East Anglian trainers were busy at Market Rasen and Warwick this weekend, when talking horse Eileendover (pictured above) clocked up a hat-trick and Lucy Wadham also scored.
Eileendover is now a likely favourite for the Champion Bumper but there's no guarantee she'll even take her place at Cheltenham. AFter showing a spectacular turn of foot in the heavy ground at Market Rasen, she showed two fingers to Irish raider Grangee. Willie Mullins knows a thing or two about winning the Champion Bumper, so trainer Pam Sly's remark that she may skip Cheltenham for some Flat contests will be music to his ears.
Will she and her son (Eileendover's other owner) be able to resist the lure though?
Meanwhile, to set the ball rolling, Lucy Wadham sent to win his second race from 6 starts, and his first over hurdles, in the opener at Warwick. This quiet understated yard's 10 winners have now amassed more than £110,000 in prize money, and are on course to match or improve on their PB of three seasons ago.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Point-to-Point fixture secretaries have been doing their sums to see whether fixtures later in the season are viable behind closed doors, and the figures don't make pretty reading.
Before the latest lockdown, the area's 15 fixtures had already reduced by six. The lockdown has put paid to the Thurlow and Waveney Harriers, which leaves a restart at Horseheath on February 27th with the Cambridgeshire as the earliest fixture that could take place. Although the decimation of fixtures is nationwide, it feels a little like last man standing! Horses may have to travel further afield to find a run, but I suspect the racing that's left may be very competitive if we can get to stage some at all.
Britain's latest lockdown has put paid to Point-to-Point fixtures until at least the third week in February, and very likely later, notwithstanding the ability of organising hunts to stage subsequent fixtures. This has put increased importance on the relatively small number of Hunter Chases run under Rules at which horses can qualify for a place at Cheltenham or Aintree, but the current conditions risk marginalizing the very group from whence so much of Britain's riding talent emerges.
This will now be exacerbated by the INHSC's announcement today that Point-to-Point racing in Ireland will also be suspended with immediate effect.
To qualify for Cheltenham, a horse must, since October 1st 2018, have finished first or second twice in hunter chases, or have won two open Point-to-Points, or won one Open and finished first or second in a Hunter Chase. The closing date for entries is March 2nd. This means that even if the British lockdown allows Pointing to resume as early as February 20, there is a maximum of 22 opportunities remaining to qualify, but several of these are novice or maiden events.
The BHA is grappling with another conundrum surrounding Hunter Chases, given that racing is currently continuing under the DCMS description of "elite sport". Whilst elite sport has hitherto allowed for Amateur Rider races, Hunter chases fall outside this description, so amateur riders are now excluded from riding in the very races that have been staged for their benefit. Given the qualifying criteria imposed by the BHA on the Festival's amateurs after the disastrous National Hunt Chase of a few years back, this makes it still more arduous a process getting a Hunter and its rider to the start line.
In Ireland, a full programme of racing under Rules and between the flags had been continuing, albeit without spectators. The Irish authorities are now reassessing the situation in liaison with Horseracing Ireland to protect the Hunter Chase programme, where amateur riders may still take part. Whilst the efforts of British racecourses to continue the programme of Hunter Chases is admirable, and the lack of alternatives will make these races that much more competitive, will this not hand the advantage to Irish-trained horses come March?
Since 2015, Irish horses have won the upper hand in the Cheltenham Foxhunter. With the exception of 2015, when they fielded 10 of the 24 runners, they regularly pitch 6-8 of their best against ours. In four of those six years, including in 2020, they've prevailed.
There is one major snag playing against Irish advantage in the Amateurs' Gold Cup, which, if it comes to pass, will make Irish participation in the Festival impossible for a second time in 20 years. As it stands, the UK and Irish governments may prohibit horses from travelling between the two countries, especially if these originate outside licensed racing yards. It's a sure thing that both the BHA and IHA will be lobbying hard to guard against this in time for March and April.
Whilst restricting our best pointers solely to appearances on licensed racecourses, we may well improve the competitive nature of the limited number of hunter chases which to date have often been pot hunters among small fields, the volume, geographical reach and opportunity to ride on the big stage of a proper racecourse is what encourages many amateur riders, owners and keepers to participate. And for a second season in succession, Pointing is looking at a diminished fixture list to draw upon for its creme de la creme.
But if there's one bet to place therefore for this Festival, it'll be for an Irish winner of the Foxhunter.
In the light of the Prime Minister’s Announcement last night, the Point-to-Point Authority acted immediately to call a pause to the Point to-Point season from today.
