What a difference a year makes. Last year’s Easter programme – albeit a fortnight later in the year – was all about depleted fields on firm ground. This time around, however, the country was blasted by strong winds, significant snow showers and numbing cold temperatures, and it was a little surprising that in the face of this fearsome cocktail, the Teme Valley meeting at Brampton Bryan was the only meeting to fall today.
Ston Easton looked better placed than most to survive the worst ravages, though, with a surface unlikely to be much worse than good and a relatively decent forecast promised at the overnight stage, and, apart from a couple of decidedly half-hearted flurries of snow during the afternoon, the respectably sized Easter crowd did indeed stay snuff dry all afternoon. This writer was mightily glad of his eight layers of clothing (including thermals), though, and the view espoused by one poster to the Jumping for Fun for a already that the day was colder and windier than Larkhill is not a word of an exaggeration.
A few minor changes had been made to the site since last year’s meeting, most significantly that that open ditch had swapped places with the fence immediately after it on the top straight after the winning post, thus becoming fence 6 (13) in the 3m contests compared to 5 (12) previously. One or two other fences had been moved a few inches either way to assist cleaner jumping as well, but the length of both the course and its two distances of races remained unaltered.
Further car parking facilities had been provided by that top bend, and the viewing areas were reported to have been raised a little in a couple of places also, but all in all Ston Easton remains a nigh-on impossible course on which to be able to get an unbroken view of all the action once a crowd congregates without leaving ground level. Sure enough, on a day as perishing as this there was no room for a little ‘un in Nick Child’s commentary box as the judges piled into it en masse and stayed there – it was hard to blame them, really.
The bookies ranged from the mitheringly stingy to the unstintingly generous; and credit in particular should be given to “Wessex Bookie”, who in every race appeared most (occasionally singularly?) prepared to serve it up to the remaining pitches by offering bigger prices – in some cases up to 50-1 - about most competitors, a bait the remainder did not take up every time. More regular racegoers in the Wessex area than this (East Anglia-based) writer would have to let me know how typical of the local markets this behaviour is.
As for the racing itself, the clerk of the course admitted beforehand to being a little pensive that field sizes would cut up badly from what at 85 was not a huge entry to start with. He was therefore delighted when I caught up with him towards the end of a meeting that was ultimately blessed with 42 runners. He asserted that the drying wind was making the ground ride ever closer to the projected good as the afternoon wore on, and that was seemingly borne out as much by 23 of the combined original entry of 37 for the last three races standing their ground as by the impressive times recorded in two of them. It would certainly have been pushing it to call the going genuinely good to soft, for all that the horses were leaving a reasonable print.
RACE ONE: HUNT MEMBERS (all races 3m unless stated)
Basically foot-perfect, probably helped by his preferred clockwise course and relatively few opponents to bother him, a decisive spurt of speed had seen him around 10l clear by the chicane which precedes the home straight, and Ian Popham barely had to push him out to guide him to his fourteenth career win under all codes. His occasional overexuberance and those mistakes don’t mark him out as an entirely suitable schoolmaster to a novice rider, but he still appears to have enough to offer in ordinary Confined company on this evidence at least.
GAY KINDERSLEY capitalised on Springford’s early exit when winning this last term, and the manner with which his rival, six years his senior, left him trailing in his wake from five out today only serves to reinforce how lucky this lesser creature actually was that day. A tame effort on his seasonal reappearance did little to contradict Mackenzie and Harris’s view that Gay Kindersley is “not really a racehorse”, and it is hard to envisage in what sort of contest he could oblige this term.
QUILLOTA occupied the same finishing berth as in a Badbury Rings Maiden last time out, and is beginning to string together some completions now, but she was already being outpaced with a circuit to go and appears extremely slow.
RACE TWO: 4-7yo OPEN MAIDEN (2m4f)
The nature of his two defeats earlier in the season does of course raise questions as to what Miss West does with him next. He may just get away with seeing out 3m from the front around a similarly speedy course in Restricted class, but certainly a return to a stayers’ track should not be entertained any time soon. Alternatively a venture into 2m4f novices’ hunters’ chase company may be entertained – the trainer-rider has already shown this season with Ask Again that she is prepared to try her luck on that bigger stage.
MAX’S CHOICE had most of the winner’s moves covered until turning for home, but as when finishing second in a Great Trethew short Maiden last time out failed to find the necessary gears to deliver a sustained challenge up the straight. The idea of running him at courses with uphill finishes this time and last seems the right one, as he only has the one pace late on, and maybe either a more severe track or deeper going would see him slog past all tiring rivals next time.
