The long wait is finally over as the 2017/18 Northern Area Point-to-Point season kicks off on Saturday with the Ratcheugh Racing Club fixture at the Ratcheugh Farm course near Alnwick, where a six-race card with 90 entries starts at noon.
The 20 entries for the opening Nicky Richards Racing Conditions race are headed by Cheshire raider Lilbitluso. Joe O'Shea's charge was very impressive when winning at this meeting in 2015 and completed a five-timer that season in the Connolly's Red Mills Intermediate Final at Cheltenham. He had his first run for more than ten months when a five-length second of 19 to Iberico at Barbury Castle on November 26th and would have finished even closer that day had he not walked through three out. He has come out of that race well and can get back to winning ways. Of the others, Battle Range won his last four Points in 2016 but has been absent for almost seventeen months after being pulled up with a tendon injury at Cartmel. Cultram Abbey, a 139-rated chaser for Nicky Richards, was last seen when pulled up in the Class 2 City of Perth Gold Cup on June 4th. Tim Gredley's Just Cause also ran recently at Barbury Castle, where he finished an eight-length second to William Money. Lough Derg Island was an easy ten-length winner of a soft-ground Intermediate at Friars Haugh in March on his first start for Joan Hollands, and looks open to further improvement. Oscar Stanley (12st 7lb) and Royal Chatelier (12st 6lb) both face stiff tasks conceding weight to all their main rivals.
The five entries for the Chatton Trout Fishery Intermediate are Bravehearted Harry, Emkae, Indigo Island, The Mobile Man, and Weston Flame. The former finished a fifteen-length second to Lilbitluso here in December 2015 and scored twice in April 2016. Indigo Island was a six-length second to For A Change on his reappearance here last December and landed a Bangor-on-Dee Restricted in February. The Mobile Man won a Holderness Restricted and South Durham Confined last season, while the one to beat is Weston Flame, who had plenty in hand when winning at the first two Alnwick meetings last season but has been absent for ten months since pulling up injured after the second fence in the Percy Club Members race.
The Crabtree & Crabtree Ladies Open has 13 entries, including the aforementioned Battle Range and Oscar Stanley. The latter has recorded at least one win in each of the last four seasons, the most recent coming at Hexham in May. Winged Crusader, the former Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained gelding, who won five of his 26 starts under Rules, is now owned by Simon Waugh, while proven stayer One Conemara is a class act on his day and scored over 3m5f at Corbridge and 4m1f at Sheriff Hutton last term. It is hard to see anything lowering the colours of Alnwick specialist Knocklong. Justin Landy's charge has won all five completed starts at the track and would be unbeaten there had he not unseated three out in January when fifteen lengths clear. The gelding also landed hunter chases at Southwell and Catterick last season.
The three-mile Ancroft Tractors Open Maiden has 24 entries and, on paper, looks a competitive affair. Bite The Biscuit finished a seven-length third of 9 in a Lisronagh Maiden last December, before being placed once from five starts under Rules for Philip Hobbs. Chanceiton was only beaten half-a-length when second of 8 to Flemens Story in a Nenagh Maiden in January, but was then pulled up twice over hurdles on heavy ground in March for Lucinda Russell's yard. French Ticket caught the eye when beaten a maximum of five lengths in bumpers won by Golden Jeffrey and Schiaparannie (both have won again since) earlier in the year and was a non-runner at Newcastle last Saturday due to unsuitable ground. Koala Keel was beaten a maximum of ten lengths in Maidens from his previous yard. Left Back proved disappointing over hurdles last season for Nick Alexander's yard, while Matthew Man and Sam Says finished runner-up at Dalston and Overton respectively last term. Sir Lonica was placed in two of his three Irish Maidens in 2016 and should go close on his English debut. Others to note are The Dapper Prince, Treliver Manor, Worcester Pearmain and the unraced Westend Leader.
There is plenty of quality among the 14 entries for the Geoff Allan Catering Men's Open. Executive Benefit goes well fresh and has a great record since joining Joe O'Shea, with 11 wins and eight placed efforts from 21 starts between the flags. Of the others, Always Tipsy won all four Pointing starts last season, including three at Alnwick. Southern raider Ardkilly Witness was not beaten far when runner-up in the Royal Artillery Gold Cup at Sandown Park in February. For 'N' Against's yard had a winner at Cottenham last Sunday. Killer Crow, Nick Alexander's recent acquisition, recorded three of his four Irish wins on soft or heavy ground. Path To Freedom, an exciting five-year-old prospect, graduated from Maiden to Open company last season with four wins, while Relax, the former Venetia Williams-trained 131-rated chaser, should appreciate the drop in class. Cultram Abbey, One Conemara and Royal Chatelier are also double-entered here.
The concluding Newton Hall Restricted has 14 entries. Monsun Storm had very solid form last term, winning a Hurworth Maiden and being placed on three of his other five outings. Play Practice has not been seen since scoring at Friars Haugh in March. Minella For All has changed hands since landing a Banwen Point-to-Point Club Maiden under James Bowen in May. Lord Usher got off the mark at Corbridge in February, while Great Anticipation showed improved form when scoring over a shorter trip at Tranwell in April. Active In Milan made virtually all to beat Crazy Penguin by a length here in February and again ran well when a four-length fourth to Asheanymoney in the Tynedale Restricted three weeks later. Bentons Lad was a model of consistency last term for the Andrew Nicholls yard, with one win at Askham Bryan and eight placed efforts from his ten outings between the flags. The aforementioned Crazy Penguin deservedly opened his account when beating Yoohoof at Dalton Park, rounding off his campaign when an eight-length fifth of 13 to the useful Path To Freedom at Sheriff Hutton.
The postcode for SatNav users is NE66 3AE and the course is well-signposted from the A1.