Peter Wright, CEO of the governing body, remarked, "Whilst I know that many of you would have liked to press on, and indeed the sport remains inherently safe, we cannot claim that we are acting in a vacuum. The national situation is worsening, and that means amongst other things that the availability of medical assets is no longer assured. Even if those could be guaranteed, there is the likelihood of waits at hospitals for injured jockeys, and racing having to be stopped due to lack of ambulances on course."
The Stop-Start nature of the season thus far has not deterred keepers and riders from supporting fixtures with large entries and often 9 or 10 race programmes so far, achieved by dint of a largely volunteer cadre who run the meetings. Peter added, "We are hugely grateful for our volunteers' willingness to take on the enormous amount of work and stress that they have gone through to try to put on the meetings so far, and the occasional cancellation has not been due to lack of effort. However, this has reached intolerable levels over the past few weeks, and cannot continue."
The sport has opted for a clean break with the hope of restarting on weekend February 20/21, based on the government Tier Review on February 10, allowing participants to plan with some surety. Whilst this is disruptive, and even galling since racing under Rules may continue as an elite sport, it will still will leave 19 racing weekends until the end of the season during which over two thirds of the normal fixture list would normally run.
Let's be frank. The racedays between Ascot last weekend and Boxing Day aren't memorable by any stretch of the imagination, nor indeed, do they need to be, given everyone's priorities to get the last of the shopping done. Unless, of course, you're a long-suffering owner, or growing your reputation as a trainer or rider.
So there's particular satisfaction in the living rooms of several of our leading lady professionals this evening after a good day at the office at Huntingdon, on a day when the recent rain left the going merely Soft, rather than a total bog.
Last month, we drew attention to Lucy Wadham's successful National Hunt yard on the outskirts of Newmarket. Six year old French-bred Eclair de Guye transferred from Guy Taupin at Deauville to Newmarket 2 years ago, but since wind surgery over the summer, seems to have transformed. Three runs this term to date have resulted in a win, second and Pulled up. The grey gelding was unlucky not to win in his first trip over fences this term at Fontwell in October, when the saddle slipped; today's win at Huntingdon is his third from 16 starts, and cements a partnership with Bryony Frost.
Another female rider making a name for herself is Megan Nicholls, daughter of Paul. Whilst she has largely eschewed the Jumps for a Flat career, her father appreciates her ability to read the speed of a race clearly. She's ridden two Bumper winners for him in the space of under a week, and today's workaday performance from appropriately-named Rainyday Woman only reinforces the wealth of young equine talent at Ditcheat.
Not to be left out, Caroline Bailey notched up her fifth winner of the season in the handicap chase when Lord Sparky justified favouritism to win with a little in hand from Claire Dyson's Midnight Owle.
All eyes will be on Kempton on Boxing Day as the Nicholls stable seeks an unparalleled twelfth King George VI Chase. He runs four in the race, led by previous two-time winner Clan des Obeaux and Cyrname, but don't rule out his other contenders either. Gold Cup second Santini is a late supplementary entry.
On a more parochial Pointing level, the Harkaway on December 28 presents a rare recent opportunity for members of the public to enjoy this new season of Point-to-Point racing. In what promises to be a marathon card, spectators will be permitted, provided they have booked in advance. Visit www.chaddesleyraces.co.uk/buy-tickets-here to purchase.
Every year, the clamour around ante-post prices for the Festival's championship races seems to start earlier and earlier. Prices are touted for Maiden winners at Stratford or Roscommon in August, when in reality, trainers and owners are just finding their way with horses who've only just learned to jump.
Until recently, the Foxhunter Chase at the Festival was largely ignored in this frantic scurry of guesswork and assessment of potential for improvement. But now, even the Gold Cup for amateurs has fallen prey to the oddsmakers as they compete to price up every one of the Festival's 28 races.
And despite the fact that many likely British entries haven't even had their seasonal bow in a Point-to-Point, never mind the minor detail that the race is among the final entries to close barely 2 weeks before the event, 25 horses are already priced up by one bookmaker or another. And those prices tell us something about how the race has altered these past few years.
Since the turn of the millennium, the 20 renewals of the race have fallen to licensed trainers 9 times, with several scoring twice. Enda Bolger (twice), Paul Nicholls (four times) and other leaders of the sport like Jonjo O'Neill and Nigel Twiston-Davies have all played their part in the growing professionalisation of the race. Nigel T-D at least introduced his sons to their riding careers through the race, but for others, this represents another chance to win Festival glory (and the largest trophy of the Festival by a street).
And this trend seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Among those priced up, favourite Billaway - second in 2020 - is trained by Willie Mullins; in fact, of the first seven home in this year's race, currently priced from 5/1 to 33/1, only one was trained from a Point-to-Point yard.
