Sunday saw the rearranged South Midlands Area Club point-to-point at Cocklebarrow, transferred from Whitfield due to unraceable ground. Clerk of the Course Nick Phillips and Meeting Secretary Simon Hart made tremendous efforts to reschedule the meeting at short notice and, while the number of runners was not large, there was a high percentage of horses to entries and several competitive races. With a number of meetings nearby, including Garnons and Cothelstone, a smaller crowd than at the previous meeting here was inevitable and attendance was not helped by a biting wind.
Highlight of the day was the victory of Little Chip in the four-runner Ladies Open – sponsored by local farriers – to bring up the half-century for the ebullient Claire Hart. "I knew I'd ridden my 49th winner on Palypso de Creek at Leicester earlier in the week, but I'd forgotten all about the landmark until someone reminded me after this race," she laughed. Family pride was at stake too, as uncle Simon retired on 49.
Little Chip led for most of the race and jumped well in the main, apart from one mistake at the seventh. Long odds-on favourite Gauvain, the classy ex-Philip Hobbs inmate, was never going as easily as the winner and had to settle for second, with Bay To Go third.
As well as the jockey's 50th success, post-race celebrations were notable for the arrival in the winner's enclosure of a sea of blue and orange – the colours carried by Little Chip – bobble hats. I counted nine in total, belonging to the partners in the Plantation Picnic syndicate. "There are 24 of us in total," explained trainer and spokesperson Richard Bandey. "We also own Alskamatic, who we're hoping to run in the Cheltenham Foxhunters if we don't get balloted out. Back to Little Chip: "He came to us from Charlie Longsdon. He'd gone a little bit sour but has sweetened up for the change of scenery and, as you saw, is a fantastic jumper. We'll stick to pointing with him this year.
And what about the bobble hats? "We got them from Go Outdoor and they just happened to be in our colours," the bubbly Heather Criggie told me mischievously. "We did it to wind (Aga Man) David Simpson up – I keep telling him that he won't give me one of his because I'm not 23 years old and a size eight!"
The other feature race of the day was the Mens Open, sponsored by a group of local trainers. Five runners went to post and it produced the closest finish of the day, with Schindler's Prince just getting the better of favourite Ice Cool Benny, with Royal Riviera a long way back in third.
Schindler's Prince made most of the running to go one better than at the last meeting here, when he was second to Say No in the Lord Ashton of Hyde's Cup 'Classic'. "We're thrilled," was the reaction of owner Alastair McLeish. "People say he needs further, but really he just needs good ground. That's why we came here. Not only is it closer than Corbridge (in Northumberland, where the horse was also entered!) but the course has improved dramatically this year and we knew the ground would be good."
Alastair and Pippa have three horses with winning trainer-jockey James Ridley at Redmarley just north of Gloucester, including newcomer Twister Mix who ran in the opening Maiden. "We've got ten at home in total," the James' mother Heather told me while her son was weighing in. "I'm in charge really – I'm the one who gets up to feed them at ten to six!" she continued with a smile. "Joking aside, James is just brilliant with young horses."
James Henderson had saddled Say No to beat Schindler's Prince last time and he was back in the winners enclosure after Dream Garden had beaten solitary opponent King Ozzy in the Club Members Confined Race, sponsored by a group of South Midlands Farmers. James – who used to be Master of the Belvoir Hunt – has moved to Faringdon this season, where he trains five horses. "Dream Garden is a lovely old horse," he said fondly of the 12-year old. "He's a home-bred, and a half-brother to Say No. He won a couple of points as a youngster before we sent him under rules. We've got him back smiling again now, but we mostly use him as a hunter for my wife!"
James was the only South Midlands trainer to taste success, with perhaps the most impressive winner of the day being Thoonawalla in the Subaru Restricted qualifier, following up a double at the first meeting here for trainer-jockey Tom Weston. Tom always had his horse close to the pace set by long-time leader Kilcrea Mill, before moving into second on the final circuit as Mark Wall took over on Dandan. He led at the fourth last and soon went clear, winning without being extended from Weight It Up, with Dandan staying on for third.
I asked Tom's father Martin about plans for the horse. "Tom's making the plans," he joked. "We just do as we're told!" On a more serious note, he praised the work his son does both in and out of the saddle. "People say it's about luck, but it's not really – you have to know what you're doing. Tom's a wonderful trainer and a wonderful jockey. He makes it look easy."
Thoonawalla's success made it three wins out of three this season for the inaptly named Troubled Partnership. Their other horse, Chaddesley Corbett winner Sir Ollar is likely to run again "in the next 3-4 weeks" according to Martin.
The last race was an older horse Maiden Race sponsored by Marriotts Surveyors. By the time horses arrived in the paddock, the rain had turned up in support of the icy wind and most of the bookmakers had gone home, leading to grumblings from remaining punters about the lack of value. Favourite backers who had noticed Merrydown Vintage's promising first outing at Godstone were rewarded as the eight-year-old moved into the lead after the first circuit and won unchallenged from Dr Anubis and Intoxicate under Phil York.
"It's a long way to come," agreed owner-trainer Ray Fielder, who is based near Guildford. "But we knew the ground would be good here and Phil was available to ride. We bought him at Doncaster – he wasn't expensive and he had some bits of form in Ireland." Merrydown Vintage is the only horse Ray now has in training, but we got even more wet as we reminisced about his good horses in the past, including Lillie Lou – "we're breeding from her now" and Hunter Chase winner Tidal Reef, who Ray still keeps at home.
The opening race had the novelty of being won by the sponsor, Tom Lacey, whose Maximus Maridius won the young horse Maiden Race. Always prominent and jumping superbly for a newcomer, he drew clear on the final circuit and beat Union Du Chenet and Umoristic comfortably.
The win qualifies Maximum Maridius for the Doncaster Bloodstock Sales point-to-point at Aintree in may, but I was unable to ask connections about plans as Tom was not present and winning trainer-jockey Sam Drinkwater had to dash off to Cothelstone for more rides!