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Bicester with Whaddon Chase
Dunthrop
Sunday 2nd March 2008
by Jeremy Grayson

(RH 9F, 18J)
Good, good to firm places back straight)

AN APOLOGY
Today’s review was going to start with an amusing line calling to mind the old gravy advertisement slogan – “Aah, Bicester”, or somesuch – but I couldn’t think of one in time. All suggestions are gratefully received.

A meeting staged at the now-defunct Mollington until last season, the running of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase meeting today was the third at this Oxfordshire venue in the 2007-8 season – you have to go back a decade for the last time it was scheduled to host that many. Inevitably, then, my thoughts had turned to the durability of the racing surface given this heavier workload; but clerk of the course Jon Trice-Rolph, who was hugely forthcoming, friendly and helpful throughout the afternoon, declared himself satisfied with it when I broached the matter with him, and rightly so – the ground was not chewed or rutted, nor did any riders report any jar in it.

That upbeat assessment did not prevent field sizes from remaining on the small side all afternoon, however. The combination of the forecast rain having largely missed the course on Friday, coupled with a stiff wind that was still very much present during the afternoon, gave rise to a surface that was entirely raceable but at the same time undeniably faster than most seen this winter. As a result, an initial entry of 101 was whittled down to 32 on the day, and may have been smaller still had some claims from within the paddock that the Men’s Open originally attracted no entries been proven right – whatever the truth of the matter, four were ultimately declared.

RACE ONE: HUNT MEMBERS (all races 3m2f unless stated)
===============================================
Small fields or not, there were to be a couple of reversals for favourite-backers during the course of the afternoon. This wasn’t one of them, though the Tuckey family’s PRO AM came very close to failing to justify his 2-5 odds-on favouritism.

Attempting to make all at a pace no better than steady, the Be My Native 10yo looked to have kicked a decisive 5l clear with four to jump under Ben Tuckey, only to find a renewed effort from Stuart Morris on ALF LAUREN reducing his lead back to half a length approaching the last. The favourite had a little more left in a driving finish up the run-in, but not that much more, and the length verdict at the end – in the day’s joint slowest time - was as unconvincing as it was hard-earned.

Only 2l adrift of one of this season’s most prolific winners so far in Mr Tee Pee when second at Higham on his reappearance, neither the subsequent drubbing in a Tweseldown Intermediate nor this effort have exactly represented further forward steps, and more is needed quickly if he is to add to his tally in anything other than a minor Confined or Conditions event.

Alf Lauren shares much in common with the winner as a 10yo that has struggled to keep sound over the years (repeated leg problems in his case), and this second place – his first finish in four pointing starts so far – might just be his most worthwhile achievement since winning a Bangor bumper on debut for Alan King almost exactly five years ago. It still amounts to little, though, and his overall profile marks him out as anything but a winner waiting to happen in this sphere.

This pair finished well clear of their of their two other rivals. SIR LANCELOT, winner of this corresponding race back at Mollington two years ago, never took a hand in today’s proceedings, and he has it all to prove from hereon that his decline is not starting to accelerate at 13 years of age. He still managed to beat TRAWBREAGA BAY, though, who was both hairy in appearance and lairy in demeanour before the race, slowly into stride at the start of it, and around halfway through before his jumping acquired any degree of fluency. The Mackenzie and Harris description of him for last year as “exceedingly slow” looks about right, too.

RACE TWO: 4-7yo CONFINED MAIDEN 2m4f
====================================
It can’t have been much fun being Stuart Morris today. He was able to secure five rides despite the small fields, but by the end of the day he would have three seconds and no wins to show for his efforts. His defeat on the odds-on favourite SEAPLACE in this two-runner maiden – an early contender for the worst race of the season – almost certainly represented the afternoon’s nadir for him.

A staying-on fifth in a Sedgefield bumper for Ferdy Murphy 16 months ago isn’t the loftiest of career highlights any horse has ever brought to pointing, and he was thumped in three 2m4f-2m6f hurdles subsequently, but that still looked to amount to marginally better credentials than those of sole rival DIDGERY, without a completion in four points prior to this, including when not lasting home at Eyton-on-Severn a week ago.

