Although Storm Katie had wreaked her havoc across the country overnight, the traditional Old Berkshire Easter Monday point-to-point races – sponsored by Cazenove – were never in doubt. While the day was cold, with a biting wind early on, a smaller than usual crowd was rewarded with blue skies and it was a shame that there were not more runners on the day, from a good initial entry of 101.
Honours went to trainer James Henderson and his son, jockey Freddie, who completed a double with Thanks For Coming in the feature Cazenove Capital Mixed Open and Say No in the Bear at Wantage (Arkells) Confined race, both of which were three-runner races and both of which resulted in comfortable victories, despite the winners finishing tired in the holding ground, which had changed from Good going to Soft in the space of 48 hours as a result of all the rain.
Say No made all the running and jumped well in the main to come home fifteen lengths clear of Trouble Digger, the only other finisher. With James Henderson rushing off to saddle a runner in the next, it was left to wife Lucinda to express her relief that the ten-year-old, out of their successful broodmare Arcady, had made a winning return from over a year out through injury. "He ruptured a tendon after winning the Lord Ashton of Hyde's Cup at Cocklebarrow," confirmed Lucinda. "I've never seen a horse more down and it was touch and go whether we retired him. We wanted to, but James didn't! We're really pleased… and totally relieved. It's fantastic that he's back." Lucinda disagreed with my assertion that the horse jumped well. "He continues to jump appallingly," she laughed. "He finds the fences a complete nuisance and we're really trying to get him to respect them!"
Winning jockey Freddie Henderson admitted to being "very nervous" about Say No, given the horse's injury problems. "He was never meant to race again," confessed the jockey, "But all he wants to be is a racehorse, so it's only right to try and run him again." Freddie contradicted his mother, saying "He jumped better than normal, and loves bounding out in front!" Asked about plans, he admitted that the horse's legs would be unlikely to stand up to a Hunter Chase but that he stays all day, so may go for the four-miler at the next meeting at Kingston Blount.
Like his stablemate, Thanks For Coming tried to make all, but he was at least given a race by Shane O'Keeffe on High Kite, who joined the leader at the sixth fence. The pair duelled for a circuit before High Kite went a couple clear. Freddie Henderson always had the leader in his sights though and, when he retook pole position three out, the race was as good as over. Despite pecking at the last, Thanks For Coming finished a cosy four lengths in front of High Kite. This was the third race in a row in which only two finished.
"He's enjoying life at the moment," said owner-trainer James Henderson of the ten-year-old by Helissio, who was a good second at Siddington last weekend. "He had a hard race today but looks happy. He's a light horse, so we're really waiting for good or fast ground." James smiled when asked about his current purple patch, with all three of his season's wins coming in the past ten days. "Oliver James was the only one I really fancied, but he got beat."
Thanks For Coming was formerly trained by James' second cousin, Nicky Henderson, and is in his second season between the flags. "We've only got him right this season," admitted jockey Freddie Henderson. "He showed good form at Siddington and this was a confidence booster." Freddie – who is studying History at Newcastle University – echoed his father's words that the horse wants better ground and is tempted by the Hunter Chase meeting at Stratford in May, but said "Exams make that one a nightmare for me!"
Both the Henderson runners were hot favourites, but one that got away – as his trainer admitted – was another odds-on shot, Oliver James in the opening Oka-sponsored Kykie Allsopp Members race, for which four went to post. The nine-year-old duelled for the lead throughout, but could never shake off second favourite Medieval Chapel, part owned by a rather better known Henderson (to the casual racegoer at least) in the shape of the aforementioned Nicky. Camilla Henderson had the advantage of the inside rail jumping the last and round the final bend, and was always holding the market leader to win by a cheeky five lengths. They were the only finishers.
Nicky Henderson thinks Medieval Chapel was the first winner between the flags to carry his colours since former high-class hurdler Geos won the Novice Riders race here, also ridden by Camilla, ten years ago. "But my father Johnny won this race quite a few times back in the 1960s," he added. "He's a genuinely nice horse," said Nicky of the eight-year-old Ballingarry grey. "I had him in training last year, when he was owned by Ronnie Bartlett, who also has Simonsig." Nicky was keen to stress his affection for point-to-pointing. "For us, it's a big grass roots thing. Lots of youngsters are coming through pony racing and we buy a lot of pointers from Ireland."
