With a display of vintage cars, a birds of prey demonstration, a children's corner and a plethora of trade stands, as well as three pony races and seven thoroughbred contents, the organisers of last Sunday's Grafton point-to-point laid on a real afternoon of entertainment.
The last in the series of races sponsored by AGA in their All-Comers Championship, the final of which takes place at Chaddesley Corbett next Monday, was the Intermediate, won in impressive fashion by Alan Hill's Man Of Steel with son Joe on board. Always prominent, he jumped into the lead at the final open ditch to win comfortably from early leader Come On You, with Uber Alles back in third. "We didn't have the best preparation for this," admitted the trainer. "We were held up for an hour on the M40 and the horse sweated up." Man Of Steel will now go out to grass for the summer. "He's only six and a bit special," beamed winning owner Toby Hunt. "He goes on any ground and has already won six races, including three 'bumpers' and we hope to go Hunter Chasing with him next season." Both Alan and Toby confirmed that they would be taking horses to Chaddesley Corbett in their separate bids to win the prize of an AGA to the leading owner in the series.
Those "graftin' at the Grafton" in search of a winner had cause to curse their luck as a fancied contenders came to grief in each of the next three races when looking the likely winner. The first of the unfortunates was Chris Loggin's Cutlass Silver – winner of this John White Funeral Directors Ladies Open for the past two years – who had just passed long-time leader Ukrainian Star and was going well in front of favourite History Master when he unshipped Claire Wills at the third last. This left History Master to come home a long way clear in the hands of Hannah Lewis from Ukrainian Star, the only other finisher.
"Didn't Hannah give him a great ride!" exclaimed winning trainer Jo Priest, of the only horse currently in training at her Abberley, Worcestershire yard. "We're on a bit of a sabbatical this year," she admitted, "But we've got six to come in for next season." Asked about how she keeps the 13-year-old in such good form, Jo confirmed, "He's never sick and is a joy to ride. He's a real family horse and we hunt him properly – I qualify him myself. We'll probably come back next year – we can't retire him after that." The trainer is an occasional, but successful, visitor to Whitfield. "We've had two wins, a second and a third from four runners,'" she said. "It's really good racing ground here and a proper galloping track."
The Novice Riders race, sponsored by Savills, saw Minella Theatre complete a double for Alan Hill under Albert Chandler. The unlucky horse here was Commanche Conflict, who fell at the second last when upsides the winner. "Alan Hill told me mine would have won!" said trainer Tim Underwood later. Minella Theatre made most of the running to win a shade cosily from Shantou Breeze with Hunters Lodge well back in third. He is the first horse owned by Paul Mulford and Hugh Jarvis, and has done them proud this year with two wins, two seconds and a third, despite fracturing a tibia at Fontwell in February.
"Hugh rides him at home. He's also (wife) Lawney's hack but I prefer it when Victoria Pendleton's on board," laughed Alan in reference to the former track cycling star, who has been riding out at the Hill yard in preparation for her well-publicised bid to ride at Cheltenham next year. "I'm really pleased for Albert Chandler, as he rides all our difficult horses at home." Minella Theatre himself had proved troublesome before his last outing, so his trainer made sure to lead him round at the start to prevent a repeat.
Subaru were the second national sponsor whose last qualifier for their series took place on Sunday. In their case, the Subaru Restricted final is at Stratford on 29th May. The Restricted saw possibly the unluckiest loser of all in the form of odds-on favourite Simonsruudt, who came to grief at the last when seeming to have got the better of eventual winner Silvogans Hook, who made the most of his good fortune to come home clear of outsider Zaffarans Scene and Nightscape.
Silvogans Hook races for the '2 Farmers & A Butcher Partnership', consisting of Michael Clarke, George Wright and Stevie Stevenson, who were gaining compensation for the earlier defeat of Uber Alles. "Maybe he was lucky and we didn't expect to beat the favourite," admitted Michael, "But jumping's the name of the game." "That's it for this year," confirmed trainer Andrew Pennock, who was saddling his 14th winner of a season that started slowly. "We had problems with the horses at Christmas," he admitted. "But the owners have been very supportive and we've had 12 wins since February. Training horses isn't like baking a cake – success doesn't happen instantly!"
Sirius Star, winner of the Macintyers-sponsored Maiden Race, needed no such luck, despite sweating heavily in the paddock beforehand and playing up at the start. Given a confident ride by the promising Hugh Nugent, who sent him to the front after four out, he quickened clear going down the hill to score easily from Oi Oi Savaloi – ridden by the evergreen Patrick Millington with his distinctive style – with Lucky To Be Alive in third.
"He's the first horse I've bred myself," said Angie Branson, the delighted winning owner, "And the first foal of the dam, who Dad gave me." Dad is Sidney Smith, whose black, blue and white colours are well-known on the South Midlands circuit, having been carried successfully by the likes of Mr Half Sharp and King Sirius, both of whom are half-brothers to Star Shell, the dam of the winner. Sirius Star is trained by Fran Nimmo, who is based at nearby Aston le Walls, and whose partner – jockey Charlie Poste – broke the winner in. As well as Charlie, owner and trainer were quick to thank Angie's daughter Katie, who "rides him out in the dark at 6am every day!"
The opening Heygate & Sons Members Race proved a real family affair, as the Smyth-Osbourne's Fermat won from Oscar Owen. The horse is joint-owned by father Charles and rider Ed, trained by mother Joanna and hunted by all three of them plus Ed's brothers Archie and William. Though 13, Fermat has only run nine times in seven seasons, with an admirable strike rate of three wins and five placings. But according to Joanna, the reason for his scarce appearances are down to jockey availability "It's been a case of finding the time for Ed to ride him – he's spent time abroad in Australia and Brazil and if he's not around to ride Fermat in races, we just go hunting with him!" Ed – assistant to leading flat trainer Michael Bell – said: "That's my third winner, and he's the only horse I've ever ridden in a race." Interestingly, all three brothers have finished third on Fermat in the Harborough Hunt Race.
The concluding event was a Conditions Race for ten-year-olds and over, sponsored by Beachborough School. Tallow Fair made amends for his recalcitrant behaviour at Kingston Blount recently – where he ducked into a hedge coming down the hill and unseated Katy Lyons – with an impressive performance on his return to a right-handed track. Always prominent, he jumped into the lead at the open ditch on the final circuit and quickened clear from odds-on favourite Credit Crunched and Picaroon. "He's alright going that way," was the understated comment from winning owner-trainer Tim Underwood. "He stays well and – as you can see – has a high travelling speed." Tallow Fair will be kept on the go this season as Tim bids to win the National Trainers Championship for handlers with seven horses or fewer.