Much like a torrid affair with a new mistress, summer jumping is as thrilling as it is short-lived, says Ed Seyfriend, as he advises on the best staycation sport
With staycations looking likely this summer, Ed Seyfried advises on where to enjoy the very best summer jump racing to make your staycation a sporting one.
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SUMMER JUMP RACING
he National Hunt season ends with Jump Finale Day at Sandown Park on a Saturday towards the end of April. Sometimes it’s with a ‘Kaboom!’, such as in 2016, when respective English and Irish champion trainers Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins went down to the wire, until Nicholls took an unassailable lead after the day’s big handicap and Mullins was hauled in front of the stewards for withdrawing runners now that he knew his flush was busted.
However, jumps racing doesn’t just lie down and disappear into the swelling clover and ripening blossoms, only to return with ochreing Chepstow at the end of October. Rather, it oversummers down a curious, leafy rabbit hole of its own, a sort of Racing in Wonderland, a nether world of bright colours, festival vibrations, barbecue smokes and garish funfairs. Summer jumping is gorgeous. And quite trippy.
To join in is akin to having an affair with a new mistress, one whose tousled hair teases her off-the-shoulder, Bardot blouse as she rides pillion in your camper van. Your new flame beckons you to Fakenham on the bewitching north Norfolk coast, to the Lake District and Lord Cavendish’s beloved Cartmel Racecourse, or to Perth and the park surrounding Scone Palace, and on to Kelso and the grounds of Floors Castle.
You nestle together into the Shropshire Hills at Ludlow, while the setting sun rests its head on a cushion of soft Welsh mountains; whoop home the Horse & Hound Cup winner on a balmy summer’s evening at Stratford, within earshot of the finest English words ever written, spoken. And you win the Summer Plate at Market Rasen: the big prize. You pitch your family tent at Bangor-on-Dee and dip your toes into the watery Devon sands near Newton Abbot. It’s summer on a road less travelled; there is no traffic in front of you for miles, as a balmy breeze flutters through the ruffles of the off-the-shoulder Bardot blouse, above legs and painted toes heaped up on the dashboard. She chats to you about Roll-A-Joint winning the 1989 Scottish Grand National by a cigarette-paper-thin length-and-a-bit – that was around about the time that she and summer jumping were born.
When 1990s Britpop band Dodgy released the single Staying out for the Summer, music-festival culture was at its zenith; you could still pay a tenner to someone in the shadows who’d hoick you over the fence and launch you into Glastonbury Festival, and Pulp would play Common People. Summer jump racing feels like this now. Free of corporate rigidity, it is largely spearheaded by independent racecourses, with the creativity and space to be innovative, disruptive and subversive.
Fire up the motor, crank up the volume on that Dodgy number and come and party with your new illicit lover: summer jumping. This is a road trip like no other. And, given this is staycation year, book your camper van or bed and breakfast early.
In the first week of May, the first stop, Fakenham Racecourse, hosts the Snellings Norfolk National. Well-irrigated for good ground, this is a three-mile, five-furlong steeplechase with a pot of £25,000. A tight track with a short run-in, it makes for excellent viewing, with a fence right in front of the grandstand. The vibe is relaxed, comfy and friendly. The racecourse nestles in the hinterland of the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which demands exploration. And there are plenty of good bed and breakfasts, including the sumptuous and comfortable converted stables at Hill Farm, Little Massingham.
Towards the end of May, Ludlow beckons with its final meeting before autumn – and in the evening, to boot. What could be more rewarding than a late-spring weekend in the Shropshire Hills? Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and other top jumps trainers love Ludlow as, despite being small, its prize money is fabulous, with more than £1m being won by connections every year. Categorically, the staff are the friendliest of any racecourse in the country, and the town boasts comfy hotels and delicious eateries – especially Mortimers, where you could go for the tasting menu on the Saturday night, walking it off on Sunday in the hills – another AONB – and race on Monday. Winning punters know that it is a fast track that favours specialists, so perhaps pay attention to previous course winners.
Before June flames, there is one more pit stop, at Stratford-on-Avon, one of the country’s most popular summer jumps courses. If only the Royal Shakespeare Company would unbox Fiona Laird’s 2018 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (incidentally, Laird’s father-in-law rode Mr What to victory in the 1958 running of the Grand National). What better way to spend that last Friday afternoon in May than air-conditioned in a matinee, absorbing Beth Cordingly’s devastatingly handsome Mistress Ford unravel David Troughton’s Falstaff? Yes, it’s just arty window-shopping, but summer jumping is no jealous mistress.
