Against all the odds following Storm Arwen and with temperatures barely above freezing, the Border Hunt fixture went ahead as scheduled at Hexham Racecourse on Sunday to launch the 2021/22 Northern Area season.
On ground which became more holding and testing as the day went on, a total of 44 runners contested the six race card with plenty of long distance travellers from Fife, Lanarkshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
Frankies Fire (Lyall Hodgins) was an appropriate winner of the opening Park End Equestrian NPPA Conditions Race. Owned, bred and trained by Racecourse Chairman, Jimmy Walton, the eight-year-old mare was always lying handy behind the leaders before heading Takethepunishment (Nick Orpwood) with a better jump three out.
She was two lengths ahead at the last and stayed on well to maintain that advantage to the line.
Hodgins, who works for Nicky Richards and also won last season's opener at Alnwick on Senor Lombardy, said: ''She jumped and travelled well all the way. I sat quietly until asking her to quicken approaching two out and she did it nicely in the end.''
Calypso Storm, who finished 3rd to Lake View Lad on debut in a National Hunt Flat Race at Hexham in November 2015, reaped the benefit of a recent outing at Revesby Park when getting off the mark in the Border Hunt Maiden Race under his trainer, Jess Bedi in the colours of her grandmother, Sandra Barker. Always prominent, the ten-year-old was sent on at the seventh but, after Bedi made a miraculous recovery to keep the partnership intact at the eleventh, had to dig deep from two out to repel a persistent challenge from Warwickshire raider, Nothin But Thieves (Gina Andrews) by a neck. Bedi, who is based near Yarm, said: ''A lot of credit must go to my boyfriend, Aaron Anderson who does all the work on him at home on our circular, deep sand gallop. He's been plagued by leg injuries over the years so doesn't have many miles on the clock but has been sound since joining us twelve months ago. ''He might not be the most fluent jumper but just keeps on galloping and Hexham has always been a lucky course for me.''
A 570-mile round trip for Oxfordshire trainer, Alan Hill necessitated a 6am start from his Aston Rowant base but it paid dividends as stable legend, Hawkhurst provided Izzie Marshall with her 50th career winner between the flags in the 3-runner Equine Products UK Ladies Open Race. Content to track Nine Altars (Charlotte Dun) and Demain Des L'Aube (Charlotte Crane) from flag-fall, Hawkhurst was in cruise control after taking second spot behind Crane's mount five out before hitting the front at the last and he settled the issue in a matter of strides. The eleven-year-old forged clear on the long run-in to score by twelve lengths. Hill said: ''He's a likeable rogue and that takes his winning tally to 15 since coming to us four years ago on the understanding that he doesn't run under Rules.''
For the record, 22 year old Izzie Marshall opened her account on Conkies Lad in a Charing Ladies Open on 14 February 2016. She added: ''We have a bit of a love/hate relationship as he actually bucked me off once during a race. He was always going well and the novelty of running at a different course probably helped.''
Ben Smoult had a day he'll never forget after partnering his first winner on Game As A Pheasant (pictured above, yellow) in the Carrs Billington Men's Open Race and received the loudest cheers of the day on his return to the winners' enclosure. 123-rated chaser, Dream Conti (Tom Chatfeild-Roberts) set out to make all the running and was still twenty five lengths ahead three out before starting to tire approaching the next. Smoult's mount gradually reeled in the leader before taking over half-way up the run-in and pulled clear to score by two lengths.
This was a second course win for Cherry Coward's charge, who carried the colours of The Richard Morris Racing Club. Her daughter, Sam, said: ''He's the type of fun horse you can run anywhere on any ground.'' Smoult, who is kept busy riding out at Coward's Dalby yard four times a week, added: ''I sat tight down the hill from four out as we edged closed. Tuned up by his recent run at Revesby Park, I knew he would stay and he found plenty after the last.''
After scoring first time out at Bishops Court last season, Shropshire raider, Ryans Fancy (Immy Robinson) struck gold again on his reappearance in the 2m4f Rose, Andrew And Friends Of The Border Hunt Conditions Race. Produced with a perfectly timed challenge to head Activial (Amy Cox) two out, the seven-year-old forged clear from the last and the gap between them was ten lengths at the line. Robinson said: ''He was ready to run at Bishops Court in October but that meeting was abandoned and had been pulling my arms out at home so we decided he had to run here. He's very versatile and probably even better on good ground.''
The former Dan Skelton-trained hurdler, Loughan galloped his eleven rivals into submission in the concluding 2m4f Ward Hadaway Maiden Race to give Gina Andrews a 299th Pointing winner.
Always at least two lengths clear from the off, the six-year-old sealed a three lengths success over the promising Tom Cody (John Dawson) with a great jump at the last. Winning trainer, Tom Ellis said: ''Harry Skelton once described him as a complete lunatic. He's a free-going type but settled better, seemed to enjoy himself bowling along in front and saw out the trip well.''
After the final race, The Tony Ward Memorial Trophy was presented to Rosie Howarth as the leading jockey at the Haydon and Border meetings in 2021.
The Northern Area season continues with the Ratcheugh Racing Club fixture at Alnwick on Sunday, December 12 and it will again be live-streamed.