The Northern Area Point-to-Point season started on Sunday under leaden skies at the Ratcheugh Farm course near Alnwick and it was not long before heavy rain arrived to make it one of the wettest afternoons I've seen there in the last 40 years.
From 88 individual horses entered for the Ratcheugh Racing Club meeting, a total of 65 runners faced the starter on a seven race card. Live streaming hosted by Sky Sports Racing Presenter, Andrew Thornton proved to be a success and it is planned to live stream the remaining Alnwick fixtures in the New Year.
Lyall Hodgins is one of the rising stars on the Northern Area circuit and, after ending the curtailed 2019/20 season on a high with five winning rides in a row, kicked off the new campaign by steering Senor Lombardy to victory in the opening NPPA Conditions Race.
Sent straight to the front, the gelding was pressed hard by Roderick Random (Charlotte Dun) from four out before producing an impressive turn of foot down the home straight to score by ten lengths with the locally trained Rio Des Echanault (Nick Orpwood) a further two lengths away in third.
Hodgins said of the 7-year-old: ''He had got a bit sick of racing under Rules and needed sweetening up. He gave me a dream ride and really enjoyed himself out in front. He was spot on at every fence and finished full of running.''
This was a perfect start to the training career of former top Northern jumps jockey, Brian Harding, who added: ''I got some kick out of that and it will do the horse's confidence a lot of good.''
For the record, Senor Lombardy changed hands for 125,000 euros at the Goffs Punchestown NH Sale on 27th April 2017, only four days after a three lengths victory on debut in a 14-runner Ballysteen 4-year-olds Maiden contest and subsequently joined Keith Dalgleish's Carluke yard. He reached a career-high mark of 137 after finishing runner-up to Coole Hall in the 2017 renewal of 'The French Furze' Novices Hurdle at Newcastle, with his last success under Rules coming in November 2017.
Almost five years to the day after making a winning debut in a Newcastle Bumper, the talented Red Indian enjoyed another fruitful trip up the A1 from Oakham with his second Ladies Open victory of the season.
Patiently ridden by Alice Stevens, the odds-on favourite joined Killer Crow (Charlotte Dun) four out before hitting the front at the next. In command when making his only mistake at the last, the 8-year-old recovered well and had a dozen lengths in hand at the line.
His trainer, Kelly Morgan, who doesn't mind the 460-mile round trip, said: ''That has cleared up any doubts we had over his stamina and the win qualifies him for the Cheltenham Foxhunters' Chase in March.''
The victory maintained Kelly's 100% record in the Northern Area. She recalled that her first runner at Alnwick, Chipmunk (Dale Peters) scored at the corresponding meeting in December 2016. Her other venture up the A1 prior to Sunday saw Extreme Appeal (Tom Hamilton) land a 2m4f Haydon Intermediate contest at Hexham in April 2018.
Former Sussex National hero, Vinnie Lewis turned the Men's Open Race into a procession. The Chris Bealby-trained soft ground specialist relished the conditions and made virtually all the running under a positive ride from George Chatterton. The 9-year-old gradually extended his advantage from five out to score by twenty lengths from Monbeg Chit Chat (Christy Furness).
Chatterton, who graduated from Durham University last year, said: ''I got him into a great rhythm and decided to make it a true test of stamina. It's a shame that his owners, The Vinnie Lewis Partnership couldn't be here.''
Ray Owen's 5am departure for the four and a half hour journey from Denbigh was rewarded when his talented mare, African Belle landed the Conditions Race on her first outing since March 2019.
Always lying handy under stable jockey Fred Timmis, the 6-year-old was delivered with a well-timed challenge to head Mr Pepperpot (John Dawson) two out before staying on strongly to win by four lengths, with the Joe O'Shea-trained favourite, Cousin Pascal a further six lengths away in third.
Timmis said: ''She travelled well from the off, cruised up the hill after four out and coped well on the softest ground she has faced to date,'' while Owen, who holds her in high regard, added: ''She is an under-rated mare when you look at the form of her two wins in 2019. After strengthening up over the summer, she has passed her stiffest test so far and will be stepped up in grade again next time.''
Coincidentally, she was bred at nearby Rennington by land agent, George White. Her dam, Knysna Belle's solitary success in 15 pointing starts came in a Duke of Buccleuch's Mares Maiden Race in the hands of Chris Gillon on 12th March 2005.
The Harriet Dickin-trained Alcester raider, For Fitz Sake provided William Easterby with his 80th career success between the flags in the first division of the Open Maiden. Never far off the pace, the 4-year-old debutant took it up two out from Okey Dokey (Lucy Brown) and finished so full of running that Easterby had a job to pull him up after the line.
Carrying the colours of 'The Cahill Fitzgerald Partnership', the youngster was bought for £20,000 at the Goffs UK Store Sales in May 2019. Matt Fitzgerald said: ''Our eighteen month plan has come to fruition after being denied a run in the Spring due to the Covid lockdown. We knew the stiff track would suit him and got Will Easterby booked up early for the ride.''
This was a memorable first winner as a trainer for event rider, Harriet (daughter of NH trainer, Robin Dickin) who has enjoyed plenty of success in British Eventing competitions over the last decade.
Jack Teal took his career tally to 50 (49 between the flags and 1 under Rules) when steering his own 4-year-old debutant, The Wise Traveller to victory in the second division of the Open Maiden. Always travelling well on the heels of the leaders on the second circuit, the youngster closed up rapidly on the testing climb to three out and was only one length behind Fitz In (William Easterby). Teal's mount found extra when it mattered on the run-in to head Fitz In and secure a one and a half lengths verdict, with the promising No Filter (Nick Orpwood) a further eight lengths away in third.
Teal commented: ''He had been working well at home. We got a nice lead into the race and although he's still a bit green, he warmed to the task and found plenty at the finish.''
Connections of For Fitz Sake, Fitz In and The Wise Traveller will be hoping for plenty of interest from buyers when they all go under the hammer at the Goffs UK December P2P Sale at Yorton Farm on Thursday (December 17).
In torrential rain and near darkness, Dream Over (Nick Orpwood) was a popular local winner of the concluding Restricted Race. Victoria McKie's progressive 5-year-old mare (Shirocco-Wicket Maiden) took it up two out and stayed on well to beat Matthew Man (Kit Alexander) by four lengths.
Bought as a foal, she is well related and has taken time to mature. Wicket Maiden's dam was Lady Cricket (a former 164-rated chaser and 157-rated hurdler) who won seven times for Martin Pipe in addition to her four wins in France.
The next Northern Area meeting is the West Percy at Alnwick on Sunday 10th January.