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Comley double lights up wet Cocklebarrow

Organisers of the Heythrop point-to-point – sponsored by Red Savannah – at Cocklebarrow on Sunday 21st January were rewarded for their enterprise in putting on a number of attractions alongside the racing with a huge crowd – including such luminaries as Alexander Armstrong, Giles Coren, and former Prime Minister David Cameron – braving the cold January weather. Although the winds got up during the afternoon, thankfully Storm Isha saved its worst until after racing.

A total of 76 horses faced the starter for the seven races over fences on going officially described as Good, but which was sloppy on top after overnight rain, leading to the omission of the open ditch for all races. Organisers should be commended for their efforts in getting racing to go ahead after frozen conditions during the previous week and the chief beneficiaries were the early season page setters in the male rider and leading trainer standings, James King and Max Comley coming away with a treble and double respectively.

The feature race, the CKD Property Advisors Lord Ashton of Hyde’s Cup Mens Open Race over three miles, six and a half furlongs, saw seven go to post and was won by Oscar Montel, the middle leg of James’ three-timer and completing Max’s brace. The ten-year-old was always prominent, took the lead four out and soon went clear, scoring by an easy 22 lengths from the only other finisher Drop Him In.

Oscar Montel is owned by Rhiannon Fletcher, to whom he was gifted by former owner Charlie Noell following placed efforts in points last season. Rhiannon, who is from Colesbourne near Cirencester and works for Max at his Naunton yard, is hoping to take out her jockey’s licence this season and ride him in races herself. Max – who also took this race last year with Just Your Type and who was saddling his seventh straight winner and ninth (from just 13 runners) of an incredibly successful season, admitted, “On paper he shouldn’t have had a chance, but the horses are in good health and running to form. We’re placing them well and have owners who are willing to travel. Let’s hope the momentum continues, although I haven’t set myself any targets yet.” Of plans for Oscar Montel, he said, “He probably won’t go for the Grimthorpe Gold Cup (the other long distance ‘classic’ point-to-point), and we’ll look for suitable races for Rhiannon. He wouldn’t want it too soft.”

Max and James had initiated their productive afternoon with another facile victory, this time from Wagner in the five-runner Knight Frank Heythrop Hunt Members Race. The nine-year-old, carrying just a 5lb penalty for his two recent Open wins, was held up initially before making rapid progress to lead four out and quickly asserting, and the winning distance of five lengths over the improving Quickcharge – making a promising seasonal debut – does not reflect his superiority. Raven’s Tower, who had taken the two previous runnings of this race, was four lengths back in third.

“Owner Charlie Noell lives just down the road, hunts with the Heythrop, and sponsors here today, so wanted to win his local race,” explained Max of the decision to take a drop in class. “We’ll try to find races for him on quirky courses and we’re happy to travel (Wagner has already won as far afield as Alnwick and Wadebridge this season). His box is next to Jay Bee Whiskey, who’s also won three for me this season, and I hope one of them – probably Wagner – could be in contention for leading horse.”

“That was relatively uncomplicated!” confirmed James with a smile. “He jumped well, was race fit – while the second and third were having their first run – and he won a shade cosily in the end.”

James completed his treble – this time for Pontypridd-based Luke Price – on Mini Fortune, defeating nine rivals in the concluding contest, the Kings Head Inn Maiden for older horses. The seven-year-old mare, having her first run for Luke, got the better of fellow-joint favourite Jean Genie – who has now been placed nineteen times (!) from thirty starts – after a proper tussle. The pair were both always prominent but Mini Fortune looked to have the race in the bag when striding clear after four out. However, she was headed by Jean Genie at the penultimate fence before retaking the lead after the last as the runner-up hung and holding on to score by a length. Kyler King made late progress for six lengths third.

“I’ve only had her for a few weeks and she was my first runner of the season – I didn’t think she’d be fit and that was a learning curve, but I think she can win a couple more,” the winning trainer told me afterwards. Luke – who has been leading owner in both the last two seasons and is known for his late-season ammunition – confirmed, “I’ve got about 20 in this year, and we’ll really get going from Howick (in late February) because we tend to buy summer jumpers who prefer better ground. I’ve got a few nice ones – although I’m not going to give you any names (!) – and hopefully we’ll have another good season.”

“It’s been a very good day,” said James. “I knew I had a few with chances but wasn’t expecting to win three. That was a good training performance by Luke.” Asked about his chances of regaining the jockeys title he won in 2020/2021 and 2021/2022, James – who was moving on to 16 for the season, nine clear of reigning champion Will Biddick, was coy. “If it happens, it happens. I’m lucky to be riding for some good people and trainers with horses in form.”

The Fleming Architects Ladies Open was run over the extended distance of three miles four furlongs. Nine of the 12 entries took part, and the race was won by Tom Ellis’ improving nine-year-old Master Templar in the hands of his wife Gina Andrews. Yet another winner to race prominently throughout, he tracked first the pacesetting 16-year-old veteran Southfield Theatre, then From The Heart, who took over four out, before joining the leader three out and jumping to the front at the last to win by five lengths. Southfield Theatre, for whom the going proved too tacky, plugged on to be the only other finisher, 25 lengths back.

“That’s his ninth win – from just 13 starts – for us but his first at Open level,” beamed delighted owner Jenny Hayward, a long-standing owner with Tom and Gina’s G & T Racing operation and who has ‘one-and-a-quarter’ horses with them at the moment. “There’s been talk about the four-miler at Cheltenham,” added Jenny, “As he stays brilliantly. He’s a quirky old character, but then the quirky ones win!”

