Farewell to the AGA final, it was fun while it lasted – will it be missed?

It was the end of an era for me last Friday at Stratford Racecourse and I enjoyed every minute of a long but happy day. The day started with the PPORA awards lunch and the Paddock Pavilion was bursting at the seams as 320 people gathered to listen to guest speaker, Nicky Henderson. He was followed by Luke Harvey – who hosted what was possibly the quickest awards ceremony in history – before attention turned to the racing (and for me, the last AGA Point-to-Point final).

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Nicky Henderson in full flow
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“This won’t take long, I’ve got a runner in the first”

This would be the sixth AGA final – two at Cheltenham and four at Stratford – and the previous five had all been thrillers. There have also been four AGA championships for lady riders, where the championship has gone right to the wire and the winner has been decided as they crossed the line in the final!

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Jane Williams, winner of two AGA finals (2011 and 2015) and an AGA championship (2013)!

Meanwhile, AGA – with me as the driving force – has done much to raise the profile of UK Point-to-Point horse racing (while also raising the sponsorship bar in the process). Lady riders nationwide have also benefited from the increased exposure and I’m certain they won’t forget the AGA sponsorship in a hurry! There’s an awful lot to be proud of.

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The AGA end of season ‘bake off’ in London, June 2012

Back to the racing, I have a lot of affection for Stratford Racecourse and the great team that run it, I really love it here and I was in a great mood, even though it was a day of mixed emotions. Sadly, the famous AGA party which has traditionally rounded off the series was not taking place so there would not be an opportunity to say a public thank you to the many people in the pointing community who have supported the AGA sponsorship (I must admit to having a little sulk when I realised the party wouldn’t happen).

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No AGA end of series party this year, but my affection for Stratford grows every time I visit the course

Mrs S was also missing for the grand finale as she had jetted off to Barcelona the previous day for a hen weekend, however, I still had a huge smile on my face as I stood in the parade ring before the opening race on the card – the Subaru Restricted final.

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The runners are in the parade ring for the Subaru final and Steph Holmes is taking a photo of me taking a photo of her!
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At this point I didn’t realise that I was stood in front of the eventual winner – Our Chief
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Charlie Wadland, best described as a real character (he’s also an incredibly nice chap)
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Subaru final winners Our Chief and Martin McIntyre, along with winning trainer Teresa Clark
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Nice rug! Nick Child and Our Chief pose for the cameras

I first met Teresa Clark & Jeremy Cossey earlier this year when we were in Ireland for the 2016 Anglo-Irish Point-to-Point Riders’ Challenge. We had a lot of banter in County Cork, most of it related to my apparent inability to find my way to the south-west this season. I still haven’t made it (despite an invite on Saturday) and I’m running out of time now, however, I’m pleased to say that I was here to witness their big win – good things happen to nice people!

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Jeremy and Nick had also taken a juicy price on course – even more reason to smile
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Subaru supremo Paul Tunnicliffe (dark jacket) presents mementoes to winning connections
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The South Midlands area would be heard to full effect later on when Claire Hart returned victorious to the winners enclosure!
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The West Midlands area were also out in force
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The Broken Eagle team – L-R: Caroline Exelby, Joe Hill, Big Al, Jake Exelby
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Some tense expressions here as the Champion Novices’ Hunters’ Chase (For The John Corbet Cup) gets under way
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The point-to-point.co.uk girls, Viv and Sarah present the John Corbett cup to winning connections

The chap in the middle of the next photo (Derek Martin) will be a familiar sight to those who have followed the AGA series as he did two full seasons with me, 2011/12 & 2012/13. It was good to have him there on Friday, along with another of the AGA Rangemaster boys (Dave Atkins), my brother-in-law, Marcus (far right) and nephew, Harry (far left) and his mate, Jordan – they all enjoyed the night!

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The boys in the parade ring helping to choose Best Turned Out!

