Point-to-Point: First Night - Lure of a convivial pursuit

When the fabric of racing cuts to the chase, the hunt for a champion begins

If there is one thing a day at a point-to-point will show you it is the difference between men and women. The tough lady riders who compete in this amateur version of steeplechasing have none of the willowy androgyny of some female track and field athletes. Anyone who is given to asking the question "Will it make my bum look big?" before they open the wardrobe should never pull on a pair of white nylon racing breeches.

A week ago at Cottenham the hotspurs and hotspurettes of the point-to- point world launched another season. The profile of their sport has been raised lately because of the exploits, in the grander arena of professional jump racing, of one of its distinguished alumni, Teeton Mill. This time last year the dashing grey was just another hunter - albeit one of the best ones, despite his dodgy old pins - preparing for the new campaign. Now, with the Hennessy Gold Cup and King George VI Chase under his girth, he is favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

And with a certain appropriate symmetry the first winner last Sunday was a grey from Teeton Mill's old stable, that of Caroline Bailey in Leicestershire, by his sire, Neltino. The horse, The Auctioneer, certainly owed his rider Lisa Rowe one. On the same day 12 months previously he had given her a fall which broke her collarbone and knocked her out of the game for six weeks.

The Auctioneer, though, for all the ease of his win in the fastest three- mile time of the day, is unlikely to reach the same heights as his celebrated former stablemate. And there did not seem an obvious future star lurking among the 108 runners in nine races at the Cambridgeshire venue. Perhaps the little debutant Secret Streams, runner up in the eighth, might go on to better things.

Point-to-pointing provides the competitive link between hunting and jump racing proper and has the same etymological roots. When the dashing blades of yore wanted to test their horses one against the other they would devise a route across natural country landmarked by the tallest things they could see, generally the spiky spires of village churches. Hence steeplechasing and point-to-pointing.

The amateur branch of the sport, so obviously and inextricably linked with hunting, will not, in principle anyway, be to everyone's taste. Meetings are organised by hunts (last week's hosts were the Cambridgeshire Harriers on land owned by the farming Gingell family) in aid of funds, horses have to go hunting to qualify for their races, and hunt members provide mounted escort for the runners going to post.

But one of the points always made most vociferously by those defending the case for the sport is that point-to-pointing provides for both the nursery education and retirement of steeplechasing's participants, equine and human. And, whatever one's views on the pursuit and slaughter of bushy- tailed wildlife for pleasure, it is difficult not to admit that they have a point.

Teeton Mill and rivals such as Suny Bay and See More Business are not the only big names to have learnt their trade at places like Cottenham; history is periodically littered with them, right up to last year's Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn. It is the same in the rider department; 69 years ago at the Garth meeting races were won by three men subsequently successful in the Grand National, Frank Furlong, Bobby Petre and Fulke Walwyn. In the latest edition of the point-to-point form book there is a photo of two of today's young talents, Joe Tizzard and Seamus Durack, over a fence together.

Three of last week's winners were the 12-year-old ex-Josh Gifford inmate Around The Horn, former Paul Nicholls trainee Larry's Lord and a Sheikh Mohammed chuck-out, the seven-year-old As You Like It. All are in gainful employment, as will be some 3,500 of their fellows - on the way up, bobbing at their own level, or on the way down - who will be trying to follow in their hoofprints until the last of the year's 206 meetings at Umberleigh, Devon, in June.

There were constant reminders that the threads that link hunting with pointing run into the fabric of racing. It is only 10 miles from Cottenham to Newmarket and many of the senior sport's worthies were in official attendance. The trainer Sir Mark Prescott is the starter, bloodstock agent David Minton does the commentaries, Rowe has just taken up a management post at Haydock.

One of Minton's colleagues at the British Bloodstock Agency, Anthony Bromley, had the day before been crowing in the Sandown winner's circle over the impressive victory of one of his finds, Behrajan, who is now on course for one of Cheltenham's championships. He was just as excited about seeing another spot, Anubis Quercus, run for pounds 95 in the first division of the maiden.

The six-year-old fell, but did show enough to indicate that losses were only lent. And Bromley is among a huge number who would enormously regret pointing's removal from the calendar. "It would still go on if hunting is banned," he said. "People enjoy doing it too much for it to die completely. But it would change and lose part of itself. The farmers wouldn't want it on their land and the volunteers would drop out. It will become just rather soulless jump racing, a tier down on low-grade tracks."

Because it is, like any horse activity, a sport for the relatively privileged as far as participation goes, point-to-pointing has an image of Barbours and trilbies that is not wholly fair. Sure, waxed jackets and seagull- speak abounded last Sunday, but there were plenty of woolly football hats (Arsenal, Spurs, QPR, Wolves, MUFC, Ipswich, Norwich, Exeter, Rushden & Diamonds and counting) as well.

It was a delightful compromise between being the sort of exclusively, smugly, horsey meet that can get people's backs up, and merely a betting-orientated entertainment in the far distance. At a point-to-point you can get under the skin of racing. You can stand close to the horses as they canter to post, and appreciate the physicality of the whole thing. You can almost feel the weight of that powerful bay horse's head in that girl in green's hands, hear her grunting with the effort of bracing herself in the stirrup irons against his pre-race keenness.

The riders, most of them not actually very good but all of them doing it for fun (and none giving a toss about their bums), wander through the crowd to get to the mounting ring. Some wear professional- looking silks over their power- shoulder body armour, others home-knitted colours so stretched that a jumble sale would have none of them. A lot of people know each other, on the ground and on horseback, and there is a real sense of community.

It helped that last week was a simply glorious midwinter day. The sun was thin and low, but bright, against a sky of pale azure, the backdrop to the silhouettes of naked black trees. On the far side of the course was a shed-full of in-calf Hereford-cross cows, unmoved by the streams of galloping horses as they patiently munched their feed, and an expanse of delicate pale green parallel lines of young wheat poking through the dark, cold earth.

It was a chilly palette but one brimful of promise of the spring to come. And out there, away from the bustle and the hamburger vans, with pale winter sun, the emotive smell of crushed grass and the intermittent sound of hoofbeats assailing the senses, is where pointing's soul can be found. In the countryside, part of the turn of the seasons.

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