Yorkshire’s opening meeting at Sheriff Hutton began its day with tsunami-like conditions in the morning, before the heavens cleared an hour before the first race and blue sky and sunshine shone down on the seven-race card. Numerous horses emerged from up and down the country, with one contender in particular – Hazel Hill (pictured) – getting his season underway and looking well on his way back to Cheltenham in March.
Hazel Hill was the star on show in the Men's Open with usual partner Alex Edwards. A previous winner at the track, he had worked his way through the point-to-point ranks until it culminated in his career highlight when winning the Cheltenham Foxhunters. Spectators were delighted to see the Festival hero get his season under way in emphatic style. The Philip Rowley-trained 12-year-old never looked in danger as he travelled strongly in behind the leaders. It would be the Dale Peters-trained and -ridden Rocklander who would throw down the main challenge on his point-to-point debut, but Hazel Hill pulled away easily near the line to win by 15 lengths and justify his 4/11 odds. Path To Freedom was a further 15 lengths back in third under John Dawson, doing the best of the Yorkshire contingent.
The Maidens produced some exciting-looking prospects. The Open Maiden saw Classic Lady bounce back to form under Tommie O'Brien for trainer Ollie Pimlott, putting a disappointing effort at Alnwick well behind her. She stayed on very strongly here and put up a decisive performance. "She pulled up quickly two out at Alnwick where she struck into herself," said Ollie, "who sends the five-year-old daughter of Flemensfirth to the Goffs sales at Doncaster next week. "We changed tactics here and didn't make as much use of her, we think she's a better horse than Uptown Harry who we sold last season and went on to win over hurdles." Dragonfruit was well-fancied on his racecourse debut under Ed Glassonbury and certainly ran with great credit in second, whilst the experienced Ballygown Bay was back in third for the Tom Ellis stable.
The 2m 4f Maiden saw a very exciting prospect in Ripper Roo under James King from the Francesca Nimmo yard. The pair settled well off the early strong pace and gradually came to lead approaching two out before scampering clear in very good style. He will no doubt be set to go on to bigger and better things. "He came to us 12 months ago from France," said the winning rider, who is based with the Nimmo team. "He is very professional and better ground along with going right-handed will bring about further improvement in him." Another team who is well-known for their juveniles is Tom Ellis and Gina Andrews, who saddled the runner-up Commandingpresence, a well-bred son of Kalanisi but who couldn't match the turn of foot of the winner. The Pimlott team were a well-held third with their English debutant Tout Paris, who made the early running.
The Restricted saw Omar Maretti return to the track where he crashed out last season when holding every chance behind subsequent Heart Of All England winner Hafajay. Trained and ridden by Dale Peters, the pair led here from three out and were always holding the only challenger Scarlett Peak until the last where the winner quickened clear in impressive style. Joe Wright partnered the runner-up for Ian Mason, whilst the Jack Teal-ridden Robins Legend was a long way back in third. Connections seemed very confident about the winner, saying "He's a proper horse". Better things could be on the agenda and he could be one to follow in the future.
The opening Conditions race was divided and the second division produced the most exciting finish of the day as Cup Final battled it out with One Conemara up the run-in. Always to the fore, Cup Final and Ross Wilson were joined after the last by John Dawson's mount and it was a bob of the heads at the line that sealed it for the Sarah Dent-trained runner. "He doesn't do a great deal in front, but every time he got headed he battled back," said winning rider Ross Wilson, whose charge had only one run last year at the Middleton meeting and was only sidelined for the remainder of the season due to the quick ground. He was a 140 horse when in the care of Nicky Henderson, produced a win at Punchestown in his prime, and looks to be back to his best here now in the care of Sarah.
The first division went to the Midlands-based Smoke Man for the Chatfeild-Roberts family. He looked to relish the soft conditions and stuck on very well to beat George Fernback, who was running a huge race for jockey Ben Love who was having his first point-to-point ride. The winner looked to appreciate a stiff test of stamina after winning his Restricted at the Holderness. Partnered by Tom Chatfeild-Roberts, the seven-year-old looks like he's on the upgrade and could have plenty more to give.
The Ladies' Open saw a very tidy performance from The Dellercheckout and Immy Robinson. The pair had won in December at Barbury Castle and this former Paul Nicholls inmate looks like he could be a useful recruit to the pointing field after quickening away from last year's winner and favourite Haymount (Gina Andrews), whilst pacesetter Irish Anthem was held back in third.