Martin, made up for the previous week’s blip in the Open, but the performance of the day was by Otter Way, on which Grant Cann retained the ride in the Adjacent. Though not always fluent, he landed the long odds-on by a distance. This was only a prep race! Five days later he ran in the Gold Cup, and five weeks after that he won the Whitbread. Sale and Mackenzie gave him at an exceptional 12-8, and with Lucky Rock at 11-2 and Devon Spirit on 11-0 some adjustment of our preconceptions about standards in Devon seemed necessary. Unusually, there was a restricted open, won by Maester Max (Ron Treloggen), another which finished the season with a high rating.

The next excursion into “Devon profonde” was to Bishopsleigh in May, a strange course, though less weird than Venford. I can only describe it as an undulating, wasp-waisted banana. Though left-handed, there was a ninety-degree right-hand bend after the third fence, only yards short of the back straight, which was actually entered via a hairpin bend after the next fence. Unsurprisingly, navigational errors sometimes occurred. The finish was up a narrow chute.

There was an unsuccessful Welsh raid in the Open, with Ronaheath backed off the boards, only to run out, taking several others with him, at the right-hander. He rejoined, but made up ground too fast to lead with a circuit to go and unseated when tiring three out on the deceptively testing course. This left Conchita (Ken Bosley) to win a neck from Liberty Man in a scrambling finish, which resulted in mutual objections (both overruled).

Local heroine and unbackable favourite Lady Christine nearly succumbed to another Welsh raider as she tried to make all in the Ladies’Open. Proud Pirate passed her four out and looked to have it won, only to run out at the penultimate. The Adjacent Restricted produced a storming finish, with Ruthmac, Highdowns Lad and Top Of The Pops all in it coming to the last. Highdowns Lad just prevailed, giving Robert Reddaway his first winner.

The 1977 itinerary was fairly similar, but less challenging, because fields tended to be smaller, and I was becoming acclimatised. However, some of our old prejudices revived when Eric and I went on our only visit ever to Buckfastleigh, where some of the racecourse buildings were still used. After rather humdrum racing we asked the secretary, as usual, for some unsold racecards. Most correspondents then reported by posting a marked card (there was still a Sunday collection), and secretaries were happy to oblige. Not this one, though: he demanded full payment! Appalled, we declined his offer and rummaged through the litter bins to find some serviceable ones.

This was in our minds when we gave a lift to Umberleigh to a well-known pointing pundit, who proposed to use his rules racing press pass to get us in for nothing. Fearing this idea would skin no flints in Devon, we had our money ready to avoid a scene. Amazingly, the gateman’s response was “Proper job”, and he waved us through. Little did I know as we drove happily home in the evening sunlight that in 1978 I would make the pilgrimage to Umberleigh from South Wales. Pilgrimage? To Devon?? Yes, that is what it had become!

Article contributed by John Saville

John Saville is the author of Insane and Unseemly

Insane and Unseemly
British Racing in World War Two
by John Saville

Do you have any point to point anecdotes to share? email them to info@p2phorseraces-dc.com

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