by Richard Hall

Ampton played host to the second and final day of Suffolk’s answer to the Cheltenham Festival. OK, the surroundings may not have been so grand, the horses not so expensive, and the fields not so large, but the excitement was just as compelling – the long slog up the hill to the winning post in soft, holding, going produced many an exciting finish.

Arguably the best race of the day was the Ladies Open, although you would never have guessed at its thrilling conclusion from the exchanges in the betting ring beforehand. Ruth Hayter’s Gatchou Mans was backed as if defeat were only a remote possibility, with at least four to one being available about each of the other seven combatants. In fact, the wide variation of odds from bookie to bookie ensured that those prepared to shop around could have got at least six to one on all bar two.

The race began in extraordinary fashion. Caroline Eagle (who had previously been the subject of some criticism from this column) seemed determined not to give the others a twenty-length start this time, and decided to make full use of her mount’s undoubted stamina. She jumped off promptly and sent Senso to the front to ensure a good pace! She stayed there for the first two circuits, dropping stragglers in her wake. As they set off on the third circuit Gatchou Mans was pulled up. Thurles Pickpocket, under Sam Hodge, moved through to take up the running, allowing Senso, still travelling well, some respite. Prince of Saints and Torus Spa were ridden to keep up with the pair, and Mister Audi, with Rachael Barrow on board, tracked them five lengths behind.

As they raced downhill, Ms Barrow asked her charge to take closer order. Four from home she had passed Torus Spa and Prince of Saints who had no more to give. Turning up the final hill Thurles Pickpocket held a one-length lead from Senso. Mister Audi was a further length behind in third. Three obviously tired horses jumped the second last, each preparing for one last effort. As they approached the last Senso drew alongside Thurles Pickpocket’s outside, while Mister Audi surged level on the inside. They jumped it as if they were synchronized swimmers. Not a cigarette paper could separate them. On landing the luckless Ms Eagle exited from the side door. No doubt her turn will come soon. The other two dug deep. When they reached the post Sam Hodge had somehow managed to propel Thurles Pickpocket into an official half-length advantage. A truly remarkable race.

Rachael Barrow only had two rides at the meeting; the other was on Holy Moses in the day’s finale, Division Two of the Maiden. She rode a similar race, hiding in mid division until joining the leaders midway on the final circuit. Grey Fusilier had made most of the running and, when Great Survivor finally dropped back on the turn for home, only Holy Moses stood between him and victory. Neil King asked Grey Fusilier to quicken again as he jumped two out. Holy Moses could not respond and he went three lengths clear. Rachael must have thought that she was again booked for second. The crowd certainly did. Between the last two, however, Grey Fusilier began to send out distress signals, giving Rachael the encouragement to ask for one last push. Jumping the last she was still a length behind. Crawling up the run in, the gap closed inch by inch, both horses responding gamely to their rider’s urgings. At the line Rachael was adjudged to have won by a head. Not before time. I believe it was her first winner of the season.

Ampton is owned by the Turner family, and they usually like to have a winner or two there. The previous day’s victories of Spring Gale and Bruan at Higham had signalled the stable’s well being. The bookies took no chances in sending what is probably their best horse, Pampered Gale, off as the seven to four favourite for the Restricted. On paper the race looked to be a highly competitive affair, containing no less than seven previous winners this season. Pampered Gale proved that they were right to be cautious. Always in the leading group, and always jumping with the utmost courage, Andrew Sansome eased him into the lead as they set out on the final circuit and, from that point, the result was never in doubt. The eight year old, who is still improving, came home a comfortable ten lengths clear of Kingfisher Star, who had stayed with him until three out, and, in turn, was a further twelve lengths clear of the Hunter Chase winner Early Morning Call who came in a remote third. Disappointments of the race were Sara Hickman’s well-backed Nubro who could never find a prominent position, and George Cooper’s Rip Kirby, who had previously finished only five lengths behind Pampered Gale when the Turner star was collared on the run in by Alpha Man at Horseheath.

Andrew Sansome had begun the day on board the six to four second favourite, Millenium Way, in the Hunt Members. The Kemp family’s Tea Box was sent off at short odds on. Surprisingly, son David adopted different tactics on the eleven year old, who had won both his previous starts this season from the front, and was content to sit in behind and let Dalligan make most of the early running. At the business end of the race, however, he led Millenium Way up the final hill. Andrew Sansome rallied his mount to challenge, and draw level at the last. Tea Box took it well, his rival brushed through the top. That was the half-length difference between first and second.

Mr Sansome did eventually complete a double on the day, courtesy of a spare ride on Lord Drakkar in Division One of the Maiden. Both the winner and the runner up, Tell Monty, have had plenty of chances to break their maiden tags before, however, and will probably struggle when upped in grade. One horse that did hint at potential was point debutant Baysgarth. He was always in the leading trio and was going well when squeezed for room around the first of the top bends on the final circuit. He closed the deficit and was challenging for the lead when he put in too big a jump at the downhill fence and stumbled on landing. Although he continued for another couple of fences, his chance was gone and he was eventually pulled up.

Betting was tight in the Confined, with Native Status at seven to four, just being preferred to Village Copper at nine to four. Revelation of the race was Tartooth who, fitted with a pair of blinkers, left previous form behind and raced prominently throughout. He had established a confident four-length advantage when falling at the sixteenth of the twenty fences. His departure left the market rivals to fight out the finish. Christian Ward Thomas seized the advantage on Village Copper and sent him to the head of affairs. Andrew Ayers, seemingly travelling well, appeared content to follow and rely on Native Status’ stamina to prevail on the final incline. Turning for home it became obvious that Village Copper, having one of his “going” days, had other ideas. He galloped on resolutely and, if anything, increased his advantage up the hill.

This horse seems a complete enigma to me. He has shown promise in the past only to run poorly on his next outing. It does not appear to be the course or the going; he has run both badly and well on most combinations. Mrs H did tell me he looked particularly good in the paddock, though. Perhaps this is something I’ll have to study more closely when he next appears?

Try as I did, I could not get away from the even money favourite, Fair Exchange, in the Men’s Open. He had returned to his form of 2001 with a pillar to post victory at Horseheath a fortnight earlier, beating the easy Market Rasen winner Ebullient Equiname. He faced nothing of that calibre here and, although the Sandown Hunter Chase winner, Novatara, closed on him at the seventeenth, he readily responded to Paul Taiano’s request and pulled out more. He came home with the minimum of fuss in the day’s fastest time of seven minutes one second. Still only nine, Fair Exchange promises better things to come.