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ESSEX
HIGH EASTER
Saturday 2nd April 2005
by Richard Hall

On previous visits to High Easter I have waxed lyrical about it’s serenity and isolation; heralding it as a rural backwater secreted, like lost treasure, in a labyrinth of lanes and protected from intrusion by a triangle of trunk roads. It’s charm lay in its remoteness to the modern world. It was trapped in another era, and only thosewith a map, a key, and the desire to escape could find it.

We arrived in good time. At twelve thirty eight we left the A120 at the Dunmow South exit. Turning off at Barnston and negotiating the windy, single track road, we found ourselves third in a line of four cars obviously heading for the Point to Point. We crawled through the village itself as the occupants of the lead car were obviously transfixed by the properties and seemed intent on peering down every driveway and into every living room. Never mind. We had a good half hour spare, and it was a gorgeous spring day. Plenty of time to chill out and go with the flow.

At twelve fifty, just the other side of the village, we joined the queue. High Easter’s secret had obviously been leaked to the News of the World! City dwellers anxious to experience a slice of yesteryear had sacrificed the normal weekend outing to Tesco’s, and patiently lined the road in eager anticipation. We inched forward. At one fifteen we entered the car park. The normal field was full. We were directed to the adjacent one. That too was filling quickly. Before the second race its capacity would be exhausted and a third would be made available. It would not be enough. A fourth field, near the horsebox entrance, would be needed to accommodate those still pouring in. As the runners were going to post for the day’s third race I still saw cars streaming in to it.

Winter’s unwillingness to move aside had made me forget that this meeting traditionally marked the watershed in the East Anglian season. This was the time of year where families, desperate for somewhere in the country to picnic in, joined the regulars in their treck around the region’s point-to-point courses. To the majority of them the racing is just an incidental addition to the fairground, trade stalls, ice cream vans, beer tents and fast food pit stops that provide entertainment for the kids and help while away a lazy afternoon in the company of like minded people. Some of them will not even see a horse. A few years ago I used to find this irritating. Age has mellowed me, though. There is enough room for everyone, and, provided they do not impair my enjoyment of the day, what right have I to insist that they actually watch the racing? From their part, I am sure that some of them would find my obsession of frantically logging the ins and outs of each and every result to be equally sad.

Having queued (again) for programmes, Mrs H, the dog, and I just had time to check out the runners for the Confined before the contest got underway. I was surprised to find Highland Rose in the line up (I was expecting her to run in the Ladies Open) and her presence killed the event as a betting medium. She was on most boards at 2/5, with Leatherback at 5/2, Spy Knoll at 6/1, and Dancing Ranger and Just Magical as big as you get in East Anglia at 33/1.

After the field crawled around the first circuit, obviously conscious of the dead ground (particularly in the lower levels of the course) Alex Embiricos duly pulled Highland Rose away on the second to justify the short odds offered about her. Spy Knoll, absent from the course for over two years, ran an encouraging race to get within a couple of lengths of the tiring winner on the run in. Leatherback, ten lengths or so adrift in third, was the only other finisher.

Ms Embiricos did not have to wait long to register a double when she renewed her acquaintance with last week’s Horseheath winner, Bush Hill Bandit, in the Ladies Open. Despite the odd jumping error, Alex’s mount had too much stamina over the final two fences for Louise Allan on the gallant MacFin and passed the line with a couple of lengths to spare. The runner up, who had turned in uncharacteristically lacklustre efforts in all three of this season’s meetings at his beloved Horseheath, ran his best race for a while and looks booked for a visit to the winners enclosure before the campaign reaches it’s conclusion.

Ical ensured that the pace for the Restricted was entirely unsuitable for those of his rivals with suspect stamina. Piloted by Matt Mackley as his normal jockey, Paul Cowley, had opted to ride Earl of Buckingham, he quickly established a four length lead and soon had many of the combatants strung out and under pressure. Paul Cowley is a shrewd judge of horseflesh, however, and any doubts that he may have chosen the wrong one were allayed when he bought Earl of Buckingham smoothly out of the pack to take up the running three fences out. By this time Ical was a spent force, but course winner Pampered Lad was travelling equally as well as the leader and looked certain to play a hand in the finish. He shadowed Earl of Buckingham up the hill and even held a slight advantage at the second last. Paul Cowley, however, had left a bit to spare, and soon restored the advantage on the run to the final bend. Andrew Pennock on Pampered Lad could have just accepted his fate and cruised home for second but, after jumping the last a couple of lengths down, he saw Paul Cowley working like a demon to keep the favourite, who was threatening to fall into a heap, up to his work. He needed no further encouragement, and propelled his mount in hot pursuit. The response was not quite what he had hoped for. Pampered Lad too was tired and found the slight incline a difficult slog. Nevertheless the combination closed on the leader. Watching from behind I saw both horses wobble during those final few urgings to the post. In the end Pampered Lad’s efforts were adjudged to be in vain, with Earl of Buckingham gaining the verdict by a neck.

