Friday last was a big day for those that follow the amateur branch of the sport, with Punchestown hosting a strong challenge for the Champion Hunters Chase, and seven races comprising the Hunters' Evening at Cheltenham, an aspiration for any aspiring amateur.
And there was plenty to cheer about for folk representing the county on both sides of the Irish Sea. In Punchestown, the best of the Irish was put up to repulse the challenge of two British raiders in Caid du Berlais, winner of the last two such renewals in 2018 and 2019 (no race in 2020 because of you know what), and Bob And Co, owned and ridden by chief British Corinthian David Maxwell, ostensibly from London, but with a retreat in Chedworth, so an honorary representative of the county.
Railed against them, Billaway, fresh from the runner-up berth in the Cheltenham Foxhunter, It Came To Pass, a previous winner of same, and Staker Wallace, for Enda Bolger and JP McManus, with a strong supporting cast.
Battles between the British and Irish on the track haven't gone our way much this year, but the Hunter Chase division has flown the flag for Blighty, and so it was again here. No-one could call Bob And Co's round foot-perfect, but he joined the leader Billaway two out, challenged him to the line and got up at the post to win a nose. Hurrah! A second winner for the Away team after Clan des Obeaux earlier in the week in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
Sadly Caid du Berlais wasn't at the races after mistakes at the tenth and eleventh, and Will Biddick pulled up. A hat-trick would have been too good to be true.
A drubbing we may have had at Cheltenham, but I'm always surprised at how weak the British challenge is for Punchestown. Whilst we might not have firepower for all those Grade Is (some of which ran up pretty small fields), the 40 races include plenty of handicaps. If the Irish can send over 100 horses to Cheltenham, we should be returning the favour. Not all our horses are inferior to theirs!
Back at Cheltenham, the highlight of the evening was a winner for Albi Tufnell in the race named after Lorna Brooke. Speaking with the benefit of experience, whilst it's a lovely thought for the Cheltenhma Executive to offer a race to celebrate her life, for connections the timeline leaves everyone very raw less than a month after her death. I remember being offered a race for my brother James, who died following a fall at Larkhill at the end of March. Frankly, no-one wanted to be anywhere near a racecourse so soon after that ghastly event. But life in the racing world moves on quickly; a year on, the same race wouldn't have the same poignancy for those one step away from the family.
In any event, Captain Cattistock, trained by Fergal O'Brien, and owned by Albi's mother, Jane, appreciated the weaker competition than his previous two outings this Spring, where he came up against Sametegal then Silsol, and was always doing enough to give Albi a first Cheltenham winner, and a second trip to the winner's enclosure during the evening following Stratford winner I'm Wiser Now's third in the feature Hunters' Chase, taken back to Herefordshire by Trio For Rio, trained by Clive Boultbee-Brooks.
The Pointing season is wending its way toward a conclusion next month, where Kingston Blount supplants the usual swansong at Umberleigh. The reduced fixture list has resulted in more competitive racing, which begs the question as to how we can maintain that level of quality in a "normal" season. One wonders how many hunts will volunteer to stage a fixture in 2022, when they have discovered thay can manage without these past two years.
Going for Sunday April 3 - Good (Thursday)
6m SE Cheltenham, nr junction of A40 and A436 (Exit 11A, M5)