Six went to post for the AGA final, a quality field, but a disappointing number of runners for a prestigious race. Anyway, the six gave us a cracking race and there was yet another thrilling finish to an AGA final as Penmore Mill (Claire Hart) and Popaway (Immy Robinson) went head to head at the last and up the run-in. Harty and Penmore Mill got the better of the argument and they won by 3/4 of a length, with favourite Queens Bay (Bryony Frost) back in third.

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Penmore Mill and Harty return to the winners enclosure where a rapturous reception awaited

At this point I must mention that I’d love to go back and experience Friday all over again, but this time in slow motion as there are so many people that I didn’t get to talk to, both before and after the race. Emotion took over as they crossed the line and the occasion got to me – although I think I can be forgiven for that.

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The smile says it all, Harty can see the South Midlands/Cotswolds reception committee gathered by the number 1 spot

If Popaway had prevailed I would have been delighted for Pauline and Doug Harkin, and Immy Robinson, and they know I was thrilled that they not only had a runner in the AGA final, but one that had a great chance. However, once it was confirmed that she had a ride I have to admit that a win in the last AGA final for Claire Hart was top of my wish list.

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A happy and tearful hug

I first met Harty on a cold day at Whitfield way back in December 2011 after she had won the AGA Ladies Open on Palypso De Creek, the first of her 13 AGA wins. That season also saw a titanic battle with Jane Williams for the first ever AGA championship, with Claire winning the AGA on a memorable night at Cheltenham in April 2012. We’ve become good friends and have shared quite a few adventures and plenty of laughs since that cold winter day, so Harty winning the last AGA final was the perfect way to end an extraordinary sponsorship series.

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That bottom lip is trembling! Delight for Harty, added to the realisation that it was all over after 6 wonderful seasons meant that the tears were flowing in the winners enclosure
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The new champ, Penmore Mill

It was also quite fitting that a locally trained horse was stood in the number 1 spot, and it’s worth noting that the Warwickshire Hunt have provided the winners of both the last AGA point-to-point race (Warne/Robert Waley-Cohen at Mollington) and now the last AGA final!

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She’s chuffed!
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Ken and Fred Hutsby let me go in the photo with Claire and Caroline as it was my last ever AGA final!

There was a thunderous reception for Harty as she came into the winners enclosure and I wish someone had videoed it as the post race period is still a bit of a blur. Naturally I milked the presentation for all it was worth and I think I tried to get into every single photograph… and then I cried a bit more! *Thank you to Daniel Maggs who took over behind the camera while I was prancing around the winners enclosure!

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The AGA winners sheet fits a treat!
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A few words from the winning owner, Ken Hutsby
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Fred Hutsby gives his version of events
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Well done sir!
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Ken Hutsby – the last owner to win an AGA final
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Nice pan Harty! Although Fred thought he was going to win an AGA!
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How many people can you get into a presentation photo!
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I told you I was milking it!
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Still milking it!

We headed off to watch a replay of the race with the winning connections (and celebrate with a glass of bubbly), but the next couple of hours passed far too quickly and once again there were many people that I didn’t manage to catch up with. That included our Subaru friends who very kindly invited me for a drink (although I didn’t make it), they must have been delighted with their final.

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The champ offers his congratulations to connections of Paint The Clouds after the Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunters Champion Hunters’ Chase

This was the first final where I didn’t have a couple of hundred people to look after so I took full advantage and retired to the bar for the last two races, although I passed up on the opportunity to continue the celebrations in Stratford town centre. Instead I headed home to reflect on a job well done.

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Paint The Clouds & Barry O’Neill, winners of the Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunters Champion Hunters’ Chase (The 58th Running) – my last photo of the evening!

I’m happy with the part that I have played during the past six seasons and I’d like to say thank you to AGA for allowing me to do my thing and also to the point-to-point community for embracing it – and me! I’ve been busy promoting Bidpoint since my seamless transition from AGA man to Bidpoint man in the spring and after making some good progress I hope that this can continue next season. I also hope that someone will now step in and fill the gap left by AGA – it’s a big gap to fill!

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