Points of interest for punters

Ian Davies explains the amateur sport that underpins the hunter chase season
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The hunter chase season looms - favourites with no form figures on the race-card to justify their short odds and more amateur jockeys with double-barrelled names than there are surgeons who perform chin implants.

Hunter chases take place at most jumps meetings from 1 February and the point-to-point season that is the foundation for such contests is scheduled to start this weekend.

What are point-to-points? Farcical races for rural types with more inherited wealth than sense and Monday-to-Friday stockbrokers, who delude themselves that they own, train and ride proper racehorses at weekends? Or a fascinating, competitive sub-structure to racing under rules, from which champions can, and do, emerge?

The Racing Channel shares the latter school of thought. It had intended to break ground by televising Larkhill's abandoned Saturday meeting, but will still be there to screen the Wiltshire course's New Forest fixture in February, the Heythrop's meeting on 8 April and the Tiverton's event at Stallenge Thorne on 16 April.

The truth is that, while there are those in the point-to-point game who are a danger to themselves and their horses, with over 4,000 point-to- pointers in training, a graded system of racing, and point-to-point alumni including the Gold Cup winner Norton's Coin, Grand National hero Grittar and, more recently, the Hennessy victor Coome Hill, it is a sport worth understanding for betting on races under National Hunt rules, even if you would not be seen dead at a point-to-point itself.

It would be a shame to take such a stance. For the jumping enthusiast, fed a diet of two chases and four hurdles on cards under rules and suffering high admission prices, the chance to see six three-mile chases either free - by cheekily walking in - or by paying a fixed price to drive in regardless of how many are packed into the car, is worth considering.

Point-to-points are about strength - the weights carried range from 11st in ladies' races to 12st 7lb - jumping fences and staying. Virtually all point-to-points are over at least three miles and, although they do not have to conform to jump racing rules on height, number and type of fences, obstacles, while usually smaller than fences under rules, take more jumping than hurdles.

The lowest grade of race is the Confined Maiden. They are for horses which have not won a race of any sort and which have been out with the hunt promoting that day's racing, or are from one of the confined hunts (hunts in that vicinity) nominated for that particular meeting. This, of course, usually involves the hounding of foxes or deer but could be a drag hunt, which is not as sartorially experimental as the name might suggest. Drag hunting means making an artificial trail over the ground for hounds to follow.

Open Maidens - for horses from anywhere in the country which have yet to win - are, in theory, harder to win, but point-to-pointing, with prize- money measured in hundreds, rather than thousands, of pounds, is a pretty provincial business.

Next grade up is the Restricted, the restriction being that to run in these a horse cannot have won under rules and have not won an Open, Intermediate or two Restricteds.

Having won a Maiden and a Restricted open, a horse can now step up to an Intermediate. These are for horses that have not won under rules, an Open or two Intermediates.

Winners of two Intermediates can then step up to a Confined. Like Confined Maidens, these are for horses hunted within the local region, but previous winners are eligible.

The highest grade is an Open in which a point-to-pointer from any part of the country can run regardless of its previous successes. Opens are broken down into Men's, Ladies' and Mixed events. "They always go a good pace in the Ladies", male commentators never tire of patronisingly informing us.

There are also Club races - for horses whose owners are members of a particular club - and the Members', Subscribers', Farmers' or Hunt races which are confined to horses hunted with the club promoting the day's meeting. The quality of such contests varies enormously. It is considered unsporting to run an outstanding horse in such a contest if its owner knows the rest of his hunt or club cannot field a horse capable of giving it a race. In practice there is a depressing glut of owners ,with egos the size of Bournemouth, who are happy to let their pride and joy reduce such races to non-events by strolling home a distance clear. The on-course, bookmakers - there is no off-course market or official starting prices - often refuse to take bets on these races.

So, when scouring hunter chase form it is important to remember that a horse can have won three point-to-points - a Maiden, a Restricted and a Members' race - without having proved much. Form in Opens and, to a lesser extent, Confined and Intermediate races is more important.

Jockeyship is a relatively unimportant factor under rules, where most riders are professionals. Not so in point-to-points.

There are some appalling riders on the circuit. Stick to the top names - Jamie Jukes, Alastair Crow, Tim Mitchell, Joe Tizzard, Nigel Bloom, Neil Harris, Paul Hacking, Andrew Parker, Jimmy Tarry and Noel Wilson, Polly Curling, Alison Dare, Pip Jones, Jo Cumings and Shirley Vickery. They are the leaders in the pointing field and should win more than their share of hunter chases.