JEN MILLS discovers the world of point-to-point horse racing.
ON a farmer’s field near Chepstow on March 16, thousands of spectators yelled phrases like ‘Credit for Life’, Come on Winds of War’ and ‘Prince Eleanor’ as they shielded their eyes from the beating sun with hands or their betting cards.
Most didn’t even make back their parking fee let alone whatever money they had laid down, but undoubtedly some were celebrating their horse coming in at Howick’s temporary race course, when riders from across the UK congregated for the amateur horse racing known as Point-to-Point organised by the local hunt.
Point-to-point is the little brother of the high stakes horse racing found at courses such as Cheltenham and Chepstow.
Dependant on volunteers to build the fences, sell tickets and organise getting the thousands of spectators a place to park, it can be the first outing for a promising young jockey or horse, a last hoorah for a horse with many miles behind him or simply a place to take the kids to watch the horses.
Among the crowds was trainer Joan Williams, from Gaerllwydd near Shirenewton, and jockey David Pritchard, taking stock after their horse disappointed in his race.
Irish thoroughbred Bardolet proved a puzzle, as physically he could have been a racing success but once he got on the course his will to win didn’t show.
Mr Pritchard, 22, said: “He just kept going at the same speed. You can tell he doesn’t give everything, because his ears are kept pricked all the time. Really it’s the horse’s mindset, not the physical side of it, which is often more frustrating. If a horse is in pain we can put it right, or we can try.”
But, he added, if a horse doesn’t want to push themselves to the limit there’s nothing a jockey can do.
As they walked Bardolet around to cool him down and dry the sweat from his back they speculated on how to bring out the winner within, frustrated that he enjoyed jumping and galloping but was just reluctant to give it all.
Perhaps the 11-year-old horse might find more joie-de-vivre in the slightly slower pace of a four miler, they said wondering if the memory of shaking up his leg after landing badly on firm ground last year had made him more reluctant.
While trainers and jockeys considered the psychology of how to get the most from a horse, bookmakers speculated on how to bring in the most cash from each race.
Robin Jenkins, from Magor, is part-time cattle farmer and part time bookie. Grasping a wadge of £20 notes he gestured in customers as his assistant wrote up each horse’s names and odds on a whiteboard under a portable parasol. As the crowds milled past comparing figures, one man attracted customers by shouting “Money without work!” every few minutes. But despite the queue of gamblers, Robin says the money on the point-to-point racing is gone.
“I have been doing this too long – since 1987. This is a hobby. They’re pushing the prices up to come in all the time. There used to be 16 or 18 bookies here, but there’s only 10 today.”
With his clutch of money Robin didn’t seem to be doing too badly, but he says running a business betting on the horses is a gamble itself.
We stayed with him for one race and although he wouldn’t reveal the exact figure he confided he made a loss, paying out more in winnings than he took in bets.
“There are no guarantees,” he said. But this is the only kind of gambling he indulges in himself nowadays, admitting: “I used to bet like a fool as a kid. But not anymore.”
Most spectators had a flutter but the day wasn’t just about the betting, but rather a chance to catch up with friends or enjoy a day in the sunshine. One family laid out a feast between their cars with dips, salad and cakes decorating a large picnic blanket.
From his foldable travel chair Nick Robinson, from Usk, said: “We have been coming for more than 30 years. On days like this it’s lovely, it’s really good fun. But we haven’t been very successful so far. We normally put on £5 a race - we’re not big spenders.”
Three generations of the family showed up at the course, with grandson Tom Robinson, seven, excited by “the funny names of the horses”.
Inspired by a family friend in Usk called Mrs Peacock, the family placed a bet on Rosie’s Peacock, he added. But unfortunately she proved “a bit of a duffer”, Nick said, and didn’t do very well.
Although there are many who came as casual sun-seekers after watching the weather forecast, the point to point is run by dedicated volunteers affiliated with the local hunt.
Paul Freeman, 45, is a fence steward from Chepstow and is one of around 15 who spend more than two months preparing the fences by fetching branches from the nearby countryside and rebuilding the fences each year. He said: “Without the volunteers it wouldn’t run. It’s like an army of people who give their time to build the fences and do the ground. We started work on the fences at the turn of the year. They are covered over in winter and we rebuild them. “
He estimated money from the Point-to-Point racing brings in a third of the income to keep the hunt going, “which is why it’s so vital.”
The Howick races are put on twice a year in the spring by the Curre and Llangibby Hunt, as the hunting season, which runs from November to March, comes to a halt.
Although the brightly coloured jockeys at Howick looked like those at Aintree or Ascot, one in a red hunting jacket with a green collar showed the hunt’s links to the racing. Master of the hunt Peter Swan, 47, from Monmouthshire, cut through the crowds on his wife’s horse Samantha, whom he was “on pain of death” to return safely.
The thoroughbred seemed excited by the noises and smells and tugged away from the reins, prancing from side to side as Peter worked as a mounted steward, meaning he rode to any problems that occurred. “If anybody falls off, we act as stewards. If any horses run off, we go and catch them, make sure everything is safe on the course,” he said.
This is a role Ben Dalton, 30, is familiar with. He used to be the ‘whipper in’ for the Curre and Llangibby Hunt while he lived in Portskewett area, looking after fox hounds and assisting the master of the hunt, and has experience saving the day when a horse bolts: “One year I chased a horse right into the forest when it galloped off and kept going. It lost its bridle,” he said. “I brought it out an hour and half later. But horses are a herd animal; most of them run back to the boxes because they want to be with the others.” There is the exception, however, and he says he heard a rumour a horse once ran from Chepstow Racecourse and actually ended up on the Severn Bridge, although he couldn’t be sure that one was true.
There is an element of risk to the sport, but Mr Dalton compares it to skiing and says this doesn’t put people off. “From the jockeys’ point of view, there have been jockeys injured”, he said. “It’s part of the sport, but they love it. It’s what they do, a risk they take. They love riding.”
He himself knows the dangers, having broken arms and legs and even being hit by a car after falling. “Usually jumping the fences we do get the odd fall. You’ll probably see one today - it’s all part of it”, he said.
Point-to-point started off as with steeplechases, races from village to village guided by church spires. Riders would leap ditches and hedgerows in an attempt to reach victory. These days the course is more regimented, with each race three miles long and including 18 fences.
Spread over the afternoon there are seven horse races with a further two pony races for children aged up to 16. For each adult race, each horse entered has to be a thoroughbred which has hunted for at least five days throughout the hunting season with a registered pack of fox hounds. Each jockey must also be registered and the horse has to be registered with Wetherbys.
Visit www.curreandllangibbyhunt.co.uk for more information on the hunt and Point-to-Point horse racing.