Barbury was clear and sunny, but crisp and cold last Sunday for its first of four meetings this season. A fair-sized crowd was rewarded with an excellent turnout – of 85 horses entered, 65 took part.
The highlight of the card, both on paper and on the day, was the Mixed Open – sponsored for the first time by Equine Health Centre Ltd. 19 of the 25 entries stood their ground, including John Corbet victor Now Ben, Lilbitluso – who had such an outstanding season in 2015 – and Ericht, useful under rules for Nicky Henderson, who was present to watch daughter Camilla ride. The spoils, however, went to Iberico, following up last year's success in the same race and initiating a double for rider Sam Jukes and owners Clive and Eileen Bennett. Always handy in mid-division, the 11-year-old made smooth progress to lead three out and score comfortably by five lengths from Lilbitluso, who was always prominent and made a pleasing comeback after a truncated 2016/2017 campaign. Big Casino, who also raced up with the pace, was eight lengths back in third on his debut between the flags.
"It was worth cleaning the cup after all," laughed a delighted Clive. "When we saw the entries, we thought we had no chance this year, but that was extraordinary. He's 11 going on 12, but he's still improving." "We've had him since he was five and bought him from Padge Berry," added Eileen, who took no credit for this impressive victory. "Sam (who also trains Iberico) plans the whole thing," she confirmed. "It's all about the jockey." Iberico is likely to stay pointing, but the winning trainer-rider refused to be drawn on plans, saying only, "We'll see how he comes out of the race. He's direction-dependent – he wants a flat left-handed track and soft ground is best."
Emma Alvis, owner-trainer of Big Casino, was responsible for the Bennetts' and Sam's second scorer – Chasforgold in the Tony Kemp Memorial Intermediate, a competitive 10-runner contest. His jockey again kept Chasforgold mid-division and, despite a bad mistake at the fifth, he stayed in touch with the leaders before jumping to the front five out and repelling the persistent challenges of firstly Robin Des Bois and then the patiently-ridden Palmaria, holding the latter at bay by a length, with Robin Des Bois a neck back in third.
"I thought he'd run well," confirmed Emma. "He was second in this race last year, even though he was still a maiden, and is stronger this year. He had a hard race there," she continued of the big, rangy eight-year-old, "So probably won't run again until January. He likes the track and loves this ground." Winning owner Eileen Bennett told me that, despite all the years she and Clive have been owning pointers and the 80+ winners they've owned, this is only their second ever double. Asked about plans for Chasforgold, she smiled, "What plans? Ask Emma – we do as we're told!" It was also a second career double for rider Sam Jukes, who admitted, "It feels as good as the first!" Turning serious, he claimed not to be worried about the mistake on the first circuit, saying, "He gets away from his fences well."
After Sam and the Bennetts, the hero of the day was 16-year-old Connor Brace, who rode his first winner over fences just seven days after having his first rides in points. He was successful on William Money – on whom he was second last week – for his grandfather, long-time pointing supporter David Brace, in the 12-runner Dodson & Horrell (whose sponsorship of the sport is almost twice as old as Connor!) Novice Riders race. The contest looked to have got away from the odds-on favourite after Tim Gredley kicked Just Cause into the lead at the ninth and went clear three fences later but Connor showed he has a cool head, staying in touch with the leader and heading him two out, scoring cosily in the end by eight lengths. The fast-finishing Vaillant Creek was a further 15 back in third.
"That was fantastic – the most pleasure I've ever had from a race," was a visibly emotional David Brace's first reaction afterwards. "Connor rode a lovely race. It sounds blasé, but I wasn't worried (when Just Cause went clear). He knows about pace from his pony racing, the horse stays forever and he always had the leader in his sights." David was also unfazed by bringing William Money out so soon after his previous race, laughing, "I was more concerned about Connor winning!" and – with three winners already this season – admits that it's been, "A cracking start. The horses are the best we've ever had."
"The plan was to jump off handy and blitz the others but I just sat quietly as I knew he'd keep galloping," was Connor's verdict on the way the race unfolded. David had two entries and Connor admitted, "I wanted to run the other one but Grandad told me to run William Money." Despite his youth, Connor has plenty of experience, having been riding in pony races since the age of nine and having ridden 45 winners in that sphere. He has spent time with Philip Hobbs but is back with David for the pointing season, where he hopes to follow in the footsteps of James Bowen as champion novice rider. And he has a commendably mature attitude to his future. "I'll see how I get on," he told me. "I'll probably do a second season pointing before turning conditional – Mr Hobbs will let me know when I'm ready."
