What a start was witnessed at the opening meeting of the new East Anglian Point-to-Point season, at Cottenham. Perfect ground conditions, beautifully presented fences, some exciting racing with close finishes, and 41 of the 44 entered horses entered turning out on the day.
The opening Conditions race saw 15 of the 16 entries contest the two-and-a-half-mile event on ground conditions which would have to be considered as probably the best seen at the course for several seasons. Undisputed represented the powerful stable of Philip Rowley, who trains at Bridgnorth in Shropshire, and made all the early running in a hotly contested race. A possible contender was Hawkhurst, who was made favourite at the off, but he unshipped Izzie Marshall when appearing to "prop" soon after jumping the fourth fence. Undisputed was still heading affairs as the field streamed round the final bend and it was here that the leader came under strong pressure from Workbench. They jumped the last obstacle upsides but as genuine as his name suggests, Undisputed and Alex Edwards retained their lead and held off the challenge by half a length. Praise must be given to Murray Dodd, who was having his first-ever ride on Workbench, for going so close. Murray works for Dan Skelton, arriving about eighteen months ago without any experience of race riding. Having never even been involved in pony racing, this opportunity was presented to him by Workbench's trainer Nick Pearce, also a Skelton stable employee, as a reward for the all the hard work, endeavour and commitment shown in the yard. Obviously not misplaced, if this performance was anything to go by.
A quick double looked imminent for Rowley and Edwards when Now Ben took his chance in the following Men's Open. However, the favourite was denied a fifth course success by his stablemate Vivaldi Collonges. The ten year-old was with James Owen's Newmarket stable last season, but as his young jockey, Ben Bromley, now rides out daily for trainer Rowley, a switch of stables was effected. Ben, who turned just seventeen a week ago, is the son of Vivaldi Collonges'owner Anthony Bromley, a highly respected bloodstock agent and racing manager. Ben rode the horse to two victories last season but didn't finish the season on a happy note as he was deposited on the way to the start of a race and broke both thumbs. The horse was purchased from leading amateur David Maxwell, who won Hunter Chases on him and that is the route the Bromleys are likely to follow as the season progresses. Coincidentally, Anthony was also responsible for purchasing the horse from France, for leading owner John Hales, in its early days. Meanwhile, Ben is still eligible to ride in novice rider races as this was his fourth winner and pleasingly his first in East Anglia, as his family live in the Newmarket area. Previously Ben rode for several seasons on the East Anglian pony scene and is now reaping the rewards of the valuable knowledge gained from this experience. Alex Edwards, although missing out on a second winner, was philosophical in defeat, stating that Now Ben had given him everything on the run-in but just missed out.
The Ladies' Open race saw an upset when odds-on favourite Arthur's Secret was taken on by the heavily backed Ravished (pictured), an 11-year-old gelding trained by the irrepressible Joseph O'Shea. His horse took up the lead from the favourite with a fine jump at the final open ditch, and with Immy Robinson in control from the saddle, the pairing never looked like being caught, winning by a distance to the delight of his trainer and gloom for the bookmakers. Ravished had been backed from 5/2 into 5/4.
The six-time National Ladies Champion Gina Andrews opened her winning account when Fox Valley easily outjumped her two rivals in the Restricted to record a pleasing debut for the mare's new yard. Tom Ellis has now taken over the training of the Signy and Marriage families' six year-old and it was good to see Lauren Braithwaite there to witness the accomplished performance by her former inmate.
Will Thirlby rode his first Cottenham career winner on Frank And Honest in the preceding three-mile Maiden, which provided the tightest finish of the day with just a length separating the first three home. Frank And Honest tackled the long-time leader Taboo over the last two fences and stayed on strongly up the Cottenham run-in to hold off Phoenix Park, with Taboo back in third. The winner was given a perfectly judged ride by Will Thirlby who rides the horse on a regular basis in work and was confident of the mare's fitness.
The noisiest reception for a winner was reserved for the four year-old Fumet D'Oudairies, who was greeted with infectious enthusiasm by members of the Ice and a Slice Racing Club after the Younger Horse Maiden. Jack Andrews was delighted to have ridden a winner on the opening day but equally buoyant as he had been directly involved, with sister Gina, in the purchase of his winning mount, having paid under £1000 for what at the present moment is a prospect with some future.
If enthusiasts needed any encouragement, the action certainly didn't disappoint. The only downside is we have to wait six weeks before the next East Anglian meeting, back at Cottenham on Sunday December 29th.