It was a busy night at Stratford on Saturday. Oh what a joyous phrase to write after 15 months of no racing or racing behind closed doors! I shall say it again: it was a busy night on Saturday, as crowds were welcomed back to the racecourse for the nearest we’ve reached to a normal race meeting since March 9 2020. An enthusiastic crowd queued to collect pre-paid tickets, but was limited to the centre course for the time being.
Owners, to all intents seeming like old veterans of the Covid regime, having attended to watch their horses since late March, were permitted to enter the paddock. The heady atmosphere that racing brings, of nervous anticipation, appreciation of the speed and grace of the thoroughbred, and social interaction, was back in spades.
And the action on the track didn’t disappoint either.
The feature handicap hurdle went to Nicky Henderson, not generally acknowledged as a key player in summer jumping, but who always keeps a team up for the faster ground tracks. Hooper, 6/5 favourite, completed a four-timer under Ben Ffrench-Davies, the conditional securing his second winner, and first of this new season.
Another stable that can always be relied on for summer winners is Jonjo O’Neill’s Jackdaws Castle. The season is barely a month old but 7 winners are on the board already, and hopes are high to build on the stellar season of last winter. Irish ex-pointer Lock’s Corner, duly obliged with his fourth chase win from six starts, and has improved 30lbs since embarking on his chase career here in August 2019, in a race that cut up to 3 runners. Expect this J P McManus-owned horse to be aimed for the big summer handicaps at the likes of Market Rasen and Uttoxeter, and indeed, back here as the summer progresses.
Restandbethankful looks a smart recruit to the Olly Murphy stable, owned in partnership by Max McNeill and Patrick & Scott Bryceland. With three wins and two seconds from his five runs since last September, he looks like every owner’s dream, and this facile win is the precursor to more.
Forecast changed stables last summer and had an in-and-out season for Richard Newland before undertaking a wind operation last month. That and the seven month break conspired to make a difference when he ran out a comprehensive winner of the 2m 3f handicap chase amidst 4 other runners. I think we’ll be seeing him out again quite briskly.
Another stable flying the flag for Worcestershire was the family team of Matt and Stan Sheppard, who teamed up to deliver a maiden victory for Always Able in the novices handicap hurdle. The Sheppard team enjoyed an excellent 2020-21 season following the absorption of David Dennis into the team, and they’ve started this term well. Thirty percent of their runners win or reach the frame – no complaints there then.
The furthest-flung winner of the evening was Ballyegan Hero, trained in Whitsbury, Hampshire by Paul Henderson, who ran out a comfortable winner of the 3m3f 25 Club Handicap Chase. And to finish the evening, Fergal O’Brien produced another bumper entrant to break his duck at the first time of asking when Ultimate Fame prevailed by 1/2l under some persuasive riding from Paddy Brennan.
Entries are excellent for this Friday’s Hunters’ evening, which sees the cream of the British Point-to-Point scene reconvene at Stratford for the last of the three Foxhunter classics, run under the Pertemps Network banner.