A good crowd gathered at Cocklebarrow Farm near Aldsworth in Gloucestershire for the second running of the Heythrop Hunt point-to-point at the purpose-built venue. The overnight frost came out of the ground early and the sun poked sporadically through the overcast skies as the day went on. As is so often true of the early season meetings, the number of entries who were declared to run was high and 82 horses took part on the day, the highest of all the weekend meetings. In addition to the seven races, racegoers were kept entertained by two heats and a final of the Tough Farmers Challenge!
The feature race was the three-mile seven-furlong Mens Open for the Lord Ashton of Hyde's Cup, sponsored by Savills, run over three circuits of the course and one of the four "classic" races that take place during the course of the point to point season. This year, nine runners went to post and the favourite was Perfectly Willing, fresh from an excellent second to Benedictus in a hot Mens Open at Larkhill. Other fancied contenders included the useful but quirky Golan Way and former classy chaser Oscargo.
The hard pulling Golan Way led for most of the first two circuits until the favourite took over, seemingly going well. However, Say No, ridden by Freddie Henderson and owned and trained by his father James, had always been prominent and Perfectly Willing had no answer when he jumped to the front at the third last. Say No kept on well, despite a mistake at the last, to win the race and lift the famous trophy, with proven stayer Schindlers Prince in second under James Ridley with Perfectly Willing and Mark Wall third.
Training honours on the day went to Tom Weston with a double, initiated by Jetnova in the AGA Novice Riders Race, giving John Smith-Maxwell, grandson of the legendary Pat Tollit, only his second winner. Jetnova quickened to lead after the last of the 18 fences jumped in this race, beating Presentandcorrect and front-running Sergeant Dick. "He's a good ride for a novice," explained winning owner, John's mother Katherine Smith-Maxwell. "We bought him out of Alan King's stable for that purpose."
Tom's second winner was Thoonawalla, who he also rode, in the three-mile Carter Jonas Maiden Race. In an incident-packed event in which only five of the sixteen starters completed, he survived being baulked by a loose horse before four out to win comfortably from My Coranna and Toodle Horse. Thoonawalla is owned by the enthusiastic eight-strong Troubled Partnership, who include Tom's father Martin Weston, best known for training Flimsy Truth to win the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham in 1997. "There are eight of us in the partnership," Martin told me. "We have a leg each in two horses – our other one is Sir Ollar, who also won first time out this season at Chaddesley Corbett."
Thoonawalla was the fifth winner trained – and fourth ridden - of an extremely successful start to the season by Tom, who was complimentary about the work done on the Cocklebarrow track by Clerk of the Course Nick Phillips and his team. "It's really improved since last year," he confirmed. "There's no jar in the ground and, while it feels quick when you walk the course, there's give in it".
The biggest cheer of the day came after the four-runner Members Race, sponsored by Knight Frank and won by the fast-improving Dabinett Moon – having only her third race – under Claire Hart from Be Definite and Moorland Sunset. "Didn't she jump well?" exclaimed trainer Fran Marriott of the mare, who is owned by her and husband Christopher, the long-standing secretary of the meeting. "We weren't expecting her to win, as the other horses were so much more experienced."
Dabinett Moon, whose dam, Miss Crabapple, was also raced by the Marriotts, is – remarkably – the fourteenth individual winner out of their broodmare Windfall and her daughters. She is the only horse currently in training with Fran, but the pair have a long association with this race. "I think we've won the Heythrop Members' five times", recalled Christopher. "Last time would have been Mr Smudge, ridden by Andy Martin in 2004, and before that I won it twice riding Pardelesa and once on Prince Pippin. But I'd have to look at the trophy again to be sure!"
Not far behind the Mens Open in terms of distance was the three-and-a-half mile Ladies Open, sponsored by the Kings Head Inn at Bledington. Moscow Blaze was hot favourite to follow-up his win in last year's race but has not been in such good form this time round and faded to finish fourth after rider Page Fuller was unable to shake off long time leader Ballyjames when she hit the front briefly on the final circuit. Hannah Watson had Ballyjames jumping beautifully throughout and she prevailed from Tinelyra in the closest finish of the day, with Oh Toodles overtaking Moscow Blaze on the run-in to finish third.
Trainer Heidi Brookshaw, daughter of Grand National winning trainer Steve, brought Ballyjames down from Shropshire as "we knew he'd be suited by the trip and the decent ground." This was a step-up in calss for the horse, as he'd only won an Intermediate Race previously, but he's now qualified for the Aintree Foxhunters and, according to owner Major Terry Warburton, who bought the horse at Doncaster Bloodstock Sales three years ago after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, "he might take part".
Heidi was arguably unlucky in the opening race of the day, the first Subaru Restricted Race of 2015. Her Bletchley Castle set a cracking pace under Sam Davies-Thomas along with the Tom Chatfeild-Roberts-ridden Love Manhattan, until falling at the 11th fence when still leading and going well. Love Manhattan kept up a remorseless gallop and – although Abhainn Dubh and Dandan tried to challenge – was never really troubled and won easily on only his second run, and first since April. Dandan and Hasten Well, who came from a long way back, filled the places and also qualify for the Subaru Restricted Final at Stratford on May 29th.
Trainer Helen Connors, who keeps four horses at her dairy farm near Melton Mowbray, was quick to pay credit to former trainer Tom Lacey, for whom Love Manhattan won a Maiden at Paxford last season. "I wouldn't say I've improved him", she commented modestly, "and I have to thank Tom for all the work he did". Helen doesn't even have her own gallops at home and gets her horses fit by cantering them uphill on the far
The final race of the day was the two and a half mile Maiden Race for young horses, sponsored by B A Hull Contractors. The Katy Price-trained Champagne Benefit followed up a promising second at Chaddesley Corbett to justify favouritism. He jumped into the lead five out under James Nixon and won with something to spare from Tims Crusader and Lotus Pond, despite making a meal of the last.
The ex-Irish Champagne Benefit is one of three horses Katy trains for David Lipsey and Nick Elliott – both the other two, Supreme Regime and Minellacelebration have already been placed this season. "He's our first winner for our new sponsor Cadley Equestrian," she announced, "and he's the nicest horse I've had for a long time. Not only that, he's so easy to deal with – he neighs at me as soon as I open the door to the yard!"