Didgery did have the twin aids of cheekpieces and a tongue tie for the first time today, though, and he was far from coming to the end of his tether when joined by his rival at the last having been a couple of lengths up for most of the final circuit. In the event, a mistake at the last by Seaplace settled the issue for him, and he only had to be pushed out to the line thereafter. Whether the headgear and tie have the same galvanic effect in better company and over half a mile further next time out remains to be seen, but on the face of it this looks like form in which to place the bare minimum of future significance.

RACE THREE: LADIES’ OPEN
========================
Just three lined up for the first Open contest of the afternoon, and a pretty uneventful contest saw CANDARLI gain an outright lead from the second fence and stay in front for the remainder en route to a third win this winter.

As was the case under Rules, the Polish Precedent 12yo is at his most effective in point-to-points around a right-hand track, two wins here having been preceded by a score on the first day of the season round Black Forest Lodge’s clockwise oval. Continuity has been a key element of his successful start in points, too, with regular pointing pilot Chloe Boxall likely to have ridden him plenty in her ongoing role as a work-rider for David Gandolfo, his previous handler under Rules.

Candarli’s frequently delightful jumping very much remains evident, and a couple of small pitches out to the right on the way round today should not be highlighted too much. His preference for a soft lead must be, however, and the riders on his two rivals today arguably lacked a little tactical daring in not at least trying to take him on for the lead more than they did, despite him remaining only 2l or fewer to the good until turning for home. Tougher, more enterprising opponents, equine and human, will await hereafter, but at the same time further gains this season are hard to rule out, especially if his preferred sound surface is still in ready supply in the dying few weeks of it.

Runner-up LADY BARONETTE had run Blue Business to 1 ½l in the 3m5f Ladies’ Open on Lord Ashton day here in January, a failure to produce a telling late turn of foot proving the decisive factor in her defeat. Exactly the same was true here, with Ian Howe’s charge quickly burned off again after closing on the turn in. A career record of four wins from 35 pointing starts tells no lies about her not being the easiest to win with. However, she still, as well she might, managed to beat outsider HUNTING LODGE into third, John Manners’ dual 2m6f hurdle winner first briefly outpaced at halfway and then again with five left to take.

RACE FOUR: MENS’ OPEN
======================
Although proven to be effective enough on a sound surface a few times previously, it still surprised some present to see IRILUT taking his chances in the Volkswagen Touareg-sponsored feature. Turn out he did, however, and a second win at the course this term – to go with his Lord Ashton triumph in January – was duly gained, though only after he had done the bare minimum required.

RAKA KING’s early front-running enabled Irilut to be held up off the pace as he’d prefer, despite him only having three rivals in opposition in total, and he did not see a sniff of the lead until carefully brought up on the then leader REEL DANCER’s outer two from home. He didn’t scorch off into the distance at that point, however, and both Reel Dancer and BE MY DREAM were still on his haunches until he put in by far the best leap of the trio at the last. Even then rigorous riding to the line had to be resorted to in order to put the matter beyond doubt.

A seventeenth win in points and hunters’ chases was gained, then, but this wouldn’t necessarily go down as one of the more impressive or emphatic ones. Not that connections will have been overly concerned, though, as the race served purpose in keeping Irilut match-fit en route to another tilt at the Lady Dudley Cup in seven weeks’ time.

Reel Dancer’s fine effort here confirms him as going through something of a revival of fortunes in the 2007-8 season. Having beaten only penny numbers of rivals in occasionally placing last term, this second, the course and distance Club Members win with which he started his season, and his second to course specialist Winsley in a good Tweseldown Members’ Conditions race in between, have all been entirely respectable. A small Open might be attainable in his present heart.

Be My Dream had most of Reel Dancer’s moves covered on the inner, and for him too it was essentially just a case of being outjumped and outbattled from the last. Unlike that rival, however, this counts as an increasingly rare decent performance from a horse whose consistency has deserted him this season and last, and he couldn’t be fancied to equal or better this next time.

The 15yo Raka King wasn’t the most ancient horse Jonathan de Giles would run during the course of the afternoon, and the old boy gave a fair enough showing – barring the odd slow jump – out in front on his first start for 22 months until headed seven from home.

