Horse Racing: Musselburgh to test Cheltenham suitors

All seems set fair for Cheltenham Trials Day on Sunday – the highlight of the winter racing season at Musselburgh.

With no arctic weather in sight, Scottish racegoers can look forward to a card carrying eight races and almost £120,000 in prize money with some real stars attending who should be en route to next month’s Cheltenham Festival.

“Temperatures are forecast to be well on the plus side and the track is in good shape,” said racecourse manager Bill Farnsworth, “And we are absolutely delighted with the entries, many from major stables both in the North and the South.”

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Nicky Henderson has been a strong supporter of this fixture since its inception six years ago and the Lambourn trainer has 11 entries, while his great 
rival Paul Nicholls has a dozen 
possible runners.

Top Northern jumps trainer Donald McCain has no less than 19 entries, headed by his stable star Overturn, who was runner-up in last year’s 
Champion Hurdle and who has produced two scintillating victories from two efforts over fences so far this winter.

Top jockeys will be there too, including multiple champion Tony McCoy and Barry Geraghty. “The fixture really has made a great impact,” said Farnsworth. “We only started it in 2008 and I never imagined it would grow so quickly and blossom so well.

“We began with just two Trials races – the Scottish Triumph Hurdle for juveniles and the Scottish County Hurdle – playing on our strengths of being able to produce decent ground for the time of year and having a quick level circuit that suits speedy horses. Thanks to some great support from John Smith’s, who were with us from the start, we now have eight races, all of which are likely to feature 
horses who will go on to run at the spring festivals at Cheltenham, Aintree, Ayr and even Punchestown,” he added.

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Musselburgh winners have already made their mark at Cheltenham, with Kalahari King winning the John Smith’s Extra Novice Chase in 2009 before going on to Cheltenham where he was beaten just a short head in the Arkle Chase.

The gelding went one better at Aintree, winning the valuable John Smith’s Maghull Chase for trainer Ferdy Murphy and his jockey Graham Lee. The following year he was third in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and finished second in the Ryanair Chase at the 2011 festival.

Stable companion Divers won the novice chase in 2010 and went on to win the Centenary Chase at the festival a few weeks later. Incredibly, the nine-year-old may well be back in East Lothian on Sunday to run in the conditional jockeys hurdle, which closes a card with two new races and new sponsors.

The Country Gentlemen’s Association support the £10,000 Scottish Foxhunters Chase and Albert Bartlett – who sponsor the novice stayers’ hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival – are backing the three mile novice hurdle on Sunday.

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“We are delighted to have them on board,” said Farnsworth, who is expecting a crowd in excess of 3000 and explained: “The weather is a 
major factor and no-one gets huge attendances at this time of the year, but the place will be full of genuine jump racing 
followers and there is bound to be a great atmosphere.

“When jump racing began at Musselburgh over 20 years ago it was low key, low grade stuff designed to keep the betting shops in business because our sandy soil here on the coast can withstand plenty of rain and we tend to be able to race when a lot of other tracks are under the weather.

“In the last decade we have worked hard at improving the standard and quality here. We have mobile fences so we can move to fresh ground for each fixture and are able to used parts of the flat racetrack too.

“Of course, our Trials day may be benefitting from the weather misfortunes of other courses, but trainers need opportunities to run before the big meetings and this week’s entries certainly underline that fact.

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“Things don’t come easily or quickly though. I always say that a crowd attracts a crowd; that success brings success but you have to start somewhere. It takes time to build up a fixture; to get the juices flowing and create the sort of buzz which makes people want to be part of a great day out.

“We know that racegoers in the South are able to go to a major meeting and see top-class horses almost every weekend, but Scottish punters don’t have that luxury. Hopefully Sunday will be another step towards putting that right.

“Racing works to a set pattern and you need to muscle your way in,” he concluded.

Happily, Musselburgh seems to be doing just that.