Then step into the late, sultry spring air for the Pertemps Network Stratford Champion Hunters’ Chase for the Horse & Hound Cup, the last blue-riband hunter chase on the erstwhile final day of the season. The mighty Spartan Missile, possibly the greatest hunter chaser of them all, won this race the same season that he won the Cheltenham and Aintree Foxhunters. Amateur-ridden by his owner, John Thorne MFH, who’d fieldmaster on him for the Warwickshire Hunt between races, he would come second to Aldaniti in the 1981 Grand National.
The 2019 running of the Horse & Hound Cup saw the Nicholls-trained Wonderful Charm win by a neck in the dying strides of the race after a never-say-die ride by fellow Warwickshire-man Sam Waley-Cohen. Eleven times champion trainer Nicholls is a keen supporter of summer jumping and likes to have 20 horses in his home yard to run in the warm season. For obvious reasons, they tend to be fast-ground types and often those who like and benefit from being trained from a field. The word ‘bucolic’ heat-hazily, lazily shimmers by.
There are some horses that progress massively during summer campaigns. The Somerset maestro cites Black Corton, who improved from a June and July jumper to winning the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase on Boxing Day 2017 at Kempton, piloted by Bryony Frost.
Others the trainer has developed during summer campaigns include Braqueur d’Or (of this parish), who went from a 104-rated, modest handicap hurdler to coming fourth in the Hennessy Gold Cup off an official rating of 139 – the second most improved handicap rating that season. Last summer, Darling Maltaix (also of this parish) smashed the course record at Stratford when winning for the first time in Old Gold Racing silks. This summer, Nicholls is targeting the Summer Plate at Market Rasen for Darling Maltaix, which, at £50,000, is the biggest summer-jumping pot.
Come June, many eyes and hearts turn and yearn for the north. Perth Racecourse, set in the brooding, broad-leafed parkland of Scone Palace, one-time crowning place of Scottish kings, hosts its feature race, the Sam Morshead Perth Gold Cup, in the first week of the month, as part of a raucous three-day festival including a pink limo-bedecked sell-out Ladies Day. Mullins and fellow countryman Gordon Elliott are regular raiders: unsurprising, given that total prize money on just the Sunday climax of the meeting exceeds £100,000.
The Lodge, a reasonably priced, purpose-built hotel opened on site in 2016, provides an easy, crawl-to-bed option should the craic be overwhelming. The quality race programme, with the Perth Gold Cup, a Class 2 three-mile chase with a £40,000 pot as its centrepiece, was conceptualised by Sam Morshead, who is credited with revolutionising racing at Scone and after whom the race is now named.
Scottish trainer Lucinda Russell probably sends the most runners to Perth, but watch closely for anything trained by Cartmel-based James ‘Jimmy’ Moffatt, who has a high strike rate at Perth, often at generous prices. Moffatt is also dangerous to overlook at his home course, not least as, on the Sunday of the August bank holiday, one of his horses is blessed outside Cartmel Priory (inside if it is raining); it must be better to have God on side when punting.
Cartmel is a stone-and-render village of insane charm, with a population of less than 5,000. It has one two-star Michelin restaurant, one one-star Michelin restaurant, at least four pubs, a micro-brewery, an artisan cheese shop, a bakery and more. Oh, and there is the racecourse on the left, just past the sticky-toffee-pudding shop. Next time you are there, take a look in a mirror and if you cannot see yourself looking starry-eyed back, it’s OK, you have simply died and gone to Heaven.
At Cartmel, the Cavendish and McLaren families (and their team) have created summer-jumping heaven: cards of decent and innovative races (for example, they derived the concept of veterans’ races for horses 10 years old and over, like old friends sparring), but it is much more than that.
There are dodgems, helter-skelters and human catapults. There are caravans, tents and food stalls. Candyfloss. And David Gray may come and play on an evening. There are campfire parties and endless smiles on families welcomed in from the industrial Lancashire heartlands and Barrow. “All I have tried to do,” says Lord Cavendish, after reading the lesson in church to a congregation that includes a racehorse, “is try to perfect the art of making people feel appreciated.”
Down the other end of England, on Devon’s pretty south coast, is the market town of Newton Abbot where, as in Cartmel, jumps meetings are held throughout the summer, often to a packed and knowledgeable holiday crowd. The West Country is a National Hunt hotspot, so expect to see squadrons of good horses trained by Nicholls, Philip Hobbs, Colin Tizzard, David Pipe and Jimmy Frost. Newton Abbot was popular with the late Dick Francis, who would plot his novels of dastardly military types undermining racing’s integrity while he and his extended family stayed in Paignton at the Redcliffe Hotel. His son, Merrick, reputedly keeps up the tradition.
And then a yellowing leaf blows by. And then another. And a chill autumn mist grasps my shoulders. And I look round. And she is no longer there. Tousled summer jumping is gone until next year. And people are talking about Cheltenham again.
Ed Seyfried is chief executive of Old Gold Racing