What's more, the list is heavily predicated toward the Irish. Eight of the past 20 winners have come from Ireland, reinforcing the view that their Pointing scene is more competitive than ours. In fact, all bar one of the horses quoted to date has already won at least one Open this autumn already.
With the exception of Nicky Henderson, the race is considered fair game by just about every trainer in the UK and Ireland, which leaves little room for fairytales, even if this year's 66/1 winner ticked that box for the O'Sullivan family.
Among the British contingent, two owners have long harboured ambitions to carry off the Foxhunter Trophy. So it should be no surprise that David Maxwell, currently sidelined with an injury, should be targeting the race with one or more of Shantou Flyer (third in 2020), Bob and Co, a French-bred Nicholls import who won 2 Hunter chases last winter, and Jatiluwih, another French-bred and already a winner this term for Bethan Childs at Bishops Court.
Meanwhile, Weatherbys and Ascot Chairman Johnny Weatherby is represented by Red Indian and Top Wood, from Kelly Morgan's yard, the latter having won the Aintree Foxhunter in 2019 and been second to Pacha du Polder at Cheltenham in 2018.
Among the Irish, Billaway, second this Spring, has already advertised his claims with a 6 1/2l win over Winged Leader at Down Royal this month, whilst Enda Bolger could be represented by last season's fourth Staker Wallace and Stand Up and Fight, who beat Billaway at Fairyhouse in November, on,y for the form to be overturned earlier this month in that same race aat Down Royal.
You can never rule out Shark Hanlon or Eugene O'Sullivan. It Came to Pass will likely return for a second crack at the race in 3 months after his shock win in 2020.
Whilst the British Pointing scene has yet to identify improving horses ready to step up from Open races, Hazel Hill, the 2019 winner, should return again, alongside Wishing and Hoping, already on the scoresheet after a facile win at Maisemore in October.
Professional trainers spend their winter achieving a handicap mark of at least 140 to qualify for any of the Festival's 10 handicaps. It's turning into much the same exercise in the Foxhunter, where the average rating is 139. Compare this to your average Open to understand why the Pointing brigade are struggling to keep up.
Is this the direction in which we want the Foxhunter to head? We all applaud excellence, and there's little doubt winners of the race can hold their own on the bigger national stage represented by the Festival, but it seems a little of the romance of the amateur game has been lost. Some tweaking of the Rules seems justified to return some of the amateur ethos in a way that has not been lost in many Hunter chases and banks races at the Punchestown equivalent.
Meantime, spend a little time over the next 2 months identifying the best British chance to retain the Foxhunter in the UK.
Just recently, it's been the chance for the lesser lights of the Newmarket training fraternity to demonstrate their talents. Let's face it; when you think Newmarket, your first thoughts tend toward Ascot and York, not Cheltenham and Newton Abbot.
Hidden among the training establishments in the town, on Hamilton Road, and still further afield, there are dual purpose trainers who are more than capable of a little giant-killing of their own in the Jumps sector, and Newmarket's outstanding gallops and schooling facilities on the Links need leave no excuses if the horses are good enough.
Lucy Wadham is one such, having just enjoyed a very satisfactory weekend's work at Cheltenham. Two runners generated an ITV winner and a second in a good handicap on Friday, also on TV. This sort of exposure is what every trainer needs to illustrate the point that the obvious people are not always the best place to place your ownership interests.
Lucy's been training since 1989, and has over 300 scalps to her name over Jumps alone. Notable triumphs have included the Grade 1 4YO Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival with United, the Top Novices at Aintree, and the Imperial Cup, which ranks among the hottest handicap hurdles of the season.
Her Flat record is equally impressive; some 70 winners since she threw her hat in the ring in 2003, including a clutch of Listed races and the Lancashire Oaks in 2015 with Lady Tiana.
This weekend only serves to illustrate her affinity with mares and fillies. The White Mouse, a six year old mare winning her fourth race from seven starts, finished robustly under a driving finish from Bryony Frost to win the closing handicap hurdle for mares at Cheltenham's International meeting. Had it not been for the short head finish in the International Hurdle 40 minutes before, it would have been the race of the day.
Friday's Potter's Legend was unlucky not to make that 2 from 2 on the long trip from Newmarket in the feature handicap chase, just going down a length to a woman who specializes in staying chasers at the other end of the country - Kerry Lee.
More evidence, were it needed, that small is beautiful in the racing world.
There's been a lot of navel gazing going on in racing circles this week about the relative importance of the Cheltenham Festival to the other 361 days of racing every year. Some columnists have commented that the season has now become too concentric around those magical four days.