NEW MILL MOLL benefited from an intelligent ride by Robert Lee, who regularly took his mount wider to get a better sight of the obstacles. She never threatened to muster the late speed needed to overhaul either or both of the first two home, but she will still have derived an awful lot of benefit from today’s experience following her fall last time out. She was rather less wilful on this occasion, too. There have been one or two fairly underwhelming PPORA Mares’ Series qualifiers run so far this term, and she may be able to take a hand in one such if she is both qualified to run in them and able to last the full trip.
OPENS ALL DOORS put some gruesome form figures behind him at last by registering a first completion over jumps, and went very close to pinching New Mill Moll’s podium finish. There are certainly renewed grounds for optimism with him, unlike the impossible MAYFAIR TAMBOURINE, who dropped the lot after jumping fence one slowly and offered her latest partner no assistance whatsoever. A squiggle surely beckons. Of the better animals not to finish, BRITESIDE and James Ridley parted company at halfway, whilst SPRING LORD was one of a couple to check out at the final ditch and took a while to get to his feet. It is to be hoped this experience does not leave a lasting impression on him.
RACE THREE: LADIES’ OPEN
A tactical affair, run in the joint-slowest time of the day pro rata with the concluding elders’ maiden, ultimately went the way of the first-named competitor, who bided his time behind the front-running Candarli under Rachel Green to go on at the last and supplement a Ladies’ win at Charlton Horethorne 13 days earlier.
It seems odd to think of a horse of Rimpton Boy’s experience needing something to “make all the difference”, especially one who actually won last time, but Green was adamant that the 13yo grey was all the better for the application of blinkers on this occasion. Is this to be taken as a tacit admission that this veteran campaigner, well known to need producing as late as possible, is getting even cuter in his dotage? Time may tell, but there hasn’t been too much about his efforts so far this term to dispute the assertion that the wind and limbs remain as capable as ever at this level.
Candarli, with his owner, the former Grand National commentator John Hanmer, in attendance as always, had a very easy time of it when taking a Dunthrop Ladies’ in front of this writer three weeks previously. Neither of his rivals’ riders showed much enterprise in failing to put down a challenge to him and Chloe Boxall on the way round on that day. However, other than a brief burst of speed at the start of the race to guarantee himself the lead, the Polish Precedent gelding was never more than 3l to the good on this occasion, and although he found more than Perouse once the race got serious, he just hadn’t put enough daylight between himself and a stronger adversary in Rimpton Boy to see this out today.
Jumping very nicely again apart from his engrained tendency to go right at some obstacles, he didn’t lose any face in defeat here, and as mentioned last time, the chances of him picking up some more moderate, small-field late season Opens around clockwise tracks on a decent surface remain good.
It’s just good to see Perouse fit, well and race-worthy again, his close second in a Bishops Court Ladies’ Open three weeks earlier having constituted his first public sighting since falling in a Wincanton novices’ chase in November 2005. He was probably the least fluent of the triumvirate here, although only very marginally, and perhaps more worthy of note would be that he didn’t appear to last out the trip quite as convincingly here as at that flatter, even sharper Devon venue. Stamina at this game was always going to be a bit of an issue for what was, let it not be forgotten, a 2m specialist under Rules, and it may transpire that of the courses in the locality somewhere like Cothelstone would be less unforgiving of any shortcomings in that department.
RACE FOUR: MENS’ OPEN
Slaezy won his last two starts in Irish points, albeit split by exactly two years. Arnie Sendell, whose predominately purple and white colours have of course been carried in so many top-class races by Kingscliff in recent years, sourced the Beneficial gelding after the latter of those two wins in Sligo last May; and the fact he and Louise Alner were content enough to pitch their charge into Open class on just his third British outing without having won either of his Intermediate starts first suggests confidence in him is high. He never gave them a reason to doubt him here, as he essentially controlled things from the front without ever expending energy needlessly, and he jumped perfectly tidily.
Given he is already eight years of age, the temptation has to be to promote Slaezy to Robert and Sally Alner’s licensed yard next season and try him in novices’ chases. At the same time, all concerned will be mindful that he has already failed to withstand the rigours of training once in his career, and with that to consider it would not disappoint this writer too much if they took the safety first approach option and drew stumps on this season now ahead of an autumn campaign.
Time may tell that Off Broadway ran into quite a progressive type here, as the ¾l margin by which he had beaten Slaezy in a Bishops Court Intermediate last time out was reversed pretty easily here. He has come back well enough from his own period on the sidelines, having missed all of 2007, but his record under Rules for Alan King was a tad patchy. Already 10 years of age, and with more miles on the clock than the winner, landing a small Open might be as much as his capabilities will permit.
CASE EQUAL blew a couple of easier chances than this when sent to Wales to escape Restricted class last backend, and although he finally did manage the feat on his 2008 reappearance he struggles to retain form and fitness for very long. He was already feeling the warmth of Robert Lee’s whip six out here, and never looked like responding sufficiently well to worry either of the first two home thereafter. Scattershot placement may gain him an Open win eventually, but he looks one in which to place only a modicum of faith nowadays.