RACE FIVE: CONFINED HUNTS
==========================
This was arguably the most interesting contest on the card, with some useful or better sorts making their seasonal reappearances against another rival trying to run-up the hat-trick. TENDER TANGLE, LONGVILLE LAD and KILLARNEY PRINCE were all likely to want to make all judged on previous runs, and having been preceded by Tender Tangle to the first, it was the last-named who then went on for a circuit, setting up a race ultimately run in much the day’s fastest time (all of 26 seconds inside the average) in the process.

At various stages of that first circuit Killarney Prince had led by between two and 10 lengths, but he started to lose positions almost as soon as he was outjumped and headed by the more patiently-ridden RASH MOVE at the ninth. That still constituted Fred Hutsby committing for home early enough, but by the simple expedient of having kept well enough away from the worst excesses of the early pace that preceded, it horse and jockey still had plenty left to fight with for the whole of the final circuit.

In getting a breather in, Rash Move was joined briefly by Tender Tangle five out, but another kick on thereafter and a blunder from that rival at the last ensured the Rashar 7yo was never in danger of defeat.

Like Candarli a winner on day one of the season at Black Forest Lodge (Restricted), Rash Move had since landed an Intermediate at the first time of asking at Higham and looks to be a young pointer going places now. A most pleasing aspect about today’s win was that it suggested that he doesn’t have to try to make all to prove effective, in addition to which he put in as polished a round of jumping as he ever has. The Hutsbys had considered a hunters’ chase at Folkestone for him after the Higham win, and whilst that option was ultimately swerved, it will be extremely surprising if he goes the remainder of this season without being tried in that sphere.

Tender Tangle’s second place thus condemned Stuart Morris to his second beaten favourite’s berth of the afternoon, but in fairness horse and rider ran into something appreciably classier here than Stuart had in Didgery in that earlier Maiden. This confirmed front-runner proved amenable to chasing the leader rather than being it today, and actually regained ground to challenge for the lead five out, so a simple one-trick pony he isn’t (certainly not next to Killarney Prince, who ran himself into the ground and had nothing to offer once headed at halfway).

Still pretty lightly race for a 13yo, the good news for Tender Tangle is that there are still three meetings to come at the Chaddesley Corbett circuit that has served him well in recent seasons.

The first two finished a long way clear of EAST LAWYER, a former 119-rated Paul Nicholls and Charlie Egerton inmate last seen in a cross-country race at Cheltenham in November 2006. Plenty of ability ought to remain given the Homme De Loi gelding is still only nine, though quite how much would be extremely hard to gauge from the ride Lucy Cowen gave him here, which could equally easily be described as ineffectual or tactically naïve depending on your point of view. That she held him up is not an issue, as he was frequently ridden that way under Rules, but rather than taking closer order on the second circuit he was merely allowed to plod past beaten horses before finishing full of running. Horse and / or rider need to prove a little better than this in time.

Longville Lad hadn’t been seen since destroying a Men’s Open field at Dingley three weeks short of three years ago, gaining a lofty Mackenzie and Harris rating of 10-12 – and a description from them of an “immense talent” – in winning five of his last seven points and going agonisingly close in the other two. He clearly rates a useful talent if most or all of that ability can be rediscovered, then, although at 12 years of age now it can’t rate as a given that it will. The jury is out after this comeback performance, in which he remained prominent for the first two miles and wasn’t given a hard time once the leading pair had raced 20l clear five out.

RACE SIX: INTERMEDIATE
======================
The day’s biggest field of seven runners lined up for this Intermediate series qualifier, and the four fancied to earn their place in the final line-up at Cheltenham looked clear-cut enough from the betting. However, in a race which only began in earnest on the final circuit, where the hitherto tightly-bunched field were stretched by a marked increase in tempo, it was Zara Phillips’ MANOR DOWN, weak in the market at 20-1 having opened at 16s, who took up the lead four out and just about repelled all challengers to record an upset.

Winless since obliging in a four-runner Restricted on that farcical Didmarton card this weekend two years ago, when the course was still palpably frozen despite insistences to the contrary, nothing about Manor Down’s 2007 form in Intermediates (and, optimistically, one hunters’ chase) had suggested he had the scope to escape this grade. As such, either he found significant improvement to win here, or else it was a disappointing contest of its kind – with two of the leading fancies well held, and three other runners numbering 44 years on the planet between them, this writer would suggest the latter is the case.

