by Jake Exelby

Undoubtedly the star performer of the South Midlands season was a seven-year-old mare. Dabinett Moon, a grand-daughter of her great broodmare Windfall, is the only horse in Fran Marriott’s Chipping Norton yard and started the season a once-raced maiden. She won four point-to-points, was the leading mare in the South Midlands Area and also clinched the area owners title for Fran and husband Christopher. She concluded her season with a Hunter Chase debut at Stratford, where she stormed home under a perfectly judged ride from Claire Hart to win the Subaru Restricted Final.

Claire had an excellent season as both rider and trainer. The win on Dabinett Moon made her joint-leading Hunter Chase rider alongside Ciaran Gethings, she currently stands third in the national championship, and she finally fulfilled her long-held ambition to be South Midlands Area top female rider – a contest she won in a canter! Best known for her partnership with Palypso De Creek, on whom she has won a point and three Hunter Chases this year, she is also the rider of Alskamatic, as well as Vincitore and Kazuri Kate, both of whom she trains herself.

Once again, the leading trainer on the scene was Aston Rowant hander Alan Hill, last year’s National Champion Trainer. While not able to retain his crown – Jack Barber claimed that title comfortably – his 29 winners (at the time of writing) represented a new personal best. The highlight of his season was a double at the Cheltenham Hunter Chase meeting, with Harbour Court and Quinz, both of whom returned to form this term after a barren spell. Other top performers trained by Hill include Consigliere, unbeaten in points either side of an unsuccessful tilt at the Cheltenham Foxhunters, the admirably consistent Start Royal, whose four Open successes took his career tally to 22 and last season’s Intermediate Final winner Sharp Suit, who won two as well as finishing a close second to top performers It Was Me and Alskamatic.

Alan’s Cheltenham double emulated Pauline and Doug Harkin, who achieved the same feat in 2014 with Popaway and Doctor Kingsley. While neither of their stable stars hit the same heights this time around – the latter in particular becoming increasingly quirky – they both won races, but where the Harkins excelled was with their youngsters. Out Of Range was the most successful of these, graduating from Maiden company to win a Fontwell Hunter Chase, while other promising types include Exclusive Rights, Glory Hunter and Sea Rock.

James Henderson, formerly based in Belvoir country where he was Master of Foxhounds, has moved to Buscot near Faringdon and now qualifies his horses with the Old Berks. He only had six in training, all owned by himself and all ridden by son Freddie, and five of them won, including two former inmates of cousin Nicky’s National Hunt stable in Otto The Great and Thanks For Coming. Say No is potentially the best of all of them, but he went wrong when winning the Lord Ashton of Hyde’s Cup at Cocklebarrow on January – hopefully he’ll be back next year.

Tim Underwood had no Tempelpirate in 2015 – last year’s National winning-most horse had to miss the season – but he had another good year as a trainer, although plans to win a race as a rider at the ripe young age of 67 did not come to fruition! His winners included Carnglave Cat, Tick Tock Tim and the useful Tallow Fair who returned to form after injury, winning an incident-packed race at Kingston Blount before scoring at Whitfield.

Laura Thomas continues to progress up the training ranks and her season highlight was winning a Fontwell Hunter Chase with Full Trottle. She also won with the talented but fragile Credit Crunched and the improving Swingbridge among several VWH-qualified horses she trains for her father Norman. Fran Nimmo’s best day came outside the area, with a double at Brocklesby Park on Magic Sky, who she rode herself, and debutante Fortunata Fashions, who subsequently made 55,000 guineas at the Cheltenham sales. She is also responsible for Sirius Star, who looked promising when winning at Whitfield. Lynn Redman, best known for her association with Home By Midnight, trained the useful Goodnight Vienna, a dual winner who was a game fifth in the Intermediate Final at Cheltenham, and has a number of good-looking young horses in her yard, including first-time-out Lower Machen winner La Viva El Diva.

Two prominent local trainers who had quiet seasons by their own high standards were Fred Hutsby and Robert Waley-Cohen. Fred won a Hunter Chase with Penmore Mill and introduced the promising Kristian Gray (no whip jokes please), but stable stalwart Rash Move only appeared once and the yard had the misfortune to lose the talented Vertical Glen at Horseheath after a stunning winning seasonal debut at Larkhill. For the Waley-Cohen stable, Rumbavu did not run at all and Storm Lantern, who created such a good impression in his first two outings, disappeared after January. Atomic Tangerine also impressed on her first pointing start when beating Posh Totty and the ill-fated My Flora but disappointed afterwards. And talking of horses running in the famous chocolate and orange silks, what price seeing Long Run appear in a point-to-point next season?