All six entries faced the starter in the Surrey Cook Conditions race, for eight-year-olds and over who hadn't won (Members races expected) for two years, and there was a red-hot favourite in the shape of Fran Nimmo's Rendezvous Peak, with multiple champion Will Biddick in the saddle. Long odds-on punters looked likely to collect when he hit the front at the eighth and quickened clear, however Solly Wood on Sentimentaljourney tracked the leader throughout, heading him two out and going on to score by 12 lengths, with Shangani eight lengths further back.
"It's the first runner in my name, and our first winner," confirmed owner-trainer Robert Varnham. "I ride the horses out, but my wife Lucie does all the hard work!" The Varnhams have four horses at their yard at Bramley, near Guildford, where Don Underwood (father of pointing owner-trainer Tim) was based. "We used Don's gallops," Robert went on, saying of Sentimental Journey, "Lucie bought him online – he's a bit of a bugger at home, but once you lunge him, he's good as gold. And Solly, who rode for us last year, gave him a perfect ride." At this point the successful jockey – achieving his second career victory – joined us, saying, "I wasn't worried that Will had gone on – the horse had plenty in him." Solly worked for Alan Hill last season and is now with Jonjo O'Neill, where he looks after six horses. "I'm hoping to pick up a couple of rides for Jonjo," Solly admitted. "But I'll ride any horses I can, for the experience, and hope the winners come along. I'm planning to take out a Category B (amateur) licence, but go conditional? Let's see what happens?"
The first of the two Maidens on the card, for Mares and Fillies sponsored by the Jockey Club and NAF, had just seven declarations but plenty of early incident. River Dun unshipped Darren Edwards going down to the start and was withdrawn, then Elska jumped into odds-on favourite One Big Love at the first – causing her to unseat – before refusing herself at the second. This left just four to race two circuits and Pique Rock took full advantage of the jolly's early departure, tracking pacesetter Act Like You Know before jumping to the head of affairs at the final cross fence. After that, the five-year-old was always in command and went on to win by an easy eight lengths, with Sackable Offence third, ten lengths behind her stablemate.
Owner Juliet Minton was absent, "Taking 13 foals to Newmarket," according to bloodstock agent husband David, who acted as spokesperson for winning connections, with trainer Phil Rowley and rider Alex Edwards rushing off to saddle Now Ben in the next race. "But she listened on the phone as I told her, 'Don't worry, she's trotting up!' She's a homebred, David continued. "And we like her a lot. She was at Phil's as a baby, then went to (Barbury trainer) Alan King's – you can see her box from this paddock! She ran well at Cheltenham then lost the plot, so she had a wind operation in the spring. She's been working well at home and is still a little bit buzzy, so she'll probably have a season pointing then go back to Alan's."
The final contest, the Valley Equine Hospital Maiden over two-and-a-half miles, saw 12 go to post and was won comfortably by 33/1 outsider Lily's Got Wings, who jumped superbly and was confidently ridden by Jack Andrews for Leamington Hastings handler Julie Wadland, who is also responsible for useful types like Golden Tobouggan and All Great N Theory. With the damaged cross-fence omitted, she took the lead as early as the second and never saw a rival after that. Alex Edwards on the well-fancied The Sting harried her after a circuit but never looked likely to prevail and was beaten when falling at the last, leaving U No Like a remote second, with the only other finisher Troed Y Melin tailed off.
"We bought her unseen from Richard Curran in Ireland," said Julie in the winners enclosure of her five-year-old, who was led in by leading jockey Claire Hardwick. "She'd run three times there and is a quirky little thing, keen and buzzy – a right pocket rocket! We didn't know what to expect but she needs to learn to settle, which is why we ran her over two-and-a-half miles rather than in the Mares Maiden. Hopefully she'll make a Ladies horse for Claire." "I didn't have much choice!" laughed Jack about his decision to make the running. "As soon as she turned down the hill, she was away. She gained lengths at every fence and The Sting couldn't get close to us." Julie's husband Charlie – as so often – had the final word. "We'll look for a Restricted over the same trip," he confirmed with a smile, "But let's see what the morning brings!"
The next meeting at the track, the Barbury International point-to-point, is on Saturday 20th January and advance tickets can be bought online at www.barburyraces.co.uk
Visit www.pointtopoint.co.uk for full results from this meeting.