Ali shuffles in to New Year sprint reckoning

Ben Robbins, left, wins last year. Pic: Gordon Fraser
Ben Robbins, left, wins last year. Pic: Gordon Fraser
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Yet another teenager has emerged as a contender to win the 145th New Year Sprint at Musselburgh Racecourse on Wednesday.

Dylan Ali, who is based in Hawick and is coached by David Rae, has been showing up well on the Border Games circuit for several years but is still only 18.

Ali has been training with another Hawick man, Leigh Marshall, who four years ago lifted the coveted £4000 prize and would have been tipped to repeat this time but has unfortunately suffered a pulled muscle and will not start.

Ali, off 7.5 metres in heat nine of the ten heats on the first-day programme for tomorrow, is described as “strong” by one Borders observer and he will need to be as the going on the Musselburgh turf promises to be soft after all the recent rain.

Ali clashes in his heat with the runner-up two years ago, Seb Harrison (Jedburgh), off 6.5 metres.

Meanwhile, Capital hopes for the famous 110 metres professional handicap, which continued through two world wars and like London’s Windmill Theatre “never closed”, are focused on a 17-year-old Gambian-born Liberton High School pupil.

Morro Bajo could achieve the rare feat of winning the New Year Sprint from the back mark, something even the great George McNeill failed to do in 1971 after his 1970 victory at Powderhall.

Bajo, who is coached by Bill Walker, will start in heat four off 2.75 metres and will be giving away starts of up to 19 metres.

Among his heat rivals will be the 3-1 joint favourite Craig Robertson (Pitreavie) off 13 metres.

But there is still uncertainty about how Bajo, an impressive winner of a time trial at Meadowbank last week, will perform on grass, a surface he has never raced on. Bajo is one of three teenagers from the same club who are at the back of the grid for the two-day event, the final and cross-ties of which will be held together with the National Hunt Meeting on New Year’s Day.

Also chasing the £4000 first prize will be the 17-year-old defending champion Ben Robbins (EAC) in heat two, where he is off 4.00 metres compared to 7.5 metres when he won.

Robbins, who has recovered from the leg injury which made him a doubtful starter last week, is well aware of the burden of history, with Glasgow’s Willie McFarlane in 1934 the last runner to retain the New Year crown.

Another EAC teenager, 19-year-old Heriot-Watt University student Sam Revie, is off 3.75m in heat three, where he clashes with Gemma Nicol (Dunfermline) off 15.75m.

There could be few more popular or deserved winners than the 27-year-old Nicol who has been involved in the meeting since she was ten when she helped her mother Wendy collect the runners’ bibs at Meadowbank. A competitor also in the youths events in those days before the meeting moved to Musselburgh, Nicol has been in contention in the “Big Sprint” for over a decade and has been six times a finalist, including third last time and back in 2003, and the runner-up in 2006, so it would be wholly appropriate if she could at last become the first ever female winner.

If she did – and her continued concentration on over-distance training as she bids to clinch a Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games 400 metres place suggests she has not lost her focus on her main goal for the year – then no one would be more delighted than her mother, who herself has been third twice, and her grandfather John Sharp, a former professional runner.

Heat One: Ross Kirk (Pitreavie, 9m) early joint 3-1 favourite. Jordan Charters (Dolphinton, 8.5m) was fourth last time.

Heat Two: Ben Robbins (Edinburgh, 4m) defending champion. Jessie Concannan (Glenrothes, 18m), Scottish Schools internationalist.

Heat Three: Gemma Nicol (Dunfermline, 15.75m), six times finalist and third last time out.

Sam Revie (EAC, 3.75m) Second back marker.

Heat Four: Morro Bajo (EAC, 2.75m) Liberton High School pupil and back-marker despite being a “novice”. Craig Robertson (Pitreavie, 13m) joint 3-1 early favourite

Heat Six: Francis Smith (Pitreavie, 6m) former Scottish 200m, 110m hurdles and 400m hurdles champion. Wendy Nicol (Dunfermline, 29m) third in the final twice.

Heat Eight: Tony Daffurn (Kilbarchan, 5m)

Heat Nine: Dylan Ali (Hawick, 7.5m) rated the strongest Borders hope. Seb Harrison (Jedburgh, 6.5m) runner-up in 2012.