3-1 third favourite HANDY MONEY slipped up on a bend in a Market Rasen handicap chase last summer, and he still appears to be carrying a bit of mental baggage from that mishap judged on today’s performance. Always in arrears and under pressure with a whole circuit left to go, his jumping then started to unravel and condemned him to a pulling up five out. Confidence issues need addressing urgently if he is to be able to offer anything at all in this sphere.
SIMON’S SEAT’s win on the older horses’ Maiden on this card last term represented a first career triumph at the fortieth attempt. Two more wins since then suggested he has found his metier in points, but a listless effort here reminded us – and was confirmed by Neil Harris on the way in - that his tendency to show no interest in proceedings hasn’t been entirely eradicated.
RACE FIVE: RESTRICTED
In reality the race wasn’t as close and competitive as that market assessment would indicate, but it was run at a sound tempo thanks to ARTHUR PARKER’s trailblazing and it was ultimately won in the day’s fastest time by LORD OF THE ROAD.
Previously one of Paul Nicholls’ lesser lights, David Staddon’s 9yo hadn’t been seen in public since just being touched off in a 3m3f Taunton handicap chase three days short of a year ago. He had needed his (re)appearance on both of his Rules campaigns (04-05 and 06-07), but he didn’t want for race-fitness here, and despite going out to the right at the last he jumped and travelled well throughout.
This well-made half-brother to Mr Splodge is two from two in points now, having recorded a taking Woodford Open Maiden victory on his sole run for James Richardson back in April 2004. There have only been six racecourse starts in between, marking him out as a similar type to previous race winner Slaezy, namely difficult to keep sound – he has twice suffered tendon injuries - but consequently lightly raced. There was enough about this performance to offer hope that he can withstand the step up to Intermediate class hereafter, although clearly keeping him sound may be an issue.
Nicholls past beat Nicholls present here, as the champion National Hunt trainer’s MAN OF THE MOMENT trailed the winner 8l at the end of the contest. Horse and rider were possibly architects of their own downfall here, as this striking grey half-brother to Darkness lost his position a halfway under Robert Lee, and didn’t really succeed in recouping lost ground until the chicane before the final turn for home. Lee had succeeded in keeping Man of the Moment closer to the pace throughout when prevailing in a Kingston St Mary Open Maiden three weeks ago, and it may just be that the gelding needs his mind making up for him the whole way round. Lesson learned.
YUFO had been given eight weeks off after his last fence unseating when still challenging for a Black Forest Lodge Intermediate, his third run in quick succession. The break didn’t quite have the desired effect, however, and given how gamely he kept finding more in that race in Devon it was disappointing how onepaced his effort was having been headed before two out here. It’s not all been going to plan since his Wadebridge win before Christmas.
EARTH WORKS’ jumping held up better than usual this time save for a slow leap at the fourth, but he looked short of a Plan B late on in this race and was left behind with five to jump. Arthur Parker’s win last time came in a short Maiden, but he was already starting to back-pedal having run with too much profligacy before stamina became an issue back up 4f in trip.
RACE SIX: 8yo+ OPEN MAIDEN
The winner hadn’t seen a racecourse before this season but had already shown bits of promise most of these rivals could only dream about (as reflected in his prohibitive odds of 10-11F), including when a fair 7l fourth in similar company at Didmarton three weeks previously. Things get tougher from here on, but he is still learning his trade, and this very complete performance today was entirely free of the sort of errors that had put him on the floor two runs ago.
Martin Pitchwood’s rider Tigga Barnes must have been delighted to realise he only had Mountain Trooper anywhere near him turning for home, as that rival’s lack of a telling turn of foot and / or a will to put it all in late on in his races has appeared to be terminal for some time now. Sure enough, there was nothing extra to try once the winner started to extend, and the Infantry 9yo’s second here constituted a sixth podium – with no win – from 12 career starts to date. He remains banker place material when put up against any even halfway decent rival with four legs and a pulse.
KWAY DE LA FORET was the only other one to get round, and 20l behind Mountain Trooper at that, but that tells just half the story as this was only the 10 year-old’s second ever racecourse visit and came all of five and a half years after his debut in a Cheltenham bumper for Ron Hodges. He got tired from the third last, as well he might, but he had jumped and travelled really well to that point and may yet have a bad contest of this nature in him if he has returned – and can be kept – sound.
GOODLEIGH BUSTER again looked a handful when running out at the second, and RIDEITLIKEUSTOLEIT’s appreciable problems with jumping and staying once more compromised her attempts to make all in a race. Neither looks likely to record a pointing victory this side of a Preston Guild.