With point-to-pointing in summer recess before the planned start of the 2021/2022 season in late October, Jake Exelby has been speaking to a number of people involved in the sport on different levels.
The first of the new “pointing people” series features long-time owner, committee member and former rider Steven Astaire (pictured above with David Simpson), as well-known for his horses named after Marx Brothers characters and his passion for QPR as he is for his orange and olive-green colours.
How did you get into point-to-pointing in the first place?
I used to play football – I was a flying winger but got fed up with being hacked down so I learnt to ride instead! Racing was in my blood, but I always thought I was too tall, until I found out you could ride at 12st 7lb in points.
I put an ad for a schoolmaster in the Sporting Life. Chris Loggin responded, saying he’d teach me, and I started out on Royal Roussel. I had my first ride at Kingston Blount in February 1986 – I fell off at the fourth – and eventually completed two months later at Little Horwood. I then rode my first winner, Swanly, at Northaw the season afterwards – on my birthday!
Who have been your favourite horses and why?
I was privileged to own some lovely horses – Hiram B Birdbath gave me my only winner under Rules and Funchen View, on whom I won four, was a brilliant ride. I bought (former Gold Cup second) Yahoo at Malvern Sales and dead-heated on him at Tweseldown. He was a machine.
What’s the reason behind the naming of your horses?
When I started as an owner, a lot of names didn’t mean anything, so I wanted to name horses after TV and film characters that people could identify with and have a giggle. My first was called Ernie Bilko – he won three as a two-year-old and my best horse was Group-placed J Cheever Loophole. I’ve now got an unraced Shirocco four-year-old, also called Ernie Bilko – I’m starting to recycle names!
Who's inspired you most in the world of pointing?
The late Philip Scouller was a true mentor and the definition of a gentleman.
Which jockeys have you most admired and why?
Gina Andrews and Tik Saunders as lady riders – they’re both so strong and tactically sound. Among the men, Richard Burton, Alan Hill and Julian Pritchard from those I rode against and, these days, Jack Andrews. He does exceptionally well considering how tall he is.
How do you choose who rides your horses?
My trainer, Laura Horsfall, would say they need to be blonde! Seriously, I always try to be loyal to my jockeys and use ones who I know, and who’ll give the horse a ride. The late Robin Gray recommended Clare Wills and I chose Emma Yardley because she was still a novice but looked useful. Tabitha Worsley rides for me under Rules and won a Fontwell Hunter Chase for me on Follow The Paint.
What's your favourite course and why?
Tweseldown, for so many reasons. I rode four of my seven winners there. After I retired from riding, a consortium led by Philip Scouller saved it from closure by buying the lease from the army and Philip asked me to run it, which I tried to do with a bit of pizzazz! We financed it through sponsorship but – unfortunately – it eventually became too expensive to maintain.
What do you love most about pointing?
Everyone is so friendly and supports each other. And everyone can be involved - it's “access all areas”.
What's been your personal funniest moment in the sport?
I slipped up on a bend at Ashorne and the lady doctor was gorgeous, so I just lay there. When she was helping me up, my girlfriend looked at me, then at her, and her subsequent remark was unprintable!
Do you have any regrets?
Not especially. I didn’t sit on a horse until I was 28 so who knows what would have happened if I'd started earlier?
What changes have you seen during your time - for better, for worse?
For the better, early season racing - I was a pioneer of December pointing - recognition of keepers and much better medical and veterinary facilities. For the worse, there are too many high-quality horses running in point-to-points nowadays and too few horses winning too many races. That’s why I’ve always been a supporter of cumulative penalties.
What's been the highlight of your time in the sport?
Apart from my seven wins in the saddle, being part of the sport’s administration and helping to effect change and modernisation. I’ve sat on committees under Rules and – between the flags – I’ve been Chair of the PPSA and sat on the PPA board as a result. Now I’m both Chair and Secretary of the Sandhurst Area. I’ve always been an organiser – I started a local football league as a teenager – and like being involved, as I think I have something to add.
What would you do if you were in charge of the sport?
That’s the $6,000,000 question! Peter Wright has been a breath of fresh air and so many of his initiatives are working, that I'm happy to let him keep doing what he's doing.
What do you think the effect of lockdown on pointing will be?
Hopefully we won't lose too many owners.
Did you watch much live streaming and do you think we should continue with it?
I watched a number of meetings and was impressed with the quality of the production. If it's financially viable, I hope it continues.
What are you most looking forward to about next season?
Having a full season so that average horses get more chances to win - the truncated 2021 campaign was very competitive.
What are your plans for next season?
I was hoping to be able to acquire a couple of cheap horses, but that hasn’t been the case yet. Hopefully I’ll find something at a decent price that’s capable of being placed.
Which jockeys/trainers/horses do you expect to do well and who do you expect to be the rising stars?
The dominance of a few yards – Fran Nimmo, Alan Hill and Tom Ellis – will continue but Max Comley and Bradley Gibbs are up and coming. They’re both young, seem to have good set-ups and have had quite a few winners.
I like to have horses with young trainers, like Laura Horsfall. She has a public licence now, so hopefully her mum Kay – who trains pointers – has learnt a few things and we can have some success if we can find one good enough!
Who is your non-racing hero?
Stan Bowles - a footballing genius who played for the Superhoops. My other love, along with racing, is QPR. The things he could do and the goals he scored…
What are your favourite films and TV programmes?
Films – The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. TV – Blue Bloods and Not Going Out.
What are your life ambitions?
To live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up.
Where is your dream holiday destination?
New Zealand. I love the place and would live there in a heartbeat, but no one will come with me! It’s God’s country, like England when I was growing up – it’s a safe place and the people are friendly. I sometimes like to live in the past!
Do you have a nickname you're willing to share?
At school it was “The Weevil”. I’ve no idea why – maybe my style of playing football, weaving in and out!