I don't recall anyone saying the same thing about Royal Ascot, which for sustained quality, has to surpass anything else the Flat calendar can put on.
Ironically, it's these same columnists who have been writing up the importance of Cheltenham in order to create newsworthy copy, who identify candidates for the Supreme Novices as early as August, and who ask each winning trainer what race he might be targeting at the Festival. If you perceive the importance of Cheltenham to be a problem, then ask too who created the problem.
And it's worth adding that other racecourses have been as guilty in ceding leadership to the Festival. The number of festival trial races is legion, from Musselburgh to Plumpton. We are all invested, directly or indirectly in the same storyline.
It's not as if another racecourse could not actually create a rival event. In football, there seems to be an endless stream of wealthy men and organisations buying trophy teams and investing crazy sums to win the Premiership in an orgy of ego. Frankly, buying a racecourse and spending £5m on a splendid festival would look cheap by comparison! Nor is there any shortage of wealthy men supporting racing, but I don't believe anyone's asked them that question.
Every sport has a championships around which they can build loyalty, and through which they can break through to audiences who don't have time or inclination to follow the sport on a day to day basis. In a previous career selling sponsorship at Cheltenham, I was able to use this to build campaigns for the likes of Glenfarclas, Unibet, Pertemps, Ballymore, OLBG, JCB and Skybet, supporting the key trials (largely Pattern races) that help identify the peers of their generation. We called it the "road to Cheltenham", as it readily identified the hoops aspirant champion horses in each age, distance or race category would need to win to reach the top of their tree.
If only we were able to generate the same awareness around our Point-to-Point sport. The National sponsors (of which there are pitifully few) could all converge their campaigns to one grand finale at Stratford on the final Friday evening of May, where a superlative card of hunter chases already exists.
This is the story we should be pitching to existing sponsors and to each of our loyal supporters on a local level. Put simply, campaigns of this nature offer a ready-made storyboard around which to build and sustain a narrative throughout what might be a 6 month campaign.
Our sport of Pointing is commendably led presently, with much work achieved to manage a Spring-heavy fixture list and to simply get us back racing during these Covid-restricted times. But we also need the impetus only the centre can give to drive the general direction of the sport. Participants, whether riders, trainers or owners, need targets to aim at, races they can say afterwards, "I won the championship for XX". And whilst the three key Foxhunter chases fulfil part of that aspiration, they also allow the professional cadre of the sport to harvest them too at our expense with horses you see sparingly if at all between the flags.
So next time you hear a columnist say the season isn't all about Cheltenham, reflect on the lustre that Cheltenham also brings in reverse to other races. Our visibility overall is greatly improved for having such a successful event at the heart of our sport.
Cambridgeshire trainer Pam Sly avoided the big meetings at Aintree and Sandown today, heading for Wetherby, and was rewarded with a double, both ridden by Champion lady Point-to-Point rider Gina Andrews. At 77, she's busy proving age is no obstacle to training winners.
Her first winner, 6 year old gelding Frensham, clearly has a liking to Wetherby. He broke his maiden there on his second visit, and has now recorded 5 course and distance victories; proof, were it needed, of the "Horses for Courses" adage. Despite an official rating raised by 8lbs, his 6 1/2l victory today suggests more trips to Yorkshire's premier Jumps course are on the cards.
By contrast, Pam and Gina's second winner in the concluding Bumper was well fancied. Eileendover was winning her second Bumper within a month, and will be an interesting watch when obstacles are added.
Pam Sly has successfully managed to carve a niche for herself over more than 30 years training horses as a dual purpose trainer not to be ignored at any level of the sport. Better known for her Flat horses, this small yard rarely breaks into double figures in winners under either code, but does that matter when every so often a diamond is produced? In 2006, Pam fulfilled the role of giantkiller when filly Speciosa upset the odds in the 1,000 Guineas.
Whilst the Classic victory wasn't a complete shock following an illustration of her speed in the previous autumn's Rockfel and the Nell Gwyn earlier that same season, Speciosa left some impeccably bred and very expensive fillies behind her that day.
Her 50 or so runners every Jumps season can be almost guaranteed to provide an above average strike rate and - rare among trainers - a positive betting result if supporting every one across a season. In fact, she and Gina Andrews have a formidable record in excess of 50% at Wetherby.
The number of East Anglian Jumps trainers will reduce by one this Spring when Nick Littmoden, whom we reported enjoying success with Jumpers again earlier this week, moves to train in France. He is one of an increasing number of British-based handlers enticed by the splendid subsidized communal training facilities and the better prize money in France.
