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48 years of point-to-point steeplechase have galloped by

South Shropshire | South Shropshire nostalgia | Published:

It's the time of year again when horse-racing amateurs go head to head in a time-honoured tradition.

Though as owners, trainers and riders get in gear for the 48th Point-to-Point at Bitterley, all have had to raise their game over the decades, said a man who has been a winner in all three roles.

The annual point to point "steeplechase" races at Bitterley will take place on April 1, this year at a course off the A4117 from Ludlow to Clee Hill, and Robin Edwards, a member of the organising committee, remembers when they were first held there – because he rode in one.

"I rode in the first race run at Bitterley in 1969," he said, "It was my 21st birthday."

But, the 68-year-old said, he never finished the race.

"Sadly I parted company at 14th fence, when in the lead."

A total of seven races will take place at the Bitterley course from 1.30pm on the day, and trade stands, a licensed bar, local food stalls, and children's entertainment all on site with some race-lovers picnicking and watching from their parked cars.

Steeplechase races go back 250 years, originating in County Cork, Ireland, where amateur jockeys would race horses across four miles from one church steeple to another, having to jump over various obstacles on the way.

Today at places like Bitterley the events had become much less rough and ready, Mr Edwards said.

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"There are nine fences, with 18 fences jumped over a course of three miles," he said.

"It's on farm land, so it's not a dedicated racecourse, but it's pretty close to be honest."

He said even in his time there had been significant changes.

He said: "One thing that has changed since the 60s and 70s is that the majority of horses were trained at home back then, we did it ourselves.

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"As time has moved on, now the majority are are trained by a dedicated trainer.

"It would be great to beat them with a horse trained at home but you find that with the horse getting better, you would need better facilities and so on.

"It's still an amateur sport but it has got more professional."

He said that thankfully extended to the health and safety situation also.

"The safety vests used to be just cork, and the crash hat that I had when I started wasn't held on with a strap under the chin – so the chances are the hat would hit the floor at one point and I would hit the floor 100 feet away."

His association with point-to-point racing went back even further than the Bitterley event, he said, to when the Ludlow Hunt race was held at Bromfield in 1965, prior to being established in its current location – though it was not where the current Bromfield racecourse is, rather on the Earl of Plymouth's Oakley Park Estate nearby.

He won that 1965 race and had better luck in later years too, winning the hunt race at Bitterley on two occasions and the farmer's cup, for first horse owned by a farmer, a number of times.

"I am probably one of the very few who have ridden a winner and owned and trained winners at Bitterley," he said.

He has been on the committee since 1990 and it runs in the family – his father was Ken Edwards was clerk of the course at Bitterley from 1979 to 1992.

"Horses have always been in the family. My grandfather Charlie Edwards was very much involved with horses, as was my father, who was a farmer," he said.

Robin also now farms, but his day job was less obviously animal-related – he worked as a chartered surveyor for 48 year and was a land agent for the Ministry of Defence until he retired in 2011.

With just weeks to go, he said it was gearing up to be another good family day out this year.

The gates will open on the day from 11am, with the first race at 1.30pm and there are also prizes for the Best Dressed Lady Racegoer, with a first prize of a £250 voucher for Allcocks Outdoor Store, Stourport.

Admission to Bitterley Point to Point is £10 per person and free for those under 16. Car parking is free.

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