We didn’t start Easter thinking we’d be saying goodbye to Richard Johnson, who retires upright and walking, and capable of a new full and productive life. He has become a role model of sobriety, charm, sportsmanship and common sense – which we know because he has garnered universal acclaim from all quarters, on the news. We wish him and his family, every good fortune for the future.
Easter Monday has always been the day on which The Old Berks hold their Point to Point at Lockinge, just outside Wantage. Since 1953, this was the place where the memories of generations of teenagers were forged, where social mores were learned, where loves were won and lost. Turning off the road and onto the open field at the top of a steep hill, to pay your money to the Ticket sellers, all of whom were known as good shire folk, volunteering to help their friends and neighbours share a jolly day’s racing. Memory says at one time, (I rarely forget a price when I pay), it was £5 as head or £15 a car, and it was therefore not unusual to see some old banger with a dozen Ciren’ students on board, keen to find the Beer Tent for a restorative elevenses. The cars were all parked precariously in serried ranks, on the 500m long side of the hill, row upon row of cars each bearing more and more familiar faces.
Each car disgorging their children, dogs, picnics, houseguests and neighbours. Some setting up their viewing platforms on top of the farm’s Land Rover; others erecting the gaffer-taped bamboo Flag poles on top of which flew grandfather’s old naval pennant or a Union Flag or a Cross of Sts George or Andrew so that the kids would know where you were. Below that the Parade Ring and the Changing Tent, the Tote Tents, and a proper country fair of tweed and waterproof clothing, heaped upon expensive-Don’t-Needs and Charitable diaries that have been discounted – but you can buy last year’s Christmas Cards at ½-price. Then the start, delineated by the starter’s rostrum – a hay wagon – and then off on the left-handed course, which as it turned away from the crowds, rose up to the other side of this mini valley. then left again and downhill at a controlled speed, before the last turn and the furlong drive for home.
Every generation inheriting the previous one’s traditions. Always walk the course before lunch; never serve cold sausage rolls; eschew the shop-bought sandwiches, never serve warm tomato soup from a flask, (one accident and the day is ruined), Mitt food best (hold it in your mitt), shops after lunch never before, a long list that everyone knew and where Liz had been aged 12 and now aged 70, feels right at home, only the addition of Feta Cheese and English wines marking the passing of the years. She remembers when the child let off the hand-brake accidentally in the car, which gathering speed, ploughed into the row of Portaloos, tragically killing an occupant. She remembers, coming to the Sponsor’s tent thirty years ago and discovering that the Old Berks drink of Gin and Ginger (Wine) wasn’t just a stirrup cup. She remembers being surprised at the sleeping 18yo girl in the corner of the tent, who had discovered Bloody Marys and then suddenly stopped the voyage of discovery. She remembers the mobile betting shop, in the days when George Ward was always good for a winner on Easter Monday, where you could spend all afternoon in the jolliest of company and never see a Hunter Chaser all afternoon. She even remembers the day when Himself picked the winner of The Irish Grand National, Brown Lad, who was winning his third National aged 12 – the only horse to have achieved that, and unlikely to be repeated in anyone’s lifetime.
I would stay with Keith and Susie at Aston Tirrold, who took me to my first Lockinge. It was here that I bought a variety of girlfriends before the current Mrs Kneesup. It was here that I discovered Madame knew everyone in The County and was related to most of them. My memory was of a ridiculous hat that was almost passed to, but sadly not retained by, little Zoe aged zip who now has teens of her own. It should have been at Lockinge, but for this wretched Pandemic, that they might have been today, learning and creating the memories for their tomorrows, but staying away perhaps from the Gin & Ginger. For myself, I shall think of Keith and all the other friends who are picnicking elsewhere and be pleased that we still have the memories – and apparently the bloody hat.