Those who have raced in France will tell you there is little atmosphere other than at the big country meetings like Craon or Lion d'Angers. Even for its big days, Auteuil feels cavernously empty, but for the professionals, the ability to receive travelling expenses irrespective of where your horse finishes, and prize money most can only dream of over here, is enough to overcome reservations. Nick is in a growing band of ex-pats from the UK and Ireland making their way across the Channel.
One thing they don't have over there is the eclectic amateur base we enjoy through Point-to-Point racing. The sheer volume of fixtures and venues probably makes this superfluous, nor is the Jumps games so closely aligned to hunting as here, which may explain the lack of crowds.
That said, no-one can deny the success for French-bred National Hunt stock over here these past 15 years. The top yards are virtually Francophile, looking through the names of horses in training.
Point-to-Point fans in East Anglia will have to be patient a while yet to enjoy racing in our area. The schedukled fixtures at Ampton and Higham during January have been cancelled and the Thurlow at Horseheath will open the calendar on Saturday January 30th.
Newmarket trainer Nick Littmoden is back on the winning trail over Jumps, recording his third winner from just 14 runners at Doncaster with 4 years old French import, Imperil. The 4 year old held off Graeme McPherson's challenger in the Novices Handicap Chase to win by 1 1/4l.
It's good to see Nick enjoying success again. As an enthusiastic amateur, I worked with him at Gerry Enright's yard in Sussex, before he branched out on his own from a satellite yard at Wolverhampton in the early days of the All-Weather there. When he moved back to Newmarket, and concentrated solely on the Flat, winners began to flow well, including a personal best in 2002 when his near 700 runners achieved 80 winners and £627,545 in prize money.
During those halcyon days, Listed and Group races proved that with the right firepower, the talent was there to exploit them. The Windsor Castle at Royal Ascot and Doncaster's Flying Childers promised a sunny future, as well as the Ayr Silver Cup.
This decade though, the going has been much tougher; so much so that Nick even had a spell outside the sport.
Nick's actually a Sussex man, brought up on the edge of the downs less than a mile from the old Lewes Racecourse. Yet despite its rural outlook, and despite the powerhouse of Goodwood within the county boundary, Sussex doesn't shout racing like some other counties. And dare I say it, since the disappearance of Josh Gifford and John Dunlop, the only major flagbearer in the county is the irrepressible Gary Moore, as versatile under either code.
Newmarket, of course, is predominantly a Flat town, but there's plenty of interest in the Jumps, more so now with some hefty prizes to be won in the upper reaches of the game. Kribensis, winner of the Champion Hurdle in 1990 was a brief and playful foray into Jumping for Michael Stoute, but nowadays, it tends to be among the younger trainers looking to make their mark that dual purpose yards are to be found.
Nick would be the first to admit that he's unlikely to be troubling the market leaders just yet, but his stats are worthy of note. A 21% strike rate is better than many larger competitors. There are always some gems to be found in the smaller yards, and no guarantee that small will remain small forever. This is a man who was Champion Trainer on the AWT no less than 5 times.
It says something for the tenacity of Pointing folk that this season has begun at all in the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves. A creative approach to the earlier start of the season allowed 3 fixtures to get underway at the end of October, usurping Cottenham's usual start to the season, before the latest Covid lockdown called a halt.
But encouragingly, despite the difficulties of staging race fixtures behind closed doors, or with restrictions applied by the British Horseracing Authority to comply with Covid protocols, there will be plenty of Point-to-Point fixtures to enjoy over the coming months.
Sadly Cottenham will not be among them, with too much uncertainty surrounding the three early dates that are already concluded before many have even begun their planning. Sharing a fixed cost between three fixtures, two involving hunt clubs, puts too much additional risk on the last man standing after Covid and weather abandonments are taken into account.
However, enthusiasts for the sport need not fear. The East Anglian season will start at Horseheath on Saturday January 30, followed by 8 further fixtures to the start of May at venues as diverse as Higham and Northaw.
The two fixtures at Ampton for the Dunston Harriers and Suffolk have consolidated into one on Saturday March 6, whilst High Easter will take a similar approach, staging just the Essex With Farmers & Union on Saturday April 10.
Subject to the prevailing economic and Covid conditions, there may yet be further changes.
Despite this, there has been a reassuringly constant application for Hunter Certificates which augurs for a competitive season ahead providing we can all keep well.
Through this blog over the next few months, we hope to keep you appraised of news around the area, specifically around Pointing but also a wider perspective on National Hunt racing in East Anglia. You can also keep abreast of local Pointing news on the Area site.
Enjoy your racing!