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ESSEX FARMERS & UNION
MARKS TEY
Easter Monday 28th March 2005
by Richard Hall

I would not have gone to this meeting if Sabre had not been running. The day threatened to fill itself with all the things in life I purposely try to avoid. There was only one possible nightmare missing; that of a trip around the shops escorting some female in search of that definitive “something”. Otherwise everything else was there; slow traffic (all along the A143 and A140 – they even adhered to the temporary 30 mph limit for the entire 5 miles of its duration!), screaming kids running in an out of your feet, inflated prices, and queues for absolutely everything (even the toilet). One of the Hunt organisers summed it up. “Now we’ve got their money we’re going to get James Crispe to put out an announcement saying that there’s a new branch of Ikea just opened in Colchester. That’ll get rid of them quick.”

Those bookies that had not elected to go to either Yarmouth or Fakenham enjoyed a late Christmas rush. As only the British can, people queued solidly in neat lines, twenty deep, to bet with them, Some wagers were even placed before the odds were chalked up (honest), and, as none were quoted when the bets were actually entered into the books, lord only knows how any winnings were calculated. To their credit though, the majority of bookies did not exploit the situation as badly as I feared they might. In general the over-rounds were at the 150 mark for the contests with six runners or less, and around 180 to 200 for the bigger fields. It could have been a lot worse and, judging by the correspondence on the JFF Discussion Forum, it probably was in the North West!

During one of my grumpy old man whinges, Mrs H accused me of being a “misery guts”. She was right to do so. All around us people were genuinely enjoying themselves. They seemed not to worry about being charged £2 for an ice cream, or £4.50 for a pork and apple roll. If that was the price they had to pay for a family day out, then so be it. As we stood, elbow to elbow with the world and it’s mother, to watch the racing, some young lad, no older than ten, excitedly told me that he had backed the one in front. In that instant I saw myself some forty years ago; on a family day out at Fakenham Races on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday. The thought that I was possibly looking at tomorrow’s enthusiastic die-hard suddenly made me more tolerant. We all have to start somewhere.

One of my other apprehensions about the day was that Sabre’s race would cut up so badly that, even if we were fortunate enough to win, it’s value would be somewhat devalued. As the declarations for the Restricted were announced, that fear was allayed. His nine opponents included Jenny Pidgeon’s Kalypso de Laugere, second to Torosay at Garthorpe a fortnight ago and with the assistance of Harry Fowler in the saddle, and the Turner’s John The Mole, who had won his Maiden on the course earlier in the season and had recently been a close second to McAttack at Ampton. I rated our chances at around 5/2 and, as that was reflected on some boards (others were as short as 2/1), I happily queued to place my wager at those odds. Before setting off to join the other co-owners at the pre-arranged vantage point, however, I noticed that, further down the line, he had drifted to 7/2. Not counting the “reserve” in my back pocket, I had a tenner left on me. Rather rudely, and without waiting in turn for the stream of pound each way investors ahead of me, I pushed my way to the front of the queue and handed it over.

Lucinda (Barrett Nobbs) settled Tartar Sabre in the pack when the starter let them go. He jumped the first big and bumped into something in front. Horse and rider soon recovered and, by the fourth, his natural cruising speed had taken him into third, just behind Stick or Bust who, after being tapped for toe in the early stages of his Cottenham race last week, seemed eager to make the running. All well and good so far, and no serious jumping mistakes!

We were standing by the final fence and, when the pack passed us on the first circuit, Sabre seemed to be travelling as well as anything. He flew the fence like an old hand, and actually gained ground in the air. Half way. Ten obstacles gone and, touch wood, no hint of the jumping errors that had blighted his previous two outings.

On the final circuit he maintained his position. Before the fifteenth fence Stick or Bust ran out of juice and gave way. Lucinda did not hesitate to take the lead. She did nothing fancy, but she did, slowly, increase the gallop. Over the next three obstacles Sabre continued to jump well. His length or so’s advantage over the chasing group did not shorten. We lost sight of them between the third and second last. When they came into view again we saw Sabre jump the penultimate fence, still full of running and, if anything, with a slightly increased lead.

Everything seemed to go into slow motion as they climbed the hill to the last. Kalypso de Laugere was hot on our heels, as was John the Mole. They were not gaining though. Second Thoughts, on the other hand, was. Nibby Bloom had given him a peach of a ride and the combination looked set to throw down a serious challenge on the run in. Through my mind flashed all the jumping errors Sabre had made when holding every chance in his previous races. He could not afford another one now.

Lucinda calmly steadied him into it. Now, she decided, was not the time for heroics. Sabre cleared it safely and well, but, in doing so, surrendered momentum. As they landed, Second Thoughts was within a neck. Coolly, Lucinda began riding for the line. Sabre responded instantly. Within fifty yards the neck had grown to half a length. This time nothing was going to go wrong. Sabre inched further away from the opposition. He past the post in front. Officially he had three quarters of a length to spare over Second Thoughts, with Kalypso de Laugere not far away in third, and John The Mole fourth.