Talking of unlikely surprises, here are my views on a couple of today’s races, which do not involve selecting one of the 25 runners contesting four races on the All-Weather at Kempton. Instead, I shall focus on Fairyhouse
2:05 Farmhouse Foods Novice Handicap Hurdle (4yo+) 2m
It is an extraordinary story, but US trainer Keri Brion achieved her first Irish success yesterday winning the Cork bumper with 25/1 shot Scorpion’s Revenge. The victory for the American handler was also a first track success for amateur jockey Daniel Nevin, and the first win for any American trainer in Ireland. Owned by the top American jumps owner Irvin Naylor, the horse was part of a consignment of six Jonathan Sheppard-trained horses that were being aimed at a European jumps campaign, starting in November, under the eye of his assistant, Keri. Shappard then suddenly announced his retirement, the former US champion apprentice Brion took over the licence in her own right, having been assistant to Sheppard for twelve years. So as she now has 4p and 1w from 10 runs, and with Richie Condon taking a valuable 7lbs off and with slightly dryer ground take a punt on…
FRENCH LIGHT e/w
2:40 Rathbarry & Glenview Studs Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2) (4yo) 2m
TEAHUPOO was very impressive when winning over C&D LTO and one assumed he would go and take up his Triumph entry. But no, he swerved that and this will be much easier. He is very classy, and the way he sorted himself out LTO after some clumsy hurdling at the last, showed an impressive gear change as well as some stamina. That all said, one is relying on 80/1 Fred Winter winner, JEFF KIDDER, not improving further.
3:15 Fairyhouse Steel Handicap Hurdle (4yo+ 0-140) 2m6f
Really tricky, but my man in Ireland tells me that JAMMY GEORGE is thought capable of a big run for a big price and I think 16/1 for 6 places at a ¼ odds seems like value. AARON’S DAY ran wrong LTO at Naas, and the fitting of a tongue strap might resolve the awkward head carriage that was noted at the time. He has course form, snd drying ground will help.
JAMMY GEORGE e/w as priced above. AARON’S DAY e/w
3:50 Underwriting Exchange Hurdle (Grade 2) (5yo+) 2m4f
Back in the care of Willie Mullins, after a spell with Paul Nicholls, STORMY IRELAND is the selection of Townsend, and my hope is that they already know what improvement was needed to get this classy Mare back on a winning path. Rachel Blackmore worries me on board Mouse Morris’ FRENCH DYNAMITE, who has some very decent lines of form. Dutch the pair.
FRENCH DYNAMITE – STORMY IRELAND dutch win
4:20 Devenish Chase (Grade 2) (5yo+) 2m4f
A lot tighter than one would have thought, because I don’t think FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES is a given and instead for slightly better odds, I shall have some hopes for EASY GAME. When in doubt, back Willie has worked so far this year!
EASY GAME Win
5:00 BoyleSports Irish Grand National Chase (Extended Handicap Chase) (Grade A) (5yo+) 3m5f
Having run the trends over age, wight, DSLR and previous distances won, I have a shortlist of four. COKO BEACH – DRAGON D’ESTRUVAL – ATLANTIC SHORE – EUROBOT. COKO BEACH has benefitted enormously from the adoption of blinkers, and the 7lb claim will help. EUROBOT is nothing if not consistent and has placed in six of his last eight runs. 40/1 for six places is crazeee. ATLANTIC SHORE should handle the ground on breeding and he has won over 3m+. His biggest benefit is his lightweight. The last is in fact the least and while he makes the trends, I think his engine switches off at precisely 3m3f. I shall be very, very cross if I’m wrong about that!
COKO BEACH – ATLANTIC SHORE – EUROBOT all e/w and with LATEST EXHIBITION in 12 x ½pt CFC.
5:40 Fred Kenny Lifetime Service To Racing Handicap Chase (5yo+) 3m½f
CHAVI ARTIST from Tommy Mullins’ yard is stepping down in class and he seemed to be on the up until an appalling blunder five out at Naas LTO.
CHAVI ARTIST e/w