Racing: Kingscliff a fine advert for 'proper racing' between the flags

Point-to-Point 2004: The new season brings a record number of fixtures but the threat of a hunting ban casts a long shadow over the sport
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It says much for the resilience of point-to-point that there will be more fixtures than ever this season, which begins with the Cambridgeshire Harriers card at Cottenham tomorrow and reaches its finale at Umberleigh, north Devon on 12 June. Between those dates the sport will stage 209 meetings on 117 different courses.

It says much for the resilience of point-to-point that there will be more fixtures than ever this season, which begins with the Cambridgeshire Harriers card at Cottenham tomorrow and reaches its finale at Umberleigh, north Devon on 12 June. Between those dates the sport will stage 209 meetings on 117 different courses.

Foot-and-mouth disease wiped out most pointing in 2001 and, just as the season was about to reach its peak last March, the rains refused to fall for two months, reducing fields to minuscule proportions.

What is even more remarkable, considering point-to-pointing will have to reinvent itself if hunting is banned, is that there will be two new courses this season - Brafield-on-the-Green in Northamptonshire, where the Oakley will race on 13 March, and Overton, near Carluke in the Clyde valley, which will be the venue for the Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Eglinton on 27 March.

Overton, on permit holder Billy Young's land, will be the first new course in Scotland for 50 years, and is about one mile from Craigethan Castle, one of Mary Queen of Scots many bolt holes. The venue is also handy to a local watering hole - the Popinjay Hotel - for those who enjoy a pre-race "livener".

The Oakley and the Lanarkshire both utilised NH courses last season and, thankfully, this trend is in reverse as Wetherby also disappears from the fixture list, which leaves just Fakenham and Market Rasen hosting point-to-points. The Badsworth & Braham Moor, who used to stage two meetings at the Yorkshire track, will now hold a single fixture at Hesslaker, near Skipton on 22 May.

Tweseldown, near Aldershot, which at one time started the season, but looked like folding as a racecourse three years ago will host three fixtures - 11 January, 24 February and 21 March. Work has been carried out on the drainage there during the summer, so abandonments due to waterlogging should be a thing of the past, while foliage has been cut back to improve viewing.

The High Peak at Flagg Moor, in Derbyshire, returns after an absence of four years on 13 April. The Thames Valley Hunts Club, another absentee for several years, will be back at Kingston Blount, near High Wycombe, on 24 April and the North West Hunts Club return at Tabley, Cheshire, on 16 May.

The Taunton Vale Harriers, who used to hold a joint fixture with the local Foxhounds, go it alone at Kingston St Mary, near Taunton, and enterprisingly have opted for an evening mid-week date - a rarity these days - on Wednesday, 19 May.

A competitive season looks likely, granted traditional British weather, but the possibility of a total ban on hunting in England still looms - it is already restricted to a role of "pest control" in Scotland, with the loss of just one point-to-point, the Dumfriesshire.

The hunting bill is due to be resolved in this Parliament and the Jockey Club, under whose jurisdiction point-to-pointing comes, have been liaising with the associations to provide an alternative way of organising the sport if hunting is banned.

The Club are reluctant to divulge details of how point-to-pointing would continue as that would be interpreted as accepting that a ban is inevitable.

Last season there were 4,014 pointers in training and almost 1,000 riders, so there is a nucleus to stage some form of racing, possibly with meetings organised on a club basis.

Steven Astaire, chairman of Tweseldown Race Club, is far from convinced that would be practical if the present structure is removed. "Most of the small rural courses, many of which stage just one meeting a year, would probably disappear," he said. "With hunting gone there would be no reason for what I would call the 'farming' course, as distinct from say, Tweseldown, Larkhill and Cottenham, to stage meetings. You need around 70 people to run a meeting, selling racecards, organising car parking etc, and at present members of the hunt provide that manpower.

"Then there is the question of qualifying. What criteria would you use in accepting runners? You just can't have people turning up with a horse."

As another season starts, there is no more fitting spokesman for the sport than Arnie Sendall, the 71-year-old owner of Kingscliff, one of the few serious threats to Best Mate in the Gold Cup, along with Keen Leader, another ex-pointer.

"I've always called it proper racing" said Sendall, a retired electrical engineer who has owned point-to-pointers for 30 years. "Chasing-bred horses learn a lot more racing between the flags than they do by going over hurdles. They go like the wind over hurdles and don't learn to jump. I bought Kingscliff from Martin Cullinane, who is a dealer in Athenry, Galway, as an unbroken, gangly, raw-boned three-year-old. He was 16.3 even then. I was offered a lot of money before he even ran. After he won his first two point-to-points I nearly sold him until Robert Alner asked me what I'd do with the money. 'Buy a horse to win the Cheltenham Foxhunters,' I said and he replied 'Keep him - he's the horse that'll win it'."

A Gold Cup win for Kingscliff would raise point-to-pointing's profile, but many forget that last year's result was a fine advertisement as Best Mate, runner-up Truckers Tavern and Valley Henry (4th) all began their careers between the flags in Ireland as did the Grand National winner, Monty's Pass.

York ready to take title from Burton

Polly Gundry is 1-2 favourite to win her fifth consecutive ladies' championship, which would be a post-war record, even though she will also be riding for Guillaume Macaire in France - but the men's contest could hardly be more difficult to call.

Richard Burton, last year's champion, is favourite with the Midlands bookmaker Mark Hill (5-2) and his West Country colleague Mike Smith (2-1), who bets as Dick Reynolds. With respect to Burton, neither price looks value as Ashley Farrant, who will again partner David Pipe's runners, last year's joint runner-up Stuart Morris, three-times champion Julian Pritchard, Nick Williams and 2002 champion Evan Williams all have chances.

Morris looks over-priced at 14-1, but for a real long-shot the 33-1 about Philip York looks tempting. Fourth in the table last year with 25 winners (12 behind Burton) he has 14 horses in his Surrey livery yard. York, 37, who did not start race-riding until 12 years ago, said: "If I was ever going to win the championship it would be this year. I had 25 winners from just 75 rides last season, so I would have a chance if I could maintain that strike-rate." Rarely beaten in a close finish, York has gained a reputation for mastering the most wayward beasts.

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP: Mark Hill: 5-2 R Burton, 3-1 A Farrant, 4-1 N Williams, 6-1 J Pritchard, 12-1 S Morris, E Williams, 20-1 others. Mike Smith: 2-1 R Burton, 5-2 N Williams, 4-1 A Farrant, 6-1 J Pritchard, 10-1 E Williams, A Wintle, 14-1 G Hanmer, S Morris, 20-1 others.

Real Value has claim to compensation

There are entries from as far afield as the West Country and Scotland for tomorrow's first meeting of the season at Cottenham where there will be eight races as the short-distance maiden has been divided.

Balisteros (1.20) looks the one they have to beat in the ladies if he makes the journey from the Borders, but in his absence Ansuephi would be the choice as he has an amazing first-time-out record, though he will not run if the going, currently good, is any faster.

The Sporborg stable have been active on the Links at Newmarket, so their runners should be worth a close look and their best chance rests with The Red Boy (11.00).

Real Value (12.10) was seven lengths clear when toppling over two out in the mens' open here last season and should make amends this time.

In the first division of the maiden Arctic Sun (2.30), placed in points in Ireland, is the subject of encouraging reports.

TOMORROW'S FIXTURE: Cambridgeshire Harriers at Cottenham (First race 11am). 4m north of Cambridge, near B1049, Exit 14, M11.