There might not be much in terms of distance between winning and coming second. In terms of emotional response, though, there is an entire continent. For the five minutes or so that proceeded the official announcement, we were on cloud nine. There is no other feeling in the world quite like it, particularly for us fortysomethings who are no longer physically capable of competing in our own right! In those precious moments everything was well with the world. We had finally won a Restricted. What more could we possibly ask?

The benefit of having taken a Maiden last year stood us in good stead. We were so elated then that we failed to gather for a group photo at the presentation ceremony. The experience ensured we made no such mistake this time. The resultant picture, when it comes in the post, already has its wall space reserved! It was a great day, and it will be with us forever.

Nibby Bloom employed similar tactics to greater effect on Mon Esprit in the Maiden Race that opened the day’s proceedings. He bought Lord Somerleyton’s lightly raced eight year old mare with a wet sail to devour Epop and Rupert Stearn at the final obstacle and win with a little bit in hand. The runner up, caught in a similar manner by The Small Farmer at Cottenham last week, continues on an upward curve and will surely not be long in gaining compensation? Another to take out of the race is James Buckle’s Premier Marble. He led the field a merry dance for a long way before falling two out when already passed and beaten. One to avoid, for a while at least, is Alfie Moon. He made no show, and did not look to be fully in love with the game. As shown by his seconds at High Easter and Ampton, however, he clearly has ability. If he can be mentally sweetened up over the summer, he could well begin 2006 as a force to be reckoned with.

Caroline Bailey bought three horses to the meeting, and not surprisingly, they all went off as short priced favourites. In the Mens Open My Best Buddy looked to have his race won a long way out, and was twenty lengths too the good of his solitary serious pursuer at the third last. Two fences from home his lead had reduced to fifteen lengths, but he still looked comfortably home and hosed. At the twentieth, and final, fence his lead was a mere five lengths. Despite looking sufficient, it proved inadequate. Nibby Bloom was riding like a man possessed and had found a hitherto hidden gear in Good Vintage’s amoury. He produced it with devastating effect, and swooped past My Best Buddy on the run in to win by three lengths. It was so remarkable that only a small number of the many photographers snapping at the final flight had caught him in their frame!

The Ladies Open and Novice Riders Races produced nothing as unexpected. Find Me Another comfortably took the former by twenty lengths from the evergreen Celtic Duke (making his seasonal debut) and Village Copper who tied for second. The latter was won by a horse formerly with the Turner’s; Persian Hero. Ms Bailey and his owner, John Russell, have turned him into the proverbial winning machine in this grade, and he duly demolished his six rivals to record his third win of the year in East Anglia by a distance.

Lord Valnic was made favourite for the Confined and looked to have been gifted the race when his main market rival, Jims Belief, conceded twenty five lengths at the start. Although George Cooper’s mount had recovered that deficit by the sixth fence, and actually led the field until the corresponding fence on the final circuit, the effort expended in doing so effectively put paid to his chances.

Rounding the final bend, Lord Valnic took charge and quickly shook off all but one of his five rivals. That at rival was King Plato, on whom James Owen was sitting motionless. He unleashed him just before the second last, and I don’t think even he could have anticipated the full extent of the response he got. Within a matter of strides King Plato had opened up a ten length lead, which easily doubled as they sprinted to the post. Like all the Turner horses, he will undoubtedly continue to improve until the season ends and he cannot be opposed on his next appearance. Lord Valnic hung on valiantly to claim second, inches in front of the fast finishing Gatchou Mans.

Sometimes, when gambling and your luck is in, it seems as if the bookies are just anxious to give you money. Marks Tey on a Bank Holiday was the last place on earth I would have expected this phenomena to happen, but happen it did in the shape of No Penalty in the Intermediate. Even money!! Yes, even money in a five runner field that contained two from the out of form Cherie Cunningham stable (Monarch Ruler and Magic Lodge), Castle Road, who had won the Hunt Race at Higham three weeks ago and had fallen at the second fence at Horseheath on Saturday, and the twelve year old Ardkilly Warrior who had not won for over three years! I took all the money I had not allocated to the “reserve” pocket and invested it before the opportunity vanished. It was a better rate of interest than any building society could give, and a darn sight safer than most pension funds!

I can only think that the bookies had lapsed into the holiday mood, or felt so guilty at their excess profits for the day that they wanted to give their regulars something back. Whatever their reasoning, I was not the only familiar face waiting to be paid out after the horse in question had, as scripted, led from start to finish without being asked a serious question. The perfect end to an almost perfect day!

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