Season in The Sun

Much like a torrid affair with a new mistress summer jumping is as thrilling as it is short-lived.

Old Gold Racing’s chief executive, Ed Seyfried’s ultimate tour of racing’s secret summer courses, an article that features in the latest edition of The Field Magazine – available at all good newsstands right now.

The 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” like in 2016, when respective English and Irish champion trainers Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins went all the way 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 ochering Chepstow at the end of October. Rather it oversummers down a curious leafy rabbit hole of its own: “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 and bucolic mistress; one whose tousled hair teases her off-the-shoulder Bardot blouse as she rides pillion in your campervan. Your new flame beckons you travel to the bewitching north Norfolk coast to Fakenham; to the Lake District to visit Lord Cavendish at his beloved and beautiful Cartmel racecourse; to Perth in the park surrounding Scone Palace and Kelso in the grounds of Floors Castle.

You nestle together into the Shropshire Hills at Ludlow whilst the setting sun rests its head on a cushion of soft Welsh mountains; whoop home the Horse and Hound Cup winner on a balmy summer’s evening at Stratford within earshot of the finest English words ever written, spoken. And win the Summer Plate at Market Rasen: the big prize.

You pitch your family tent at Bangor-on-Dee and dip your toes in 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 balm breeze flutters through the ruffles of the off-the-shoulder Bardot blouse whose legs and painted toes are heaped up on the dashboard. She chats to you about Roll A Joint winning the 1990 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 90s Britpoppers Dodgy released their single “Staying out for the Summer”, the music festival culture was at its cool zenith; you could still a pay tenner to someone in the shadows who’d hoik 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.

This is a summer road trip like no other. And, given this is staycation year: book your campervan or bed and breakfast early. Fire up the motor, crank up the Dodgy number on the music player and come and party with your new illicit lover: Summer Jumping.

In the first week of May, 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, the viewing is excellent 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, which demands exploration and there are plentiful 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 recompensing than a late spring weekend in the Shropshire Hills?

Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls and other top jumps trainers love Ludlow for, despite being small, its prize money is fabulous with more than £1m being won by connexions 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, walk if off Sunday in the hills, another AONB, and race on Monday. Winning punters know that it is a fast track that favours specialists and so perhaps pay attention to previous course winners.

BARD COMPANY

And before June flames there is one more May pit stop: to Stratford-on-Avon, one of the country’s most popular summer jumps courses.

If only the Royal Shakespeare Company would unbox Fiona Laird’s, whose father-in-law rode Mr. What to victory in the 1958 running of the Grand National, 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 May Friday post meridiem 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.

And then step into the late sultry spring air for the Pertemps Network Stratford Champion Hunter’s Chase for the Horse and Hound Cup, the last blue riband hunter chase on what was 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 field master on him for the Warwickshire Hunt between races, the following year the combination would come second to Aldaniti in the 1981 Grand National.

2019’s running of the Horse and Hound Cup saw the Paul Nicholls trained Wonderful Charm win by a neck in dying strides after a never-say-die ride by fellow Warwickshireman, Sam Waley-Cohen.

Eleven times champion trainer, Nicholls, is a keen supporter of summer jumping and he likes to have 20 horses in his home yard to run in the summer. 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 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 very 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 and many eyes and hearts turn and yearn for the north. Perth Racecourse set in the brooding broad-leafed parkland of Scone Palace, sometime 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. Irish trainer Willie Mullins is a regular raider: unsurprising given 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” Moffat, who has a high strike rate at Perth often at generous prices.

Jimmy Moffat is also very 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 onside when punting.

Cartmel is a stone and render village of insane charm with a population of less than 5000. 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 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 staring starry eyed back at you, it’s OK! You have simply died and gone to heaven.

In Cartmel races 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 ten years and over [like old friends sparring]) but it is much more than that. There are dodgems, and 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 and, like 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 Paul 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 whilst he and his extended family stayed in Paignton at the Redcliffe Hotel. His son Merrick reputedly keeps up the tradition.

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And then a yellowing leaf blew by. And then another. And a chill autumn mist grasped my shoulders. And I looked round. And she was no longer there. Tousled Summer Jumping was gone until next year. And people are talking about Cheltenham again.