The merry month of May is almost upon us, but conditions still felt wintry at Whitfield last weekend – for the Farmers Bloodhounds meeting sponsored by Towcester and Onley Equine Vets – as the sun struggled to break through an overcast sky and racegoers were welcomed by a chill wind. They also had plenty of action to take in, with three pony races, seven point-to-point contests and a Hunt Challenge Ride over one and a half circuits of the course and eleven fences. Clerk of the Course Graham Tawell and his team have done great work on the course following the abandonment of the previous meeting and were rewarded with 56 runners in the main events.
The Ladies Open – sponsored by Friends of the Farmers Bloodhounds who wish to remain anonymous – had the smallest field of the day with just three going to post. However, it attracted the stars of the show, both equine and human, in the form of 24-time winner Start Royal and Ladies Champion Gina Andrews as well as the prolific mare Dabinett Moon with Claire Hart – who is chasing Gina hard in this year's title race – on board. The third runner, Little Legend, a winner of 14 starts himself, made most before being joined by Start Royal at the fourth last. As they came down the hill, Dabinett Moon quickened into the lead. She soon went four lengths clear and, despite Start Royal rallying on the run-in, held on to win by one and a half lengths, with Little Legend twenty back in third.
"She's delightful," beamed owner Christopher Marriott of the Midnight Legend eight-year-old, trained by wife Fran and out of their own mare Miss Crabapple. "We bred her, we train her and we ride her at home. She's a star and she's so much stronger this year. It's just lovely having her." Asked to compare her to previous horses they've bred from their foundation mare Windfall, Fran said "She's got more speed than a lot of them" and Christopher added "And she's probably got more ability," before agreeing that her uncle Old Applejack, who they sold as a three-year-old and who enjoyed plenty of success under rules for Howard Johnson, was probably the best of the lot.
Immediate plans are to run at Kingston Blount in a fortnight, although she may go back under rules with Charlie Longsdon in a bid to gain some 'black type'. "Claire thinks that brush hurdles will really suit her," confirmed Chris. The winning jockey – now on 17 for the season and four behind Gina Andrews – was effusive. "She's got an amazing turn of foot and she'd win over two and a half miles. She's just so… per-ching!" I know what Claire means, even if I don't know how to spell it. Claire confirmed that she hasn't given up on her title challenge. "I'm going to keep trying. I've got a couple at home that haven't run yet," she told me.
East Anglian-based David Kemp brought three from his Thetford yard and went home with a double. He ran two in the Veterinary Centre at Maids Moreton Intermediate Race and while well-fancied Brave Encounter flattered to deceive, making the early running before dropping out to finish a distant fourth, it was Curraigflemens and Shane Roche, less well-supported at 5/1, who came out best in a driving finish. Claire Hart looked to have stolen the race when moving into the lead on Executive Benefit at the final ditch and going clear three out, but the winner and Velvet Cognac were closing down the hill and a sloppy jump at the last sealed Pauline Harkin's mare's fate. Executive Benefit kept on, but was passed by Curraigflemens and Velvet Cognac on the run-in and the former was given the verdict by a neck, with the mare half a length away in third in the best finish of the day.
Shane Roche was winning his fifth race of the season – and third of the weekend after a double at Parham on Saturday – from 31 rides. The Irish jockey, who is now based in the South East – working for Nick Pearce as well as riding out for David Phelan – is unsure whether to keep going for the rest of the season or retain his novice status for next year. "I'll just take it as it comes and keep grafting," he said. Owner John Ridge chipped in when I asked Shane if he'd ridden for the Kemps before. "He's ridden this one four times for me," he laughed. John has had horses with David Kemp and his father Malcolm for 15 years, the best being Bard Of Drumcoo and Where's My Baby. He also had one called Fiftiesonfire, named after his love of point-to-pointing. "It's the biggest adrenalin rush in the world," he laughed again. "But you might as well set light to your money!" Curraigflemens, his only current horse, may not be finished for the season as the owner has his eye on a Novice Hunter Chase at Fontwell Park.
David Kemp completed his double on Zagmeister in the JS Ambler & Son Farmers Conditions Race. The nine-year-old by Zagreb, making his seasonal debut, took over from front-running Shakalakaboomboom four out and was always comfortable in the lead, not extended to win by four lengths, with Catch Tammy almost 30 lengths back in third. "Trainer error!" was David's frank explanation for why Zagmeister hasn't been seen on a course until now. "He's the best jumper you'll ever sit on, but I decked him at Newmarket and he punctured his leg with birch. I left him in his box and four weeks later we're here." David was noncommittal about plans, smiling as he said, "He'll make a perfect schoolmaster."
Winning rider Sam Davies-Thomas was also completing a double, taking him on to 17 for the season. "I think that's my fifth double of the season," said Sam, (correction: it's actually your sixth!) who is locked in a close battle with Will Easterby and John Mathias to be runner-up in the Gentleman Riders Title behind the uncatchable Will Biddick. "I just want to keep riding and stay safe," confessed Sam of his ambitions for the rest of the year, although he did admit to looking forward to the return of the Kemps' stable star Moroman, who may bid for a repeat victory in Stratford's Horse & Hound Cup.
Sam Davies-Thomas initiated his double in the Subaru Restricted on Chris Loggin's Bit Of A Barney, a rare 13-year-old winner in this grade. This habitual front runner led early but was passed by Phil York on Tim Underwood's Irish import Deise Vu with a circuit to go after well-backed favourite Hi Lucy Lou had given Richard Collison a crashing fall at the tenth. The pair drew clear of their pursuers, with Deise Vu always looking to be going the better. However, after a slight mistake at the last, he seemed to find little off the bridle and Bit Of A Barney went past again on the run-in to score by three lengths, with Don't Budge Me making late progress for 25 lengths third.
