Spring came early at Kingston Blount last Saturday as the largest crowd I have seen at this meeting for several years enjoyed eight races in glorious sunshine. And it was business as usual for Alan Hill, the reigning national point-to-point champion trainer, who is based just two miles down the road at Aston Rowant and who does so much work to keep the ground at Kingston Blount in perfect racing condition. Alan declared five of his 14 entries and was rewarded with a treble, including the winners of both feature Open races.
The first of three consecutive wins for Woodway Farm came in the fifth race of the day, the AGA-sponsored Ladies Open, with the prolific Start Royal, who made all, jumping superbly in the main for Gina Andrews, to win without being extended from No No Bingo, who just pipped Jack Bene for second. Michael Avery, one of the successful owners, told me about the horse (with occasional interruptions from trainer's wife Lawney). "He's just amazing," beamed Michael. "He's won 19 races for us now, from just 34 starts – 17 point-to-points and two Hunter Chases and is unbeaten in four races here at Kingston Blount. He hasn't changed since we got him as a four-year-old – he was wild then and he's still wild now. But he's so experienced – if he does make a mistake, he sorts himself out." Plans for the 11-year-old include a trip to Kimble on Easter Saturday, where he will bid for a twentieth win.
The Hill stable followed up immediately in the three-runner Bonhams Mens Open, where Ravethebrave carried trainer's son Joe to a facile success from Count Salazar – who kept pace with the winner for most of the race but was ultimately well-beaten and the reluctant Princely Hero. Lawney – "I'm just the bottle-washer", and Joe – "I do whatever the old man says" were reluctant to discuss plans in Alan's absence but Joe did confess that Ravethebrave is his favourite horse, having carried him to victory on his first ever rides in both point-to-points and Hunter Chases. "I've won eight races on him now," Joe told me and – in the absence of plans for his winner – was keen to tell me about his own plans. "I've ridden five winners this season now and I'd like to get to at least ten, maybe fifteen." More immediately, he rides Consigliere in the Cheltenham Foxhunters this week and is "absolutely buzzing" about the horse's chances.
Brian's Well completed the local yard's treble in the latest Subaru Restricted qualifier. Always travelling well under the masterful James Tudor, the eight-year-old gelding went second at the bottom of the Crowell Knoll hill on the first circuit and moved into the lead from Aboo Dreamer at the same point one lap later. He galloped his seven rivals into submission and finished alone, the gallant Aboo Dreamer finally refusing at the last having tried in vain to keep pace with the easy winner.
Owner Rodney Mann, who also has the classy Sharp Suit in the yard confirmed not only that he spotted "six and a half" tigers on his recent trip to India, but that he too is waiting for his trainer to confirm plans. "We may go for an Intermediate or a Confined. He's a nice little horse – as well as winning twice, he's been second twice behind decent horses. He's honest and he'll stay, so I'm sure we'll have some fun with him.
Alan Hill (who was too busy saddling runners to talk between races!) had to settle for second in the concluding event – the fourth race of the day that was sponsored as part of a national series – the Connolly's Red Mills Intermediate qualifier. His Man of Steel was no match for Full Trottle, given a patient ride by Sam Painting, but held on for second from the fast-finishing Kazuri Kate.
This race saw only twelve fences jumped, with the three in the back straight omitted due to low sun. Trainer Laura Thomas confesses that this may have helped her six-year-old, who threw his chance away at Godstone last time out with a dreadful blunder. "He makes about two mistakes every race," admitted Laura, "but he has grown up a lot this season and has learned to settle. He made it look easy today and should step up to Opens." What about the final of the series, at Cheltenham in April? "I don't see why he shouldn't go there but Dad probably doesn't want to!" Dad is owner and well-known character Norman Thomas, who told me that his immediate plan is the VWH Members Race at Siddington in two weeks time.
The opening race, the Maiden for four, five, six and seven year-olds had to be divided on the day, as the 17 declarations exceeded the safety limit of 14. Both divisions were sponsored by Start Royal's owner Michael Avery on behalf of the Brentham Cricket Club and both went to first-time winning owners.
The first of the two divisions was won by Lady Barfad, galvanised by Toby Betambeau to lead on the run-in after Mr Raj – who had quickened clear two out – made a mistake at the last, with outsider Darsi's Pass back in third. "Wow, that was a surprise!" admitted winning trainer Pauline Harkin. "We knew she had it in her, but she's had lots of problems." The win was an emotional moment for owner Juliet White. "My sister-in-law, Pauline McNeill, bought her at Doncaster Sales in 2010. When she passed away from cancer, she left her to me." Juliet rides out Lady Barfad once a week at Pauline's stable near Chipping Warden in Northamptonshire and describes the mare as her "precious pony".
Division two was taken easily by favourite Cyrius Moriviere, who took up the running at the open ditch on the final circuit and gradually extended his lead to win unchallenged from the fast-finishing debutant Rollo's Reflection and Templefortune. Cyrius Moriviere is the first – and only – horse trained by Steve Barry and his fiancée, winning jockey Katy Lyons, at Lockinge in Oxfordshire.
The five-year-old was not winning out of turn, having been second twice at Cottenham and Barbury Castle, the latter behind Lotus Pond, who has won three times since. "He fully deserved that," confirmed the winning owner-trainer. "We bought him cheaply as Ascot Sales and he's done nothing but thrive. He's probably worth a bit more now!" Another date with the auctioneer beckons, according to Katy. "We're going to send him to Cheltenham Sales and he'll definitely be a better horse next year."
The older horse Maiden Race went to Celtic Intrigue, who was given an intelligent ride by Andrew Barlow to make all the running and win cosily from East Anglian raiders Cathedral of Pines and the favourite We've Got Company. Every time the chasing pair looked to be closing on the winner, he pulled out more. "He hated the ground there", said trainer Michael Kehoe when asked about Celtic Intrigue's disappointing run at Horseheath last time. "and the blinkers made all the difference. He was a front-runner for Tom George under rules and he kept quickening, didn't he?" Michael has high hopes for his only other point-to-pointer, Brackloon High, in the Cheltenham Foxhunters on Friday, where he will again be ridden by Andrew Barlow for father Mark.
The fourth race on the day, the KBRC Members Conditions Race, was a real family affair. Sponsored by Bob Groves and family in memory of his late son Jack, the prize was taken by Working Title, owned by Paul Drinkwater, trained by older son Sam and ridden by younger son Joe! The 18-year-old always had Working Title prominent behind early leader One Wish before taking it up before the sixth fence. Challenged by Niki Royal five out, the experienced 13-year-old went back into the lead at the third last and kept on gamely to bring home the spoils from Niki Royal and Master Workman.
The Drinkwater family were out in force, including the owner's wife Karen and father Dave. Only trainer Sam was missing – riding Master Sunrise to victory at Didmarton. Although it was the horse's third win of the season, "it was the first time he's had his ground, which is why we came here" Paul told me. The horse was bought at Ascot in 2013 as a schoolmaster for Joe, who has now won five times on him. Joe, who works alongside Sam for Tom Lacey, confirmed that "he's an absolute star. He's straightforward, keen, and just pricked his ears when Niki Royal came alongside me." Working Title, one of two trained by Paul, is obviously a stable pet, known as Barry after a certain Mr Geraghty who used to ride the horse when Nicky Henderson trained him!