The curtain closed on the 14-fixture South Midlands Area season on Bank Holiday Sunday, with the last of four meetings this season at Kingston Blount. While Alan Hill – based two miles down the road at Aston Rowant – often holds court here, he had to settle for three seconds and a third at his local track, with honours on the day going to father and son training pair Kieran and Luke Price and jockey Byron Moorcroft, who made the three-and-a-half-hour journey from their Pontypridd base worthwhile with a double.
The Price-Moorcroft brace was initiated when Ramble On justified his short price in the AMG Assets Solutions Mixed Open. The consistent nine-year-old, who has now won eight and finished second six times in 17 points, showed no ill-effects from his second over four miles at Bratton Down last weekend, taking the lead at the cross-fence on the final circuit and quickening clear four out. Despite a slow jump at the last, he was unchallenged to score by ten lengths from the fast-finishing Namako with favourite Streets Of London – the five-year-old showing the effects of a hard season - just holding on for third, twelve lengths away.
"We came here because we wanted to have a go at Streets Of London," admitted Kieran Price. "He just got beaten last week – they fined the winning jockey. He's a good little horse and we'll keep going with him. Our horses are firing and Luke, who trains this one, has twelve winners this season. But it's been a mixed year – we thought a lot of Time And Again, who went wrong after winning at Howick and (stable star) Spencer Moon has suffered a series of setbacks."
It was a 24th success (he'd soon move on to 25) of a best ever season for Byron Moorcroft, who thinks it was his first visit to Kingston Blount. "I don't remember coming here before," he told me. Asked about the reasons for his success this year, Byron mused before saying, "I started early – I don't usually get going until March! Tom Faulkner and Jason Warner have helped me, along with Kieran and Luke, plus I've got nine in training myself, the best of whom would be French Piece, a five-year-old who's won both his starts." As for his ambitions, Byron, "Will keep going to Umberleigh. I'd like to get to 100 winners this year and I'm only about five away."
Concealed Ambition completed the double for the Welsh raiders in the Thorn Plant Hire Open Maiden, showing improved form – he had pulled up on his only previous pointing start – to win easily by twenty lengths from odds-on Rebel Ace, who didn't seem to handle the undulations as well. Leading throughout, Concealed Ambition quickened clear going down the hill after a reminder going out onto the last circuit and won unchallenged, despite a mistake three out. Elmouth was a further twenty lengths back in third.
"This one's trained by me,' confirmed Kieran Price afterwards. "He coughed after his run at Lower Machen so we thought we'd have another crack. He's still a green baby – he came to us from Tim Vaughan and we've only had him ten weeks." Concealed Ambition is likely to run again, Kieran saying, "We train them so that they'll run on – once they're fit, you can't get them any fitter!" He was full of praise for the rider, telling me, "Byron's a good jockey – he's still underestimated."
It was a red-letter day too, for Justin Brotherton, who rode his first ever winner on Accord in the Novice Riders Race, sponsored by Mark Goggin, over the shorter distance of two miles five furlongs. Accord had finished runner-up to Gabrial The Great in a Mens Open over the same distance here last time after the winner had opened up a long lead and the pattern looked as if it was going to be repeated when the smooth jumping favourite went clear with a circuit to race. However, Justin never let Gabrial The Great out of his sights, closed on the leader three out and after he hit the front at the penultimate fence, the result was never in doubt. He went on to score by 15 lengths, with Breezy Kin running on from the rear to be ten lengths third.
The winner is owned and trained by professional trainer David Bridgewater, who admitted, "He's my only horse for pointing and only my second ever runner. Infact, I think that when I came here two weeks ago, it was the first time I'd ever been to a point-to-point! He lost his way under rules," said David when asked about the switch, "We thought we'd try something different, but we'll probably go back to rules racing now. Justin's always wanted to ride a winner – that'll make his life!" smiled David, who trains a string of about 30 at Icomb, Gloucestershire and is beat-known for Gold Cup-placed The Giant Bolster. "I just let him get on with it and he rode Accord slightly differently to last time. The horse jumps well and I thought he'd win."
Justin Brotherton, who works for David and is the son of Worcestershire trainer Roy, breathed a sigh of relief as he said, "It's been a long time coming and it's a great feeling. My ambition was to run well on my first ride back and win on my second! I learnt from last time not to let Gabrial The Great get away." Justin – 33 – who had been placed four times from 14 starts between 2015 on 2017 on his only previous mount, Gold Duster, who he owned himself, explained the reasons for his absence from the saddle. "I moved house and changed jobs, but I always wanted to have another one to ride. Bridgy's only had him in for seven weeks, he's put a lot of work in and I've learnt loads from him."