Among the trainers with smaller strings, Christopher Henn’s best performer was Legal Legend, whose three wins included a Hunter Chase and who was fourth in the Intermediate Final at Cheltenham. Michael Kehoe only trained two horses, but they were useful dual Open winner Brackloon High and Celtic Intrigue, who only won a Maiden but was runner-up no less than five times. Divine Intavention returned to points after a spell under rules for Francesca Moller and won two Opens, while her improving Dandan also won two. And John Johnston, as well as introducing the promising Native Pride, finally managed to coax a race out of long-standing maiden Flicka’s Witness, who promptly followed up in a Restricted!

It’s arguable whether Henrietta Knight qualifies as a “small yard” but, having enjoyed great success between the flags in the 1980s, the trainer of legendary triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate returned to point-to-points after 25 years when her Port Golan was second at Lockinge. She is the only trainer without a winner to feature in this seasonal round-up (!) although she did win an Ascot Hunter Chase with Calgary Bay. Other one-horse trainers alongside Fran Marriott were Joanna Smyth-Osbourne, whose “family horse” Fermat won two with son Ed on board, and the irrepressible Jenny Pidgeon, who also won two with Classic Destiny.

Among the jockeys, 19-year-old Joe Hill has had his best ever season, with 15 winners (at the time of writing) placing him in the top ten of the National Mens jockeys championship, although some way behind record-breaking champion Will Biddick. Joe was fortunate to have access to some of father Alan’s good horses, including Quinz – who he rode to win at Cheltenham – and Consigliere, but he made the most of his outside opportunities too, striking up a productive partnership with Goodnight Vienna. However, his favourite horse remains Ravethebrave on whom he won twice this year and who provided him with his first ever rides and wins in points and Hunter Chases.

Joe was also crowned South Midlands Area top male rider for the first time in a close battle with Freddie Henderson and Tom Ellis. Tom was particularly unlucky, holding a narrow lead in this race when he broke his leg at Mollington early last month. As usual, he achieved most of his successes on Fred Hutsby’s horses but is also making the most of his opportunities with Laura Thomas. Tom marries National Ladies Champion Gina Andrews shortly and we wish them both the best of luck – and hope that Tom’s leg has healed enough for him to enjoy the riding safari they have planned for their honeymoon!

Freddie Henderson deserves special mention. Not only was he just pipped at the post for the local title, he was champion South Midlands Novice Rider and currently lies joint-second in the National Mens Novice Rider standings. He has achieved this success while studying in Newcastle during the week – with limited opportunities to ride out – and heading south to ride the horses trained by his father James most weekends. His nine winners have been achieved from a relatively small number of mounts and include Oliver James and the revitalised Otto The Great.

It was a good year for the South Midlands lady jockeys. Hannah Watson is in second place in the National Lady Riders title race, although she achieved most of her successes elsewhere and only actually rode one winner in the area, Ballyjames at Cocklebarrow in January. Most of her successes were for Shropshire-based Tor Collins, on the likes of Gauvain, My Flora and Minella For Party – and she also won on Ruddy Article, a rare runner in Ladies Races for national champion trainer Jack Barber.

Katy Lyons is another rider to mention, her 13 wins so far placing her fifth in the national standings. Having guided Tempelpirate to nine wins and the leading horse title in 2014, she continued her successful association with Tim Underwood and has struck up partnerships with numerous other yards, including – most notably – that of Alan Hill, for whom she rides Sharp Suit.

It’s been a good year. Roll on the 2015/2016 season!

Jenny Pidgeon


“Winning a good race with Classic Destiny at Kingston Blount.”

Joe Hill


“Winning on Quinz at Cheltenham.”

Chris Loggin

Biggest disappointment

“Not doing better with Typhon De Guye.”

Doug Harkin

Biggest disappointment

“That I’m 51, not 30!”

Laura Thomas

Favourite horse

“I’m one of those girls who loves all my ponies!”

James Henderson

Funniest moment

“Going into the beer tent at Lockinge and realising it was exactly the same as when I would drink too much there over 30 years ago!”

Alan Hill

Hope for next season

“Keep Harbour Court in one piece and show that he’s a really good horse.”