“It’s a good start – there’s only one way to go from here!”, laughed trainer Kayley Woollacott, after the victory of Jepeck had got her off the mark in the season’s opening race at Black Forest Lodge and initiated the first half of a double for rider Robbie Henderson.
On a perfect late-November afternoon where the clouds and rain stayed away but the runners did not (84 out of the 108 entries took their chances across seven races), the Westerner gelding took the 2m4f Open Maiden for four- and five-year-olds in very pleasing fashion, drawing clear on the flat under the Devon & Cornwall Area’s reigning champion having hit the front two out.
Of little account in three Irish Points over the full trip during spring 2013, a trio of British bumper outings for as many different trainers earlier this year had offered greater hope, the last of which proving especially informative with regards to future campaigning.
“He was third at Uttoxeter for [Rules handler and husband] Richard last time, but he hung right up the run-in there and should have won, so we decided we need to keep him right-handed for now”, explained Woollacott, who can number the John Pike-owned five-year-old among a squad of 23 horses for the new Pointing season.
Jepeck will serve Pike as a replacement for his previous Woollacott inmate Nothingbutthetruth, winner of a Fontwell handicap chase 15 months previously; “He’s another one that Tom Malone found for us – he told us that this one is the next Irving!”
Henderson’s victories bookended the card, with that aboard the 4-5 favourite The Mythologist in the concluding Intermediate contest for father (and incoming Ascot Racecourse Chief Executive) Guy looking simplicity itself.
Patiently played when scoring at Treborough Hill and Ston Easton on his sole previous British outings, having been sourced by Tom Malone at Brightwells part-way through last season, the switch to all-the-way tactics inspired an even more impressive performance again, and a 1.25l margin over the toiling runner-up Mister Teddy rather flattered the latter.
Not bad for a gelding bred to be something different altogether, being out of an unraced sister to Jockey Club Stakes winner Blueprint, who in turn can boast a Ribblesdale Stakes runner-up as a dam and 1,000 Guineas heroine Highclere as a granddam!
“He just couldn’t hack the ground”, admitted handler Keith Cumings of his opening-race disappointment High Priority, a weakening fourth as 7-4 favourite under Will Biddick. It would be as close as the now three-time Men’s National Champion got to a winner on either of his two rides on the afternoon.
Conditions proved emphatically no barrier to Cumings’ Black Forest Club Members’ race representative Whenharrymetsally, however, and a determined effort to hold on having struck for home three out just secured the spoils from the rallying Killimore Cottage in a time five seconds faster than any other over the 3m trip.
“She’ll make a lovely broodmare, and she just stays and stays”, enthused Cumings following a head verdict that completed a four-timer initiated with a Great Trethew win in Restricted company last March. Successful rider Matt Hampton concurred: “She’ll get four miles. I just had to make as much use of her as possible, as she stays so well”.
Victory will have tasted all the sweeter for Hampton following a trying spring and summer of pain and surgery, the minutiae of which aren’t necessarily for the squeamish. “He was off for three months after a fall at the Dulverton West [at Bratton Down] in May”, explained Cumings, “as it damaged an existing plate in his shoulder from a fall at Holnicote the season before”. How badly? “It was bent at right angles”…
What both trainer and rider describe as a “remarkable recovery” was founded on a three-day stay at hospital in Barnstaple straight after the accident, six weeks on from which Hampton was back at work. “I’ve been riding again since August or September”, the rider confirmed, primarily in his role as assistant to Victor Dartnall. The 23-year-old is also likely to pick up rides between the flags this term for Janet Ackner and Mary Sanderson.
Cumings has as much to be thankful to Dartnall for as Hampton, as the licensed trainer permits him to exercise his Pointers on the gallops at Brayford (usually under Hampton or Biddick). “Vic’s been a great help – very accommodating”, he noted.
Smiles weren’t confined to connections of the winner after the Club Members’ race, as third place on Mic’s Delight secured trainer-rider Jennifer Davenport both a first completion in Points and the Tom Gray Memorial Cup as the first novice rider home.
An altogether happier outcome for the Modbury-based vet than had perhaps seemed likely when her mount, formerly a five-time National Hunt winner for the aforementioned Dartnall, had thrown her off in the paddock beforehand.
“He’s one of the most honest I’ve ever ridden… I’d go to the moon to ride him”, beamed John Mathias following Raffa’s successful escape from Restricted class at the fourth time of asking.
