The earliest ever start to a Northern Area Point-to-Point season sees the Border stage a competitive-looking six race card at Hexham Racecourse on Sunday 2nd December. It has attracted a total of 88 entries, including 38 from Yorkshire, and starts at 12.30pm.
The Susan Grant-trained gelding, Pieceoftheaction was one of the top youngsters in the North last season, winning at Friars Haugh (twice) and Corbridge before finishing third at Overton and in a Carlisle Bumper. From a yard that can get them ready early, he must go close in the NPPA Conditions Race. The other 12 entries include course winner, Winged Crusader (right) (8lb pen), ex-chaser The Bishop and proven stayer, Wayupinthesky (also entered in the Men's Open).
The 10 entries for the Restricted Race are headed by Templepoint, who landed a Loughanmore Novice Riders Maiden contest by an easy six lengths on his last start eight months ago before changing hands at the Doncaster May Sales. Mr Snuffles got off the mark over a shorter trip at Eaton Hall Farm last Saturday, and his trainer, Joe O'Shea has sent out four winners from five runners this season. Ardenlee Lad has been lightly raced since taking a sixteen runner Alnwick Maiden first time out in December 2014; Captain Bizarro won between the flags in Ireland in 2015 and has subsequently been placed in four of his ten starts under Rules, while the ultra-consistent Worcester Pearmain (left,pink) has shown her best form on a sound surface.
Knocklong has won 14 of his last 18 starts and can add another victory to that tally in the Ladies Open Race under Charlotte Crane. He struck gold first time out at Alnwick in December 2015 and December 2016 and would probably have won in a few more strides on his reappearance at Sheriff Hutton last season. Of the other 12 entries, the evergreen Iron Chancellor (right) scored twice at Hexham last season; Irish Anthem has won 8 and been placed 15 times from 32 career starts between the flags; Nicki's Nipper landed the valuable Fife Mixed Open in April, while the useful Shantou Magic won his first two starts of the 2017/18 campaign in this grade at Friars Haugh.
The aforementioned trio of Shantou Magic (left) , Winged Crusader and Wayupinthesky also feature among the 11 Men's Open entries. Although the latter has been absent for eighteen months, I still expect him to be in the thick of the action. His impressive career record between the flags is 6 wins and 10 placed efforts from 19 starts (including 12 in Ireland). Of the others, ex-chaser Black River, who beat the ill-fated Vautour as a 4 year old in France, has very few miles on the clock, while 125-rated chaser Boa Island was pulled up in the Scottish Grand National in April.
The talented Ted Veale (right), a Cheltenham Festival winner in 2013, is the class act in the 2m4f Conditions Race which has 19 entries. He was bought out of Tony Martin's yard by Kit Alexander at Goffs Doncaster Sales in September. His most recent victory came on the Flat in September 2017 and in his prime was placed over fences behind the likes of Jezki and Un De Sceaux. The shorter trip should suit the former Kim Bailey-trained chaser, Red Spinner, who has an official rating of 135. Sea Beat (7lb pen) accounted for the useful Two Rockers in a Boulta Open first time out last November, while Master Rajeem landed a 3 mile Hexham Handicap Hurdle in December 2016 but has been off the track for twelve months.
The concluding Open Maiden Race has 22 entries and the one that takes my eye is a new recruit to Justin Landy's yard, Monte Alban, who was placed in three of his five Irish Points earlier this year. Since December 2015, Justin has an amazing 77% strike rate with horses winning on their seasonal debuts. The unraced Enry Iggins is a 4 year old son of Eliza Doalott, who won 10 of her 16 Points and also landed the 2009 Heart Of All England Maiden Hunters' Chase on the adjoining National Hunt track. Hardrock Davis is better than recent form figures under Rules might suggest, while One For Silky and Sheperds Cave have shown promise in Irish Points. Uptown Harry should be tuned up after two runs in Ireland in October, including a third at Toomebridge. Raleagh Mountain (left, blue) was not beaten far at Alnwick, Dalton Park and Easingwold last season and has since changed hands, while 110-rated hurdler, Magic Bullet finished thirteen lengths 5th of 6 on his last outing at Kempton Park in May 2017.