Kingston Blount staged its fourth and final meeting of the year as the South Midlands Area season drew to a close. The weather was warm but overcast, although the threatened rain did not materialise and the sun broke through the clouds for the concluding race.
It was business as usual for Aston Rowant trainer Alan Hill, with a double in the Open Races taking his seasonal total to 29. "That's my best ever season," exclaimed the delighted trainer after his first winner. "I've got a good stable of horses and I'm spoilt," he continued, reeling off the names of top horses such as Quinz, Consigliere and Sharp Suit. "I'm also pleased with my strike rate, which is over one in three."
Alan's double was initiated in the Mens Open – sponsored in memory of Dickie Lim by his friends and family – by another stable star, Harbour Court, who was dropping back to points after his Cheltenham Hunter Chase victory last time. Although he won comfortably in the end, he was made to work hard for his victory, with Phil York on Master Workman setting a fierce pace alongside winning rider James Tudor. The two were always well clear of the field and, despite tiring after three out, Master Workman held on for second from Otto The Great.
"We came here for an easier race after Cheltenham, but it didn't work out that way!" laughed Alan. "James had to really squeeze him coming down the hill for the second time." Harbour Court has bounced back to form with a vengeance recently, having been below his best. "I told James that we've got the horse back," confirmed the trainer. "But it's taken me all season. Next year, we want to be back on the big stage and Cheltenham is on the agenda with the right ground."
The Hill double was completed by Start Royal in the Pangbourne Asphalt Ladies Open. Making all – as is his wont – under Gina Andrews and despite a mistake at the third last, the 11-year-old came home unchallenged from John Daniell with Major Decision a long way back in third, to land the 22nd success of his career for winning owner and Clerk of the Course here Stewart Nash.
Asked about what the horse is like at home, trainer's daughter Gaby pulled no punches. "He's an absolute legend but he's horrible. He runs with his head in the air and bolts. The other day, he was supposed to do a canter, but he went flat out as if it was a pony race!" Gaby made sure to pay credit to work rider Sian Hawkes – "she lets him get his own way". Alan Hill explained his disappointing run at Fontwell recently as being down to the soft ground and confirmed "Not only is he unbeaten in five here, he's never been beaten in the South Midlands Area. I don't think he's deteriorated at all." And he may not be finished for the season yet, with a possible trip to Bratton Down in Devon on the agenda.
Both Harbour Court and Start Royal were long odds-on, but a third Hill hotpot – my own Broken Eagle – was turned over in the Bilton & Johnson Intermediate. He made most of the running and jumped well but was not allowed to dominate in his usual manner. Tom David kept Banksandditches in close attendance throughout and, when he jumped into the lead five out, the favourite had nothing left. Banksandditches went on to win comfortably from Broken Eagle and We Never Give Up, on his first run for new trainer Clare Hobson.
"We bought him five weeks ago," the Royston-based trainer explained, "And we hoped he might improve for the change of yard. This race was the plan!" Clare is a regular visitor to Kingston Blount, winning here last year with Lotta Scares, who she rode herself. "But I haven't ridden this season," she said. "I've now got a permit to train under National Hunt rules and I've been busy with that." Banksandditches was her first winner of the season – her only other pointer, Irish Rebel, has been placed twice – and proved timely, with father and owner Harry celebrating his 63rd birthday!
The opening Members Race, sponsored by Carcomm Coachworks attracted six entries. They were all trained by Phil York, they all ran, and they all finished. The spoils went to Gamato, who led for most of the way and, despite a mistake at the second last, stayed on to win from the fast-finishing Do You Follow Me with Cork Twenty Ten, who was also prominent early, in third. The race was a fourth success for Gamato under his veteran owner-rider, former racing driver Richard Defago. "That was fun," was the reaction of the winning trainer, despite finishing last on his own ride Bachman. "We hunt them all the time and it's great that they all got round." Phil was especially pleased for Izzy Mills and Louise Ellis, achieving their first and second completions respectively on Do You Follow Me and Leafy Arbour.
Phil followed up his training success with a winning ride in the Restricted Race, sponsored by Scott Dunn's Equine Clinic on Blue Benny, a twelfth winner of the season for the incapacitated David Kemp, another frequent visitor to Kingston Blount from outside the area. "I had my ankle trodden on when Master Workman fell at Fakenham – that's it for the season for me" was the reason the Thetford trainer didn't ride the horse himself. And he paid compliment to the track. "I like coming here because they always produce such fantastic ground, with a good, level grass cover! And it's dual carriageway nearly all the way."
The race itself was a competitive affair, with the lead changing hands several times. Baroque Style looked the likely winner when he hit the front four out but Phil York on the favourite wore him down to win cosily, with Dream Mistress making a late run into third. Blue Benny has a reputation for quirkiness but his trainer feels it's undeserved. "He's not ungenuine, he just likes to have company. He was green last season and he threw a race away at Horseheath earlier this year but he wasn't right in the middle of the season and we've had to work hard to get him back." Blue Benny is one of four horses owner Barry Belchem has with David Kemp, including stable star Moroman, who Gina Andrews rides in a Hunter Chase at Stratford on Friday.
The day, and the season, ended with a win for My Brother Pat in the Eurosalt Maiden Race. The winner had finished a good fifth in the Restricted at the last meeting here, where Blue Benny was second, and looked a "gimme" on that form. Second early on, he led after the first open ditch and quickened clear five out. Despite tiring, he was helped by the last fence being bypassed and won easily from Darsi's Pass, who made late progress and Lucky To Be Alive.
My Brother Pat was the fourth winner of the year for former Financial Times journalist Chris Lawson, who trains at Bilsington, near Ashford in Kent. "It's our first full season training him," confirmed Chris. "He's been consistent this year and he loves his track. Chris Dennington always rides him and he deserved this win – he's been narrowly beaten on him twice by Bridget and Gina Andrews." Chris trains the horse for the Crown View Racing Club, who bought him in November and include his former colleague at the FT Annie Counsel and Mike Green.
South Midlands Area Awards 2015
Leading Owner Christopher & Frances Marriott – Dabinett Moon
Leading Trainer Alan Hill
Leading Gentleman Rider Joe Hill
Leading Lady Rider Claire Hart
Leading Novice Rider Freddie Henderson
Leading Mare Dabinett Moon