Favourite FLAX HILL didn’t appear to do very much wrong for the greater part of the race, sitting just a length or two off the leaders early on, but the response she delivered once ridden from the final bend wasn’t quite enough to overhaul a determined rival. Her progress was not impeded by any of the silly mistakes that have featured in many runs to date, win, lose or draw, including in an equivalent contest at Tweseldown three weeks earlier, so this has to be regarded as a chance gone begging despite plenty going to plan.

Late onepacedness had prevented JAMES PINE from finishing better than a 5l third in a big-field Horseheath Restricted four weeks ago, and having been tapped for toe four out in this contest, then rallied to within a length again at the last, he couldn’t find the extra gears to improve past Manor Down and Flax Hill up the run-in. This was a fourth podium from four starts this term, all of which were in fields of eight or more – he is proving a good friend to each-way backers if nothing else.

MASTER CLUB ROYAL, remembered by many as the horse that unluckily tipped up when well on his way to a pillar to post win in a marathon Huntingdon hunters’ chase two years ago, once again tried to make all here, but caved in feebly once headed and forfeited fourth to the equally disappointing MISTER BERTOLLI late on. ALHERI, 17 years young and second on merit at Umberleigh on the final day of last season, ground quickly to a halt after two out having looked to register another finish on his first run since.

RACE SEVEN: OPEN MAIDEN
========================
Long after all concerned with today’s meeting had left Dunthrop, the course was almost certainly still resonating to the sound of John Manners’ screams, whoops, cheers and (lots of) swearing following the hard-fought victory of his AITCHJAYEM in the finale.

He would not have been alone, as his Rakaposhi King 8yo sent favourite-backers home happy, too. With two of the six runners making their racecourse debuts, another its pointing debut after two years out of racing, and the other two offering comparatively fallible form, punters had rightly seen enough in Aitchjayem’s two third place finishes this winter – the gelding’s first runs since tailed off in three Rules runs at the end of 2005 – to promote him to the head of the betting.

It didn’t look too likely on a couple of occasions inside the last mile or so. The lead Aitchjayem inherited after longtime leader O’CONNELL’S FORGE clattered the final ditch (six out) was short-lived to say the least, as nearest market rival FREEDOMOFTHECITY then moved upsides, and the pair traded blows until the end of the contest. David Bass’s attempts to stretch his rival by going 3l clear three out were quickly snuffed out, and indeed Freedomofthecity then appeared to be going better turning for home. Slow jumps at the last helped neither animal, but with both having lost vital momentum it was Aitchjayem who found the greater resources up the run-in to haul himself over the line less than a length clear.

This was not a great contest, in truth, and however valiant in battle here both horses betrayed why rivals with greater tactical speed have had the drop on them in points up until now. Ostensibly Aitchjayem could go the Restricted route next, but he still needs to improve markedly to covet a halfway decent chance at that level, and perhaps a more realistic target for him – and indeed the runner-up – might be the Members race at Siddington’s VWH meeting 13 days hence.

MUROTOEVATION, bought by Nick Edden for nearly 5,900gns in August 2003, fashioned a perfect record of non-completions in hurdles when subsequently sent to David Bridgwater. Now trained by the Edden family itself for points, he popped away satisfactorily enough to complete a 3m trip at the first attempt but still needs to find an awful lot more improvement to stand a chance of winning even one of these. At least he looked and acted like something approximating a racehorse, whereas debutant JUST BERTIE looked awful, reared in the paddock and pulled up tamely with most of the final circuit remaining – a most inauspicious debut.

WINNING HORSES
===============
HUNT MEMBERS: Pro Am
4-7yo CONF MAIDEN: Didgery
LADIES OPEN: Candarli
MENS OPEN: Irilut
CONFINED: Rash Move
INTERMEDIATE: Manor Down
OPEN MAIDEN: Aitchjayem

WINNING TRAINERS
=================
Michael Tuckey
Tom Ellis
Christoper Smyth
Robert Waley-Cohen
Fred Hutsby
Miss Zara Phillips
John Manners

WINNING RIDERS
===============
Mr Ben Tuckey
Mr Tom Ellis
Miss Chloe Boxall
Mr Sam Waley-Cohen
Mr Fred Hutsby
Mr Tom David
Mr David Bass

COMMENTATOR
==============
Robin Gray

THESE NOTES
============
© 03/03/08 Jeremy Grayson

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