Although most parts of Northumberland were affected by heavy rain on Saturday, the Ratcheugh Farm course near Alnwick was an exception. However, with a strong headwind to face in the home straight and soft ground, it was a true stamina test for the 59 runners at the West Percy fixture.
Nick Orpwood, last season's Northern Area Men's Champion Jockey, moved six points ahead of Will Ramsay and Isaac Woods in the 2020 title race with a double on Rio des Echanault and Firth of Vic.
Bought privately last summer out of Donnchadh Doyle's yard, after finishing in the first four on all three pointing starts in Ireland in a four-week spell at the end of the 2019 campaign, Rio des Echanault had hinted that his winning turn was not far away when finding only Dynamite Kentucky one length too good on his first outing for Victoria McKie's yard at Alnwick's December meeting. The six-year-old duly delivered the goods in the first division of the Lycetts Open Maiden (see video above). After making smooth headway down the back straight on the final circuit, he edged in front two out and, after being headed at the last by Liar's Dice (Joe Wright), regained the initiative on the run-in to claim a head verdict, with the promising Matthew Man (Kit Alexander) two lengths away in third. Victoria credited daughter Jess with doing all the work on him at home and he looks to have a bright future. For the record, his dam Albalonga had form figures of 112282 in her six career starts under Rules in France.
It was good to see Ayrshire owner/breeder Robert Goldie back in the winners' enclosure following Firth of Vic's debut success in the Imperial Racing Flat Race. In a steadily run affair, Orpwood's mount found another gear when it mattered to sprint away from her four rivals inside the last couple of furlongs and score by two-and-a-half lengths from Maybe Murphy (Amie Waugh). The home-bred five-year-old winner is the second foal out of Easter Vic, who landed a Dalston Maiden for Robert in 2007 and an Ayr three-mile hurdle in 2011. Waiting in the wings at home is a three-year-old full sister by Fame And Glory. The youngster was sent to recently retired Northern Area Secretary Tony Hogarth at Mosshouses last July, and Tony's son-in-law, Mike Cregan, who used to work for Mouse Morris, has been her main work-rider.
Son of Suzie was always in the leading trio in the Hazelrigg Racing Conditions race under a typically positive ride from Amie Waugh. After taking it up three out, the twelve-year-old kept his pursuers at bay down the home straight, eventually beating Things Change (William Easterby) by three lengths, with Roderick Random (Charlotte Dun) a further three lengths away in third. Amie's father, Simon said: ''He was given to Amie in November by family friends, Pat Duncan and Caroline Mackness, who live near Cheltenham. A spell of hunting has sweetened him up and he's been revitalised by a change of scenery.''
Mr Pepperpot (John Dawson) showed his younger rivals the way home in the Joiners Arms Restricted. This lightly raced eleven-year-old gelding, who only made a belated debut at Duncombe Park in February 2018, stayed on well up the hill from four out to dispute the lead at the next. He hit the front two out and kept on well to score by five lengths from Dressedforsuccess (Rory Bevin). The winner is trained by Thirsk beef farmer and former amateur jockey Robin Tate, who said: ''He must be easy to do as I ride him out every morning.'' John Dawson needs only two more winners to reach a career total of 175 under all codes.
The remainder of the card belonged to Warwickshire raiders, Don Poli, Give Us A Swig and Kalabaloo.
Three-time Grade 1 winner Don Poli (Tristan Durrell) made it two-from-two at Alnwick this season, in the Carrs Billington Men's Open, to book his place in the Cheltenham Foxhunters' Chase in March. However, after cruising to the front on the climb to four out, the eleven-year-old didn't have things all his own way in the home straight as former Gigginstown stablemate Killer Crow (Kit Alexander) threw down a determined challenge, and there was only one-and-a-half lengths between them at the line. Tristan said: ''He was off the bridle two out but stuck his neck out and battled. The course rode softer and more testing than last time.''
It has been a privilege for Northern Point-to-Point followers to see Don Poli in action twice at Alnwick in the space of four weeks, and the publicity generated, including front-page coverage in the Racing Post following his December victory, has been amazing.
Last season's Champion Trainer Tom Ellis took his tally for the new campaign to six with a double, courtesy of Kalabaloo and Give Us A Swig, both ridden by wife Gina Andrews. Kalabaloo brushed aside the best Northern Area horses on her seasonal debut in the R Thornton & Co Ladies' Open. The eight-year-old led three out and forged clear from the next to beat Winged Crusader (Amie Waugh) by twelve lengths, with Nine Altars (Charlotte Dun) a further eight lengths away in third. Gina said: ''She's a very straightforward ride, switches off well in her races, and found plenty after hitting the front.''
The mare's owner, Shona Westrope, whose sister lives near Alnwick, added: ''I grew up in the Scottish Borders. My father had pointers and hunter chasers and I run my horses in his colours.''
Give Us A Swig provided Tom and Gina with a double at this meeting for the second season in a row when striking gold on debut in the second division of the Lycetts Open Maiden. Luca Brasi's Boy took a strong hold from the outset under Jess Bedi and enjoyed an uncontested lead until Gina's mount finally got on terms approaching three out. Give Us A Swig was untidy at the last but had plenty left in the tank, drawing four lengths clear on the run-in. Gina said of the Trans Island five-year-old: ''He was very professional but would have preferred better ground and an easier three-mile trip.''
Owners and trainers should note that fresh ground will be provided for the next Alnwick fixture, the Percy on Sunday 2nd February. All the fences are being moved at the weekend onto ground that hasn't been raced on this season.
Although Tom Hamilton drew a blank with his four rides at Alnwick, he flew back to Ireland from Edinburgh on Saturday evening and partnered the Shark Hanlon-trained Mighty Stowaway to victory in the Tinahely Open on Sunday. This took his career tally to 130, comprising 71 between the flags and 59 under Rules.
The next Northern Area fixture is the Jedforest at Friars Haugh, Kelso, on Sunday 26th January, starting at 12.30pm.