The pint-sized seven-year-old’s task was doubtless simplified by Robbie Henderson’s unseat from favourite Glacial Oscar two out whilst holding the slenderest of advantages, but Mathias was adamant afterwards that his mount wasn’t getting the worst of the argument at the time; “He was flat out, but if something’s upsides him he will always find. He wasn’t at fault for his mistake at the last, either – the clown on top interfered and wouldn’t leave him to it!”
Mathias necessarily had to give his rivals in the Men’s National Championship a couple of months’ start last season whilst completing the remainder of a suspension incurred for a betting misdemeanour. Nevertheless, his final score of 21 winners – equal third-best in the entire Men’s division – led many to wonder how close he might have run Biddick et al granted a complete campaign.
“I’ve got plenty to ride in terms of numbers this year”, confirmed Mathias, before philosophically adding, “but time will tell how good any of them are”.
How good Raffa would prove to be this afternoon was difficult for connections to gauge beforehand. “He’s been trained alone, so it’s not been easy to assess how fit he was”, confessed trainer Richard “Ces” Mitford-Slade, co-owner of Raffa with the gelding’s breeder Lucy Fielding-Johnson. “I should say he’s difficult to train, but he isn’t!” Certainly some of the ammunition for any title bid by Mathias will be provided by Mitford-Slade and Fielding-Johnson, whose Pontispool Farm Equine Sports Centre in Norton Fitzwarren additionally sponsors the Welshman this season.
“Raffa is only 15.3 hands tall, and he has been since he was about four”, explained Lucy Fielding-Johnson after her charge’s Restricted triumph, adding with a smile; “He came out small and compact, and stayed that way”. And of the gelding’s name? “I named him after Rafa Nadal, whom I like, because I wasn’t allowed to call him Riff Raff. But I admit I got confused with the geography – I thought it would be a clever name, as he’s by Milan, but Milan is in Italy and Rafa is Spanish!”
“I can’t make it up the hill [to the winner’s enclosure] – the horse is fitter than me!” – a breathless Lucy Fielding-Johnson implies she’ll improve for the outing more than Raffa.
On an afternoon in which the winners hailed from no fewer than five different administrative Areas, the success of Baresi for the uncle-and-nephew team of trainer Mike and rider Robert Hawker in the Mixed Open allowed the West Midlands to get in on the act.
The presence of last year’s winner Penmore Mill (8-9 in Points hitherto), Dunraven Bowl hero Gale Force Oscar, Listed hurdle/Grade 2 chase winner (and sometime naughty boy) Golan Way and smart former Dessie Hughes inmate Rivage D’Or gave this the look of another good renewal of a traditionally strong early-season event beforehand. No mug himself having earned a high-130s chase mark in Ireland for Charles Byrnes this summer, however, Baresi declined the worst excesses of the decent early pace successfully enough to have something left to repel the rallying Gale Force Oscar with up the run-in.
Another winner on the afternoon for Milan, this particular son of his was all that Mike Hawker had his mind set on when taking a trip to Doncaster Sales in early September. “We didn’t even look at another horse – we went to buy him and nothing else”, the handler explained. “We’d been in touch with the owner, who said that he was too high in the handicap in Ireland but was absolutely made for Pointing. Since he’s joined us, he’s done nothing but thrive”.
Baresi thus already looks a perfect replacement for Simply Game, four times a winner in 2011-12 for Hawker and ownership syndicate The Dog Foxes Club, but unable to recapture any form in three outings last term after nearly two years out. A cheery band of five, The Dog Foxes can count among their number Stuart Jarrett, owner in his own right in recent years of successful Pointers based with the likes of Polly Gundry/Ed Walker and Mary Tory; and Tony “Yogi” Nash, formerly more used to screaming his way down a Cresta Run rather than at racehorses, having won a two-man bobsleigh gold medal for Britain in the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck.
“He won’t need the gym this week” – one spectator succinctly sums up the effort of Bradley Gibbs, who was hard at work virtually from flagfall upon Golan Way in the Mixed Open and was ultimately rewarded with a 28l sixth place. Very slowly away in the Grand National back in April, and not even as willing as that in two subsequent hunter chase starts, Tim Vaughan’s ten-year-old doesn’t yet look much more kindly disposed towards Pointing on this evidence.
A onepaced effort from two out sealed the fate of Mixed Open favourite Penmore Mill, who in finishing third was tasting defeat between the flags for just the second time ever – previously only Doctor Kingsley had ever mastered him in this discipline.
