Pointing in the right direction

PUBLISHED: 16:08 17 February 2014 | UPDATED: 16:08 17 February 2014




The thunder of hooves, the yell from the jockeys as they race by, the appealing clink of Champagne glasses and the warm atmosphere that surrounds it all – welcome to point-to-point horse racing. More specifically, welcome to Essex point-to-point horse racing!

The first form of point-to-point racing started more than 250 years ago in the mid-18th century. It was originally known as steeple-to-steeple and one of the first records of this type of racing saw a Mr Blake from County Cork in Ireland challenge his neighbour, Mr O’Callaghan, to a race riding on horseback. The rules were quite simple; they would race across country from one church to another, a distance of four-and-a-half miles and, by keeping the steeple of the church in sight, they could find their finishing point. Anything those gentlemen found in their path, they jumped, whether ditches, stone walls or hedges.

The first traceable use of the phrase point-to-point dates back to the year 1874 when a race was described to have taken place literally from one designated point to another.

Modern day point-to-point racing takes place all over the UK with around 110 courses all split into nine regions. With a few exceptions, the horses must all be thoroughbred and have a certificate from a Master of Foxhounds.The jockey must also have a certificate and this can be obtained from the hunt secretary.

The main meetings in Essex are held at Higham, Marks Tey and High Easter and include many varied events. Most races are run over a distance of three miles, which is usually two circuits of a normal point-to-point course. For safety reasons there are no more than 20 horses in each race and organisers of point-to-point are extremely safety conscious, taking care of horses, jockeys and, of course, the many spectators.

The fences are made of birch, broom or spruce and are usually around 4ft in height. Fences must be 10 yards wide but the first jump on the course must be no smaller than 14 yards in width. There must be two jumps with a ditch but usually it is the same fence jumped twice, and the races are run at 30 to 40-minute intervals. Usually the prize money for point-to-point racing is no more than £550, but in some significant races, known as national or area classics, the prize money can be worth up to £1,000.

James Crispe, a spokesperson for East Anglian Point-to-Point, believes these race days offer a great day out. ‘Point-to-point horse racing is by no means a thing just for horse-lovers, but is an ideal day out for all members of the family,’ explains James. ‘Most courses in Essex have great facilities, including the usual places for refreshments, as well as the popular country stalls that sell a variety of country produce. On some courses there is even a small Country Fair with rides and bouncy castles, which is perfect for the children. Races can be watched from vantage points and some courses have grandstands. The majority of the courses open at least two hours before the first race, so there is plenty of time to look around the ground before the real action begins.’

Race meetings at High Easter, near Chelmsford, are among the best attended. A particular highlight is a race to coincide with the Grand National, with a huge screen available for point-to-pointers to watch the big race from Aintree. The High Easter meeting also includes East Anglia’s most important point-to-point race of the year, the Bailey’s Horse Feeds Warwick Vase Ladies Open. The High Easter course is owned by Simon Marriage, himself one of the most sucessful trainers of point-to-point horses in the country, and stages some of the UK’s top meetings. Simon is also Master of Foxhounds of the Essex Hunt.

Simon commented: ‘We like to think that High Easter is one of the best in the country. It is certainly one of the most popular. The going needs to be good and the facilities up to scratch. We work hard to try and achieve the best standard possible and we do get a lot of compliments, so we must be doing something right. It is great to see the real endeavour of the horses and jockeys and the excitement of the owners, but best of all it is marvellous to see so many families enjoying themselves. That is what pointing is all about really, the sheer pleasure of a family day out with fresh air and horses.’

Races in Essex are run on private land, often farmland, and people from all over Britain come to Essex to showcase their skills on very obliging grounds that, considering the weather of the past year, are something Essex can boast about. The quality of the horses, trainers and riders is constantly improving and there is an abundance of young talent coming through the ranks steadily.

Horse trainer Nigel Padfield had an excellent season in 2013 and took first place at one of the major High Easter races, among many other successes.

‘Pointing in Essex is great fun,’ says Nigel. ‘We all take it very seriously up to a point, but it is really just a great day out. Essex provides some of the best racing in the country. There is always good support and the courses are excellent. They call for stamina and determination but they are not too taxing for the horses. Marks Tey is especially good, but at all the courses the fences are built well. Because they have varying degrees of higher and lower ground, the going can vary, but that is not a bad thing, especially for younger horses gaining experience.’

Gina Andrews won the East Anglian Ladies Championship last season and loves competing in Essex. ‘Pointing in Essex is brilliant,’ adds Gina. ‘I compete all over the country and always look forward to the meetings in Essex because they are very well organised, have very good facilities and big crowds to cheer you on. The courses are good for both the riders and the horses because they are challenging without being too tough. You always know you have been in a race when you compete at the Essex meetings, but it is always an enjoyable experience.’

Recent point-to-point seasons have been hugely successful for Essex pointing and the current season, with its climax in spring, looks like being better than ever, so why not get involved?

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