Deprived of the opportunity to thunder round fields, the next best thing for hunt followers is standing in a rainswept field watching other riders thunder past. For most hunts, their point-to-point is one of their biggest sources of funds, and one of the greatest social events of the year.
My hunt’s racing takes place at Upper Sapey in Worcestershire, a winswept, undulating right-handed racecourse. For the past few years, I’ve helped organise fence stewards and mounted stewards, who are crucial to the running of the day. Such are the regulations these days, every fence must be manned by two stewards and a first aider, 24 people altogether – a large number for a small hunt to find when one considers how many others are needed – paddock stewards, announcers, people to man the number board, the hospitality tent and the weighing-in room. I take hot pork rolls and cups of tea round to them throughout the day – a terrific opportunity to borrow a friend’s 4×4! Slightly hairy this year, as the car didn’t have off-road tyres and it was a tad slippy in places…
WHATEVER THE WEATHER
For the past few years, we’ve held our point-to-point in mid May, which you might think would mean good weather, but, this being England, it doesn’t. My parents’ wedding photos resemble the stormiest of nights in Wuthering Heights – and that was May 16! Three years ago, we had horizontal rain and gales. A group of lads got utterly covered in mud pushing cars out of the mire, and it was almost impossible to distinguish the horses at the end of each race. A friend from the South African Karoo desert bravely smiled through the deluge, and got her reward the following year when sunbathing distracted from the racing.
This year, the going was perfect, but heavy rain started shortly before the first race and kept coming. Extremely frustrating, as it put punters off coming, thus reducing the takings on the gate. But the racing was terrific, with an impressive 41 horses declared and some fantastic finishes – in the final race, the leading two horses jumped the last together. Such sport on such good ground should encourage runners and punters alike to come back next year.
Betting on amateur racing is always a chancy affair, but I managed to make a couple of quid when a friend of mine, Polly Whittaker, took the Novice Riders on the Earl of Buckingham. Polly and her mother, Jill, told me to bet each way as the horse had always been second. Stupidly, I took their advice, and of course he came in! I ended the day feeling very proud of her – she rode a perfect race.
THE PROMISING YOUTH
Also impressive was the pony racing. This miniature version of racing is increasingly popular, and is becoming ever more serious. The mini Liam Treadwells look ready to tackle Becher’s already, and the ponies themselves are as keen as ever Desert Orchid was. The Fluffy Pony Stakes was hilarious – tiny legs thundering across the turf with even tinier legs above drumming incessantly against round sides.
There was one tragedy when a horse collapsed and died on the finishing straight. I didn’t see it, thankfully, but apparently he simply keeled over. No one could have done anything Animal-rights protestors whine that horse racing should be banned, but the truth is such a thing could at happen any time. Horses love it – one horse, having unseated his jockey at the second, did the full three-mile race by himself, jumping with his ears pricked and loping over the finish line looking very pleased with himself. Something tells me he was having a good time.
THE POINT IN THE END
The skies cleared later on, and those who stuck it out – including a hen party in the most revolting collection of shiny leggings I have ever seen – were rewarded with sunshine.
Everything went smoothly, and, hopefully, the day raised plenty of funds for the hunt. But making money and having fun isn’t the only reason for holding a point-to-point. It’s a way of saying thank you to all the farmers and landowners who let us charge over their land all winter, and to everyone involved with keeping hunts going in the face of the ridiculous ban. Hunt communities are among the most close knit of groups, and a day out in a windy field is a surprisingly good way of forging those ties ever stronger.p