The winning jockey concurred with the owner’s assessment, saying, “He was on a going day today. We’re always rude about him and he can be very difficult, but he keeps winning. We never thought he’d progress as he has, and he didn’t cost a lot – we got him from Olly Murphy.” It was Gina’s fourth success of the season, putting her in pole position for a remarkable 11th jockeys title, but she cautioned, “It’s too early to think about that, although it’s the goal if I stay in one piece.” As for the Grand National, where she is set to ride the fancied Latenightpass for parents-in-law Pippa and Tony Ellis, she laughed, “I’m not talking about that until April!”

A rule change, allowing previous Restricted race winners to run in one again with a 5lb penalty, has made contests of this type far more competitive this season and the SE Solicitors Restricted Race proved the point, attracting 17 runners, the biggest field of the entire point-to-point season to date. However, it was taken by one of the unpenalised runners, Jonathan Barlow’s Caballo Diablo and Paddy Barlow (no relation). The eight-year-old had been successful on his only previous visit to the track in 2022 and followed up here in the fastest time of the day in a race run at a quick pace. Prominent early before losing his place, he rallied to close on front-running Get Bye four out before taking the lead at the second last and running-on to win by two-and-a-quarter lengths from the resolute second, who ran promisingly on his reappearance. Pointing debutant Trevada finished well for three-and-a-half lengths third.

“That’s two wins in two weeks with my first two runners of the season, both for owners John and Celia Wallwin,” exclaimed a delighted Jonathan, who trains at Cropwell Bishop in Nottinghamshire. Pressed on the reasons for such a good start, the trainer confirmed, “The horses are fit, well and happy and hunting has freshened up Caballo Diablo – he obviously loves Cocklebarrow and will go to Higham with a penalty next as he likes a sharp track and fast ground. I’ve got six in this season,” continued Jonathan, “Five are owned by the Wallwins, including Sheriff Hutton winner Fortunes Hill, The Whistleblower and a new one called Grangeclare Diego.”

Paddy had also ridden Fortunes Hill and was moving on to three for the season. “I just want to ride as many winners as I can and – ideally – beat last season’s total of 17,” said the 22-year-old, who is studying to be a vet at Nottingham University. “That keeps me busy,” smiled Paddy, who also rides for Andrew Pennock and Kelly Morgan.

14 went to post for the Dubarry PPORA Members Novice Riders Race, which saw a fine front-running performance from 18-year-old Jack Wilmot – riding his first winner between the flags to go with one under rules – leading all the way at a strong gallop on nine-year The Composeur, on whom he had been second on both pointing starts last year. Never looking in danger, the pair went clear two out and ran on to win by ten lengths from favourite Tara Storm, who chased vainly throughout, with Ripper Roo two-and-three-quarter lengths away in third after late progress.

While The Composeur is officially trained by Jacqueline O’Neill, wife of Jonjo, connections admitted that Jack – who works for the Jackdaws Castle operation – does all the work with him. “I feed him before and after work,” confirmed Jack, “And ride him during my lunchbreak. It feels extra-special to win when you do it all yourself.” He explained how he came by the horse. “After I rode him in a ‘hands-and-heels’ hurdle at Doncaster, the O’Neills said I could have him for pointing. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s paid off now. I’m from Southwold in Suffolk,” added Jack, “And got into racing by watching it on TV. I bought a pony from Sarah Humphrey and went to work for her – she provided my first winner – and I came to work for Jonjo last season. I’d like to go conditional eventually if my weight’s OK – otherwise to be a competitive Category B amateur.”

Fourteen also lined up for the Cothill School Maiden for four, five and six-year-olds over two-and-a-half miles and punters obviously didn’t heed trainer Alan Hill’s words in the meeting preview that his six-year-old mare Threeunderthree was under-rated and likely to be placed at least, allowing her to go off at 16/1, by far the biggest priced winner of the day. Racing close behind the leaders, rider Harry Myddelton hit the front three out and – though looking in danger from I Don’t Know two out – held on by one-and-a-half lengths from the runner-up, who had been anchored in last place for most of the race. A Law To Himself, one of three joint-favourites, was five lengths third. It was a fourth Maiden winner – from four runs in such contests – for the winning trainer this season.

Winning owner – and father of the successful jockey – Guy Myddelton told me afterwards, “We had Threeunderthree last year and she showed a bit of promise but was immature. She did well over the summer and has developed into a nice horse. We thought the trip might be too sharp, but she travelled nicely and jumped well, and it couldn’t have gone better.”

23-year-old Harry, scoring for the first time since 2021/2022 rode out for the Hills when studying Real Estate at Oxford Brookes University and has now moved to Cheshire, where he is pupil-assistant to Oliver Greenall & Josh Guerriero. He said, “I’ve been there four months, ride out every day, go racing and have had a few mounts for them. I think I’m riding with more confidence now and having a full-time role in a yard helps.”

The three pony races, sponsored by a group of Cotswold National Hunt Trainers, were won by Oliver Vigors on Little Anne, Lucas Murphy on The Jobs Not Straight (a race in which Max Waley-Cohen, son of Grand National winner Sam, made his race-riding debut) and Poppy Twiston-Davies on Aries.

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