The Mettal Ltd Intermediate was won in fine style by Karen York's ten-year-old mare Gersjoeycasey, who has shown improved form this season. Given a masterful ride by the trainer's husband, the evergreen Phil York, she duelled for the lead with You're The Man for most of the first two laps of the track before kicking on four out. Odds-on shot Captiva Island looked threatening but – not for the first time – he seemed reluctant to go to the front and a great jump at the second last sealed it for the mare, who was driven out to beat the favourite by three lengths, You're The Man fading to 30 lengths third.
Gersjoeycasey was a first winner as an owner for Laura Hoey, a popular figure on the pointing circuit in her role as a nutritionist for Connolly's Red Mills, who of course sponsor the Intermediate series, and who is often seen leading horses up for the Yorks and Tim Underwood. "Not only is she my first winner, she's my first horse," beamed Laura. "She's been knocking on the door behind good horses – she tries her heart out and is an absolute cracker to own." Laura's role covers the whole of the South of England – "from Cornwall to Kent" – and she explained how the association with Phil and Karen, for whom she rides out every day, came about. "Yorky's a Red Mills customer and one day he said, "Do you have a saddle?" I went there to ride, fell off my first morning and said that was enough, but he persuaded me to come back and hasn't been able to get rid of me since! I don't think I'll try race-riding, but never say never!"
The Pangbourne Asphalt Restricted was taken in fine style by James King and Waterloo Warrior, following up a Bredwardine Maiden success last Saturday. Left in front sooner than the jockey would have liked after Bluebell Sally fell at the final open ditch, he maintained his advantage and – despite a couple of slow jumps – was unchallenged to beat Sandygate by 20 lengths, with Mister Buddy two lengths third.
"His class got him home," said winning trainer Jake Slatter of the seven-year-old, who was placed on multiple occasions for Colin Tizzard under rules. "I was worried when he was left in front, but having the loose horse for company helped and he travelled well, although he does like to have a look at his fences." Asked how he came by Waterloo Warrior, owned by his mother Angie, Jake – who trains at Toddington, near Cheltenham – explained, "A friend of Mum's recommended him. I don't think I've done a lot with him but he'll have a good summer, with some fun rides and hunting to sharpen him up." Jake admitted that it has been an up and down season, with two wins each for Waterloo Warrior and You're The Man offset by the loss of stable star Bally River Boy.
Winning rider James King was moving on to 15 (including Hunter Chases) for the season and admitted to having a frustrating weekend. "I've had four seconds from six rides this weekend before this so it was good to get off the mark. Waterloo Warrior still thought he was racing under rules last time and today, I didn't know what to do when the leader fell and tried to take a pull, but wasn't able to – however, his class got him home." James currently works for Will Biddick in Somerset but is moving to Olly Murphy's Stratford yard in the summer and hopes that a central base will give him more opportunities.
The opening race, the BFJ Consultants Ltd Members, was won by Tim Underwood's Cheltenham Mati, in the hands of champion jockey Gina Andrews, riding her 57th winner of what has been an outstanding season. The pair tracked long-time leader Velvet Cognac before jumping to the front three out and, though the runner-up battled, Cheltenham Mati held on cosily by one-and-a-half lengths. Veteran Ravethebrave was third, ten lengths further back.
The mare was a 20th success of the season for owner-trainer Tim Underwood, on course to be national leading owner and trainer (seven horses or fewer). "We're off to Trecoed with her on Saturday," he confirmed, before explaining the reasons for her in and out season. "She bled at Mollington, again when she won at Northaw, and had a heavy fall at Peper Harow. Plus she had five weeks off after being kicked in a field and our box broke down on the way to Penshurst! She's an ideal horse for races like this and isn't quite good enough for Opens."
Gina Andrews was moving into second place in the all-time list for number of winners ridden in a season, behind only Will Biddick's 68, but confessed, "As soon as I got to 41 (the lady riders' record), I stopped counting and anything else is a bonus. But I'll keep going to Umberleigh." Not only has it been a record season for Gina, but husband Tom Ellis looks set to be champion trainer for the first time and, pressed on her plans for the 2019/2020 campaign, she laughed, "I can't imagine we'll have another one like this year. I just hope the horses we have at home keep going and we're already restocking." Gina also has a good book of rides at the Hunter Chase season finale at Stratford on Friday, including General Arrow and Kalabaloo.
The six point-to-point races were bisected by the ever-popular Hound Race, sponsored by Tyreteam. Meeting Secretary Nick Quesnel provided his usual exuberant and entertaining commentary and – while I must confess I didn't have a clue what was going on – apparently it was won by Star Gate.
After racing, the South Midlands Area Awards, sponsored by Stratford Racecourse, were presented. They went to:
Leading Horse: Dabinett Moon
Leading Mare: Dabinett Moon
Leading Trainer: Tom Ellis
Leading Trainer: James Henderson (five horses or fewer)
Leading Male Rider: Peter Mason
Leading Lady Rider: Claire Hardwick
Leading Novice: Lily Bradstock