Handler Fred Hutsby was philosophical in defeat, concluding; “He’ll have needed it this year, as I haven’t been able to get a racecourse gallop into him or any of them beforehand. That’s made the big difference”. Nothing about this reversal will deflect connections from their ultimate target for their stable star this term – a trip to Aintree. “The Aintree Fox Hunters’ is the logical one to aim at, as he doesn’t get three miles”, Hutsby added.
So often a scorer on day one of the season here, the Warwickshire handler had to make do with two seconds, a third and an unseat this time around.
The likes of Hutsby, David Brace, Alan Hill and Angela Rucker are often talked up as being trainers who can be relied upon to register a victory in the very earliest throes of the season, but the achievements of Peter Mason in that regard are not to be sniffed at either. The successful trainer-rider of a winner at Barbury’s second-week PPORC fixture in each of the previous three seasons, the 3m Maiden division one victory of Icthec here ensured that Mason has struck even earlier this time around.
Second in this very contest for another handler 12 months earlier, the Norwich gelding had stood only two further outings subsequently and arrived at the Masons’ Ablington base after the last of those a very troubled horse.
“He’s needed time, and the key to him has been the patience of the Masons”, enthused Martin Rice, owner of Icthec now as then. Niff Mason took up the story; “He was so wrong and stressed last year that you’d have wondered how he ever managed to run well. He didn’t move straight when he walked, so we had his pelvis seen to”. That, plus being turned out on the same steep bank as all of the Masons’ Rules and Pointing cohorts, seems to have been the making of the seven-year-old; though to his own credit he had aided the process by remaining a very straightforward patient at home.
A leader with a circuit and a half to go, Peter Mason advised that it hadn’t been his intention to lead from so far out, “but Icthec was in such a nice rhythm that I left him to it. He’s out of a Roselier mare and shouldn’t mind today’s ground, but possibly not much softer”. Not believed to be struggling with his wind, a tongue tie was applied on this occasion as a mere precaution.
“A Maiden win is a Maiden win, and at this stage you can get excited, can’t you!”, grinned Niff Mason after Icthec’s victory. One of “about five” horses the Masons have in for Pointing at the start of this season to complement the same number again in Niff’s professional yard, the temptation to pop him over the proverbial garden wall to resume his previous Rules career is proving easy enough to resist… at the moment, at least.
“We’ll keep him Pointing for now, but I know the handicap mark he got in Ireland (mid-90s, over hurdles) is quite low”, Niff mused. Readers may recall former hurdler Pretty Penny landing a Plumpton handicap chase off a basement mark for Niff three years ago, immediately after winning a Mares’ Maiden at the aforementioned PPORC fixture at Barbury for and under Peter.
“Railway Benefit has had more problems than the Kray Twins”, laughed trainer Gareth Moore.
“Problems? How long have you got? You’ll need loo roll to write them all down on!”, added father John.
Safe to conclude that as with the first heat, Open Maiden division two similarly went the way of a horse that’s had training issues to overcome.
“We saw him at the [Tattersalls] Sales in Ireland in August”, elaborated owner Steve Whistance, “and he went through lame and unsold – he’d only run the Sunday before and was in a bad way. We picked him up there in a private sale, and have since had to work on ulcers, lice, teeth, the sacroiliac joint, you name it. They should have paid us in the end!”
That’s all hard work which has paid off in the end, judged by what, at 14l, was the day’s widest margin of victory by a long way. “He got a lovely ride”, enthused Whistance, “You couldn’t ask for a better man for the job than Nick Williams”.
AGA Ladies Final winner Universal Soldier is once again the star name among Gareth Moore’s small team of around five or six Pointers this season, but the return of another former charge to his care this winter excites him no less.
“We’ve got Ski Sunday back”, Moore explained. “I did the pre-training of both him and Universal Soldier before they each went under Rules with Lawney Hill and Tim Vaughan. I’ll never forget how Universal Soldier won a big hurdle at Chepstow one Saturday afternoon, and Ski Sunday another one at Kempton the following Saturday [both in January 2011]. Great days”.
“There you go, Pete! Go and ask for a ride!” – Doug Harkin, on a recce from the South Midlands with trainer wife Pauline and first-choice jockey Pete Mann, laughingly suggests to the last-named that a fractious chestnut mounted in the chute amid a blur of rearing is just his sort of partner.