After a relatively quiet start to the season, South Midlands owners and trainers had high hopes for January, particularly with the first area meetings of the season – the Barbury International at Barbury and the Heythrop at Cocklebarrow – taking place last month. And they were not to be disappointed, racking up a host of wins at venues as far apart as Ampton in Suffolk and Wadebridge in Cornwall.
Top of the winners' tree, as they so often are, were father-and-son trainer-jockey combination Alan and Joe Hill, and a nap hand of successes during the month sees them joint-top of the national leaderboards at this early stage of the season. Their first four winners – Supreme Danehill at Wadebridge, an Ampton double with Allie Beag and Hawkhurst, and a Barbury victory with Inmyday – came on the bounce, while stable star Broken Eagle enjoyed another romp to victory in a fast time at Higham.
Not far behind the Hills on the honours board were trainer Dibby Brown and jockey Nick Phillips. Three of the four horses in their Bibury stables visited the winner's enclosure last month – Cousin Pete, returning to form after a barren 2017, Sarazen Bridge at Larkhill and Silent Warrior at Cocklebarrow, where Nick is Clerk of the Course.
HEADLINE MAKER: NICK PHILLIPS
Thirty-six-year-old VWH Master of Foxhounds Nick Phillips is enjoying a cracking start to the season, with three winners on the board already. In his 17th season in the saddle, he has ridden 33 winners between the flags and three in Hunter Chases, two at Chepstow with Camden Carrig and the 2016 United Hunts Challenge Cup at Cheltenham on Cousin Pete.
"When I left school, I did a winter with Arthur Moore in Ireland," Nick explained as to how his time as a jockey came about. "That gave me the enthusiasm, then Dad got Stay Lucky from Nicky Henderson…" The 13-year-old was Nick's first ride, at Larkhill in 2002, and also his first winner, at Dunthrop in March of the same year. Nick's brother George also used to ride in points (he retired in 2012, having won the same Cheltenham Hunter Chase as Nick on The Cool Guy in 2010) and, as Nick admitted: "We used to mix it up a bit. We had a couple each but we used to swap the rides! We never had high-quality horses or spent huge amounts of money – we had ones we could enjoy ourselves on."
It was George who was in the saddle when Leachbrook Lady, dam of Cousin Pete, scored for the only time – rather fortuitously – at Mollington in 2004. Cousin Pete, named after Nick's cousin and fellow Point-to-Point jockey Peter Mason, is the last of the Phillips home-breds, as Nick sadly told me. "His full-brother Noble Ned won his first point and we sold him to Harry Fry, but he was killed on the racecourse, and his half-sister Bella Luna ran for us last year, but we lost her, too."
Fortunately, Cousin Pete continues to do the family proud. "He won at Cocklebarrow in 2014 then had a year off. He then won four in 2016, including at Cheltenham, but scoped dirty after that, then we had a bug in the yard last year," recalled Nick. "His Larkhill win was unexpected. We'd tested him at Kim Bailey's and Dibby (trainer Elizabeth Brown) had spent a lot of time on him and was confident he was healthy, but we didn't expect him to be that impressive!"
By the time you read this, Cousin Pete will have bypassed a possible engagement at Wincanton, but is also entered at Market Rasen next Tuesday, and we'll know whether Nick's plans for the ten-year-old – "If he runs well, we'll probably go for the Cheltenham Foxhunters" – is likely to be realised. As for Nick's personal ambitions, he confessed that "I've always wanted to ride in the Aintree Foxhunters but have been too tight to spend the money on the course for a Category B licence! But this year I'm doing it for Cheltenham and am looking forward to it… as long as I can pass the fitness test!" And who knows, maybe the family home-bred will carry Nick to his goal.
With the exception of jockey James Martin, whose victory on Benjamin Leader at Larkhill was a second of the campaign, all the other South Midlands winners in January were getting off the mark for the season. Regular readers of this column will know of my affection for Fran Marriott's mare Dabinett Moon, and she followed up a promising seasonal debut by scoring impressively at Cocklebarrow in the hands of the ever-smiling Claire Hardwick. Another area big-hitter, Brackloon High, returned to the scene of his greatest triumph in points – the 2017 Coronation Cup – to get off the mark at Larkhill for Michael Kehoe and Andrew Barlow, while Jenny Pidgeon's Top Smart made a winning return at Higham, a sixth win in his last seven starts.
Karinga Dancer, owned, trained and ridden by Laura Thomas (who rides with a Sandhurst certificate), was a third South Midlands scorer at Higham, while on the same day at Cocklebarrow, Howard Pauling's En Passe – ridden by Peter Mason – gained her second course victory, and Damby's Star broke her duck in the Maiden for mother and daughter Sara and Lily Bradstock. And talking of Maidens, James Jackson-Stops rode his own Summer Sounds to victory for Fran Nimmo at Ampton.
Finally, the Suffolk venue saw a comfortable success for the only outright winner last month to represent the Sandhurst area, Tracey Bailey's Broadway Symphony. The week previously, Richard Bandey's Irish Legionnaire achieved his second "1" of the season, albeit in a dead-heat this time.