It was a long way back to Ocki in third. He had survived a couple of jumping errors and was never better placed. No Nay Never, who had been Ical’s closest pursuer for a long way, found a second wind and ran on again to carry an exhausted Annie Bowles into fourth spot. Present Moment continued the abysmal form of the Ruth Hayter yard and failed to finish, as did Abbey Days who deposited James Owen to the ground at the first fence. Second favourite, Baron Halebop, who had been a close second to Eurogadael seven days earlier at Horseheath (after winning his Maiden at Ampton thirteen days prior to that), ran a disappointing race. He was hunted round, in Earl of Buckingham’s slipstream, for the first circuit and found little when David Kemp asked him to make his move six fences out. He may well benefit from a bit of a rest.

A similar comment may well apply to another Kemp inmate, Madmidge, who was made odds on favourite to register his sixth win of the season in the Mens Open. Like Baron Halebop he had also been in action at Horseheath last week, where he had been forced to dig deep to see off Dunmanus Bay in the corresponding event. Despite being given every chance by his able pilot, he failed to find the telling turn of foot that has served him so well to date, and could manage no better than a remote fourth of seven.

The race went to a blast from the past in the shape of Splash and Dash, on whom Harry Fowler proved an able deputy for the recovering Andrew Hickman. Splash and Dash clearly had something wrong with him in 2004 when failing spectacularly to live up to the accolade of being the region’s hot hope for the Cheltenham Foxhunters; a rather fortunate and laboured winner of a modest three runner event at Marks Tey being the last image I have of him. His trainer, Sara Hickman, clearly possesses the power of equine resurrection, and her charge could hardly have been more impressive in coming from fifth to first in the space of a hundred yards or so between the third and second last fences. Lord Euro, who had made most of the running up until that point, conjured up a game effort to close again after the last but was always comfortably held.

The Maiden threw up a potential star in the shape of Nigels Dream ridden by Mick Sheridan. Not many horses can make all the running around High Easter on dead ground but, apart from a handful of strides when headed by the runner up (Here Comes Choosy) just before the third last, he did. I did not catch the official time of the race but it looked to be one of the day’s quicker ones and Nigels Dream, despite doing all the donkey work, certainly looked less exhausted by his exertions than many of the day’s other winners.

The runner up showed improvement on his previous efforts and obviously benefited from last week’s clear round (his first of the season) when second to Erris Express at Horseheath. He will not be a maiden long if continuing that rate of progress. The only other noteworthy performance was that of Stormy Crossing on whom Nibby Bloom seemed to be caught in two minds when leading the chasing pack after a circuit. He had every chance when finally asked to close on the first two at the thirteenth, but he did not have the reserves to stay with them from the fifteenth onwards. He will strip fitter for the experience.

The Hunt Race, for once, concluded proceedings. Its five strong field served up an intriguing contest between experienced jockeys riding theoretically inferior horses (Andrew Braithwaite on Bede and Chris Gordon on Lisnagar Hide) and a better horse (Castle Prince) ridden by a less experienced jockey (Adrian Gibbons). The punters made the horse favourite at 5/4, with each of the jockeys available at 5/2.

In this case jockeyship, in the guise of tactical awareness, won the day. Mr Gordon ensured that the pace was strong enough to question the favourites ability to fully get the trip. In turn, when Mr Braithwaite captured the lead with a circuit to go, he gradually increased the tempo to establish sufficient daylight between himself and his two principal rivals to allow Bede a breather on the run to the second last. This one manoeuvre proved decisive as, rounding the final bend, he was able to accelerate again. In contrast, both Lisnagar Hide (2 nd) and Castle Prince, who had been off the bridle in pursuit that much sooner, came to the end of their runs and found little in response to their jockeys urgings. In fairness to Adrian Gibbons, his horsemanship is not in question. He did, however, appear to find himself caught between sticking to his original game plan of sitting ten lengths off the leaders until, presumably, the last half mile, and feeling the need to close the gap because they were getting away from him. As a consequence Castle Prince ran in snatches and, when a final effort was needed, he found that there was insufficient petrol remaining for that turbo injection.

Bede’s success was the first of his career (although he did once unseat Neil King when clear at the last in a Higham Maiden) and provided his enthusiastic owner / trainer, Simon Marriage, with a deserved victory on his home course.

There was little point in joining the immediate stampede to exit the course so Mrs H and I took our rolls, cake, and drink to consume on the mound, where we could enjoy the view of the Essex countryside away from the noise of the fairground attractions. It was a lovely, bright, afternoon, with clear visibility all along the horizon. We stepped off the treadmill and allowed ourselves a half hour or so to just watch the world go by. In feelgood terms the spring weather had a lot going for it! Maybe it is the “no pain, no gain” ethos indoctrinated in me since childhood, but, in terms of racing enjoyment, however, I prefer the winter every time. It seems more honest, more focused, much less a circus and much more a community. The difference, if you like, between the feeling of commitment you get when participating with body and soul, and the remote, lazy, inadequacy of a Sunday afternoon’s sightseeing.

P.S. Apologies for the lack of pictures in the Maiden and Hunt Races. A combination of factors, mainly involving the large crowd and the fairground noise, meant that I had to choose between a vantage point where I could see (or at least hear) the majority of the race, or a location where a decent photograph was possible. As I had found out earlier, there was little chance of achieving both. In the day’s final two races I elected for the former.

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