by Richard Hall

Although the East Anglian season officially ends at the London picnic site of Northaw on Monday, today was, for many East Anglians, the last proper meeting of the season. The atmosphere was surprisingly subdued, almost surreal, as a small crowd spread over a vast expanse of land to go through the motions. It reminded me of two mid table soccer teams playing out the last few minutes of a goalless draw. The spectacle, although still to be appreciated for skill and speed, lacked the commitment of fierce competition. Even around the bookies boards an air of lethargy prevailed. Trade was in slow motion. The large number of short priced favourites did not help; the punters did not want to back them at the odds offered, but they did not want to go against them either. The form was too well known to both sides. For the last eighteen weeks the East Anglian pool of approximately ninety horses, had raced against each other week in, week out, with the occasional visitor interspersed amongst their midst. As the ground had firmed up from mid March onwards, the ninety had reduced to around half that number, and the visitors, like winter tourists, saw no reason to travel when conditions were as good, if not better, on their own stamping grounds. One felt that the limited variation in possible finishing permutations had already been exhausted. As in most overly familiar situations, the perceived possibility of surprise was missing.

The opening Hunt Race added to the “not quite right” feeling. Only three contested it, and rumour had it that they had all travelled to the event in the same cosy horsebox! Two were trained by Cherie Cunningham; Rip Kirby, the 5/4 joint favourite, who was ridden by Richard Hanley (only his second ride in public) and Jim’s Belief, the outsider of three (but backed from 7/2 to 9/4), ridden by her partner George Cooper (who was also the owner of Rip Kirby). The third horse, Glad All Over, ridden by his owner David Hays, was known for being a Marks Tey specialist, having ran all his best races there.

Jim’s Belief set the pace throughout, with Glad All Over tracking two or three lengths adrift and Rip Kirby racing on his own a long way behind. When Glad All Over unseated his rider at the third last, Rip Kirby was still ten lengths adrift of his stablemate and, although he closed rapidly over the last two, there was still a couple of lengths in it at the post. I’m not saying that there was anything amiss, but the scene would surely sit more naturally in an early Dick Francis novel than in tomorrow’s edition of the Racing Post.

The finish of the Confined was fought out between the 6/4 joint favourites, Mike Bloom’s Always On The Line and the Turner family’s Westfield John, with the former, a winner at Cottenham on the first day of the season, prevailing by a comfortable couple of lengths. In winning at two such diverse tracks he has proved himself to be versatile and, like his rider Alexander Merriam, has progressed throughout the season. If the improvement continues, both may be up to Open class next year. The runner up is game but, despite his size (a good seventeen hands), is probably better suited to a tighter track. The ex chaser, Sir Williamwallace, a course winner at the Easter meeting, looked like Black Beauty in the paddock and threatened to play a part in the finish until running out of steam three from home.

The six runner Ladies Open looked to have a touch of quality about it. Four of the runners had similar grade victories to their names this year, and the other two had both been close seconds. As it was the race was turned into a procession by the still improving Linlathen, owned, trained, and ridden by different members of the Hutchinson family. The thirteen year old twice injected a gear change into the race; once when sweeping into the lead after a circuit, and again five fences from home. After the last one, only Dragon Lord, who had been a long way off the pace on the first circuit, could go with him – the remainder were quickly dropped by upwards of ten lengths. His challenge was short lived, however, and from looking a real danger four out, he was a spent force at the third last. Zoe Turner on The Wiley Kalmuck, who ran on strongly from out of the pack, eventually deprived Jenny Gordon’s mount of the runner up berth. 

The Men’s Open, without the much hoped for presence of Splash and Dash, saw a short priced favourite comprehensively turned over. In the 2002 season Endeavour was described as talented but unreliable. He has been a model of consistency in his five runs this year, however, winning three, a short head second in another, and unseating at the last when challenging Gallant Glen at Horseheath. He was never in the race today though. Royal Action, whom he has comprehensively beaten twice this year, went off like an express train - determined to deny him the front running role he obviously enjoys. It worked. Endeavour seemed to sulk in a detached third position throughout the race. Peafield, however, was content to sit in behind the leader and always looked to be travelling well and jumping economically. Six fences out Phillip York asked the raider from the other side of the Thames to draw alongside the pacemaker. When given the license to go Peafield belied his fourteen years and quickly established a four length lead, an advantage that was maintained to the line with just hands and heels.

Phillip York quickly completed a double in a substandard Restricted thirty five minutes later. His mount, the odds on favourite Eastern Point, led from start to finish, eventually pulling well clear from the Stuart Morris ridden Pull On. Stick Or Bust, an eight year old whose joint owner I met whilst walking the course before racing, ran on encouragingly in the closing stages to get within two lengths of the runner up. He has had a difficult year; finishing only once in his previous four outings, and this may provide encouragement for his owners to persevere with him next season.

Stuart Morris rarely makes the trip to East Anglia without going home with a winner under his belt. Today was no exception. In the final race on the card, the Confined Maiden, he confidently steered Mike Bloom’s expensive Irish purchase, Bunratty’s Sole, who had ran with enormous promise on his debut in a Restricted at Guilsborough, to a comfortable victory. He is only a five year old and has an enormous future.

In winning today, Bunratty’s Sole qualifies for the Champion Novice Hunter Chase at Folkestone’s Hunter Chase evening meeting on May 21st. If he turns out for that race he should not be dismissed lightly. Also qualifying for an evening by the seaside was the runner up, the Nick Moore ridden Artic Snip, who built on his promising run behind Camden Loch at Fakenham six days earlier. This was only his second lifetime completion, and he was the only one of the field who looked like giving the winner a run for his money. At the post five lengths separated them, with a distance back to Golden Shred in third. Chris Gordon gave Ruth Hayter’s six year old mare, having only her second public outing, a typically educational ride. The benefit of such tender handling may become evident next year.

The race was marred by the death of Josie Shepard’s debutant, Charlie Dene, who had to be put down after going badly wrong at the last fence on the first circuit. When the race was over, and the majority of the crowd had gone, the screens were put loosely around him. Although there were gaps between the joins, I looked, and walked, in the opposite direction. I did not want to see it. I couldn’t escape the muffled pop of the gun however, and instinctively turned around to see the once proud and graceful animal thud with a dreadful finality to the ground. I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach, but I carried on walking. There was nothing I, or anyone else, could do. It is the price that occasionally has to be paid for the sport we love. It is the last image I will have of the 2003 season.