Racing: New point to pursuit of fun in the field

The point-to-point season and a fresh search for potential champions has begun again.
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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE who think of point-to-pointing as a jolly wheeze for country folk there will be some deliciously A A Milne racing venues this season in the shape of Dingley, Chaddesley Corbett and Friar's Haugh.

The wax jackets and wellingtons were liberated from cupboards for the first time this year yesterday, the 4x4s pointed in the direction of Cambridge, as Cottenham staged the first of 206 scheduled meetings across Britain this season. The mischievous could have seen some amusement at this East Anglian starting point.

It is not often you arrive at a racing venue to be greeted by dumb animals, unless you consider the old-style gatemen of Ascot, but spectators yesterday were met by cattle enjoying brunch in the restaurant of an immense shed.

The course itself resembled a dirty Deauville, around which the requisite canine accessory was not a poodle but rather a Jack Russell. The ubiquitous carvery was in place to ensure the horses ran faster, and there was further typical rustic refreshment in the shape of chilli jumbo sausage and Fanta.

These days, though, you cannot be too rude about point-to-pointing. Not only is the sport a shadow of the hyphens-falling-to-earth image it once portrayed, but it has become a breeding ground for champions.

Coome Hill, Cool Dawn and See More Business have all emerged from the pointing field to greater glory, and this year we have witnessed perhaps the most celebrated graduate of them all, Teeton Mill.

The grey spent much of his life at Caroline Bailey's Northamptonshire livery yard, running in points and chasing Reynard. It must have been an unlucky fox indeed which had the future superstar urging the Pytchley hounds on in pursuit.

Cottenham is almost the Maracana of this sport, a dedicated point-to- point track which even offers its own grandstand. As a reward it is one of the few circuits which is afforded four meetings a year.

They have raced here on this Cambridgeshire land for over 100 years and the site featured a National Hunt course until the 1920s. The territory is owned by Michael Gingell, who is also the Cambridgeshire Harriers Hunt Club chairman and the entries' secretary. When there is an accident in the rudimentary parade ring it comes as something of a surprise that he doesn't also run out in a white coat with a shovel in his hand.

"This is a sport for the amateur and not as expensive as National Hunt racing," Gingell says. "You can train a horse for pointing that you keep in your back yard."

It is not an arena much loved by James Fanshawe, though, because it is where he broke his neck, but for a fellow Newmarket trainer it is twinned with Nirvana. Sir Mark Prescott has been the starter round these parts for 25 years, a position he inherited from Ryan Jarvis.

Sir Mark likes the sight of bullfighting, coursing, hunting and just about anything which occasionally ends in a dead animal, but it is a sound which most takes him, the crackle of a jumping horse bursting through brush which he first remembers hearing as an eight-year-old. Those were the madcap days of point-to-point, times much missed by older devotees.

"This is like all country sports in that it involves every sort of person and that's part of its attraction," Prescott says. "I suppose it might have been what some people considered a joke in the old days, but it isn't any more. "When I was a kid it was more farmer-orientated. It was never nob-orientated. And now it's everybody. It was very bucolic before but gradually it's become increasingly professional and urbanised, a little bit less informal. Now there are more rules.

"It's not one man and his horse any more and we're becoming a bit more standardised, which is a shame. I used to enjoy it when the hunt race was just that, with five fat old men going round in the first before the professionals had their go."

Point-to-pointing's primary function these days seems to be to provide the bookends for a National Hunt horse's career. It can be a kindergarten for young animals (and their jockeys), as well as the equivalent of a seafront potter for those who have retired for a bit of peace and quiet. "It's a wonderful schooling ground for the National Hunt horse and it's also a wonderful end-of-career part of the sport," Prescott says. "Without it, there would be a gigantic hole at the veteran stages of a horse's life."

There were some old boys on parade in the Men's Open contest yesterday and Josh Gifford's former winning chaser Around The Horn suggested he had not been entirely withered by age when he transported Paul Hacking to victory.

They clapped the 12-year-old back, mostly those who had backed him on the local Tote or with the on-course bookmakers. Indeed, most people seemed to have a good time. And the local foxes got the day off as well.