Bit Of A Barney was the second horse of the day to win from Chris Loggin's local Hinton-in-the-Hedges yard. "That's my first 'unofficial' double in 40 years' training," laughed the winning trainer, as he explained why the horse is still running at this level despite his advanced years. "He's gone wrong twice and he's missed two years completely. We've run him more times this year than ever before." The horse – who has only once been out of the frame in 11 career starts – was a popular success for long-standing pointing supporter Richard West. "I had my first winner in 1968," recalled the winning owner, "And I've won the Open at Kimble five times. I don't know why I love this sport – I've been tempted to call it a day but never have!" Richard's many good horses over the years have included One More Knight and – for those with longer memories – Robin's Tango, who once won eight times on the trot and helped Jenny Pidgeon, another local trainer, to one of her championship victories.
The Hunt Members race – another event sponsored by a supporter preferring to stay incognito – was won for the second year in a row by Towering Run, trained by Tash Rose (from Chris Loggin's yard) for her father Trevor. Held up in rear by Shane O'Keeffe and given reminders from an early stage, the ten-year-old made gradual progress behind leader and odds-on favourite Rev It Up before edging in front jumping the last and scoring by half-length in a driving finish. Katesoneoneeight was 13 lengths back in third.
"The ground just came right for him," said a delighted Trevor Rose. "He's had a leg injury and wants good going." Towering Run is the first horse owned by Trevor and trained by Tash, who explained how she got him. "Stephen Astaire used to have him in the yard and I looked after him and always liked him, despite his leg problems." She grinned before admitting, "This was the plan all year. I trained him for this, as I knew the ground would be decent. I like Whitfield and it's our local track so Dad's friends come and watch - it's a lovely day out!" Winning rider Shane O'Keeffe confirmed the plan. "He wants rattling quick ground and I told Tash not to worry if I drop him in and sit out the back." It was a second winner of the season – and seventh in total – for Shane, who had a slow start to the season due to a broken collarbone.
The remaining two contests went to raiders from outside the South Midlands area. The Town & Country Cars Novice Riders Race was won comfortably by hot favourite Real Milan, ridden by Jack Jones and trained by his father Nick. The 11-year-old Milan gelding sat off the fast pace set by Count Salazar and Terra Bleu on the first circuit, before making his way through the field and jumping to the front at the final ditch. He soon went clear and – despite the odd sticky leap – was never challenged in an 11-length win from a staying on Count Salazar. Paddycards, a first ride for trainer Kate Leahy, came with a strong late run into third having been tailed off for much of the race.
"He's been a great servant this season," said winning trainer Nick Jones of Real Milan, who he bought from Graham Whateley. "He'd lost his way," confessed Nick, "But Graham said he'd be a nice horse for point-to-points. The first time he ran at Larkhill, he pricked his ears coming out of his box and I've been pleased with him ever since. He's a real family horse – I ride him on the farm at home. I'm delighted to be back in pointing having been out for 20 years," continued Nick – who trained and rode Spartan Chief to win the 1991 John Corbet Cup and whose mother Gill trained the prolific Gambling Prince. "It's my eighth ride – all on him – and second winner," said son and winning rider Jack. "I was nervous today after a couple of unseats, so I walked the course with Dad and did as I was told – got up there by the ditch and didn't look round!" Jack, a final year student at Reading University, has exams coming up but hopes to ride the horse once more this year, in the Novice Riders Final at Garthorpe or the Lady Dudley Cup on its rearranged date.
The Open Maiden Race, sponsored by a bunch of local Trainers and Owners too numerous to mention here, went the way of Joanne Priest's Alfstar, one of four favourites to win on the day. Always prominent, Hannah Lewis tracked eventual runner-up Magic Symphony from halfway before taking command at the second last. Despite a untidy jump at the last and hanging left on the run-in, the pair held on to win by three and a half lengths, with Spessartine coming from a long way back to finish 18 lengths third after a remarkable recovery from Gina Andrews at the ditch.
"He's Jo's first home-bred winner and has never been away from the yard," confirmed part owner Phil Rees, who bought a half-share at the start of the season. "He's been such an unlucky horse. He fell when upsides Ask The Weatherman at Larkhill two years ago, missed last year, was second in a good race on his reappearance then was going well when brought down at Didmarton… He's never actually been in front before today – maybe that's why he hung." It was a first winner as an owner for Phil, a former reporter between the flags for the Sporting Life and the plan is "To try to win a Restricted on decent ground." Winning rider Hannah Lewis echoed Phil's views on the horse. "He's been unfortunate and would have won at Didmarton. Even though he's eight, he should progress because he's huge – and by Alflora." She smiled when confirming it was her third winner of the season – "That's below normal, but I'm getting older so I'm selective in who I ride for!"
First past the post in the Hunt Challenge Ride was Freeze Up, who was last seen winning the Hunt Members race here two years ago under today's rider Zoe Andrews. However, that wasn't enough to earn her the victory spoils, as Galen and Jamie Temple completed the course closest to the "bogey" time. No, I'm not entirely sure how that works either! Finally, over £200 was raised in support of the Banwen Miners point-to-point – whose fences were destroyed by arsonists – to add to a similar sum collected at Garthorpe. The organisers of both meetings would like to thank all who donated.