Medieval Chapel was a third win of the season for owner-trainer-rider Camilla Henderson, who has also been successful on the high-class Khyber Kim this year. "It's the first time I've beaten (cousin) Freddie," she exclaimed afterwards, admitting that she stole a march by taking the final bend on the inside. "I said to Freddie, 'I'm going wide, so come with me'" she laughed. "There were 19 runners in his last race and it wasn't very nice for him, so I wanted him to enjoy it today," Camilla continued. "The first time cheekpieces sharpened him up and we'll keep him going now, as he'll prefer the better ground." My final question was about her father's Champion Chase winner Sprinter Sacre. "I've never sat on him," confessed Camilla. "You can ride him if you can make him get three miles," laughed Nicky.
The biggest cheers of the day came after the five-runner Genesis Care Restricted Race. Winner Porlock Bay returned to a chorus of "Happy Birthday" for owner-trainer Luke Harvey, who was celebrating a half-century (of years rather than winners). Despite jumping to the right at times under champion jockey Gina Andrews, the favourite tracked early leaders Glassawine and Eastern Witness before moving to the front five out and was unchallenged to score by 20 lengths from market rival Rescued Glory, who may have been closer had he jumped more fluently. Eastern Witness stayed on for a remote third.
Porlock Bay hadn't run since a fourth at Larkhill in early January, since when he's had a wind operation, "Although I'm not sure it's made much difference," admitted Luke. Asked if a win on his birthday was the target, Luke agreed. "I was looking her or at Hackwood Park, where he won his Maiden for Page Fuller. There was no race for him there today so this was ideal with the rain (to soften the ground)." He praised winning rider Gina Andrews. "To get the best female rider in the country was a major boost. Darren 'Fatty' Edwards is normally on board but he's never managed to win on him. And yes… you can quote me on that!" Porlock Bay is likely to improve for this, as his trainer admitted, "I was so busy at Cheltenham for 5 Live that I didn't get as much work into him as I'd have liked." The birthday and victory celebrations were set to continue after racing and, as I write this, hangovers are probably being nursed after a big party at the White Horse at Woolstone.
Just three went to post for the closing contest, the Redrow Open Maiden, but it proved a competitive event, with all the runners in contention at the last. Joint-favourite Emgee led early on sufferance at a very slow pace before Spessartine pulled his way to the front at the second. Jumping well, the outsider led from Ginuwinefizz with Emgee settled in third under a confident James Martin, but could never shake off his pursuers. Emgee quickened clear round the final bend to score by six lengths from Ginuwinefizz, with Spessartine ten lengths away in third.
Emgee was a first winner of the season for Condicote-based Andrew Campbell, who scored at Cheltenham with 100/1 shot Charles Bruce three years ago. "We've had an awful start to the year," he explained. "We lost three horses early in the season." Emgee was bought from Aoife Clarke in Ireland and Andrew confirmed, "He's by Sandmason and is an out-and-out racehorse. We've got no plans at the moment, but he's for sale and will make a proper chaser." Andrew has 11 pointers in training, most of whom haven't run yet, and he is particularly keen on two unnamed youngsters by Royal Anthem and Spadoun.
The Cornbury Festival Veteran & Novice Riders race saw that rare occurrence – a race declared void because no horse managed to finish. The contest was a match between Lively Baron and Nodforms Violet, who was given an uncontested lead until he hit the seventh fence – an open ditch – hard and gave rider Harry Marsh no chance of staying in the saddle. Lively Baron, under owner-rider James McNeile, was hesitant at every fence and looked even more reluctant when left solo, almost falling at the ninth before refusing the next and dumping his jockey unceremoniously into the wings. Luckily, all participants live to fight another day, but how many of the crowd would have been aware of the "void race" rule entitling them to have their stakes returned?