Dry weather means Musselburgh kick off winter with all-hurdles card

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Musselburgh open their winter programme on Wednesday with an all-hurdles card because of the dry weather.

There has been almost constant watering of the links racecourse since May during the driest spell racecourse boss Bill Farnsworth has experienced, so the two scheduled races over the larger obstacles were moved to other tracks.

“It meant that we did not have to water both the chase and hurdles courses and that has been a big help,” he said. “Hurdlers don’t seem to mind the quicker ground as much as those racing over fences.”

The East Lothian track will stage a dozen National Hunt fixtures between now and March with a total of more than £750,000 in prize money. Major meetings are the ever-popular fixture on New Years Day and the Cheltenham Festival Trials weekend early in February.

The latter has developed into a top-class affair producing winners both at the Festival itself and in Grade One events over both hurdles and fences at the Aintree Grand National festival too.

Iolani may not be up that sort of level, but the six-year-old has been in great form of late and can make it four wins in succession in the Trial Racing UK For Free Handicap Hurdle (3.00) tomorrow.

It is almost exactly a year to the day since Penrith trainer Dianne Sayer gave £10,000 for the gelding at the sales, but the first nine attempts for his new connections failed to sparkle.

However, a wind operation in mid-summer has helped to bring about a dramatic upsurge in form, beginning with a seven-length success at Sedgefield early in October. He followed up off a 10lbs higher mark three weeks later and then defied a 7lbs penalty to score again at Kelso the following week.

The gelding is now set to race off a mark of 117 – fully 23lbs higher than when his winning run began, so Mrs Sayer has booked Danny McMenamin to claim a very valuable 7lbs and reduce the burden.

“The lad is with our neighbour Nicky Rchards and impressed when riding a double at Ayr last week” she told me. “Iolani came to us from Willie Mullins in Ireland where he had won on the flat in heavy ground, so it was assumed that he wanted muddy conditions.

“But, in fact, we have learnt that it is just the opposite, and he has certainly improved for switching to better ground and with the benefit of minor surgery to his soft palate.”

Dianne hopes Gentleman James will run well off a low weight in the opening Racing UK Free Trial Novices Hurdle (12.45). The gelding’s form has been far from outstanding, but he did run well when second at Perth in May when ridden by Brian Hughes and the north’s top rider is back board again, so a modest each-way wager may prove worthwhile.

Nicky Richards has a decent record at Musselburgh and can land the Leuchie House Handicap Hurdle (2.25) with Court Dreaming.

The five-year-old was fifth in a Carlisle bumper on his racecourse bow in March and then finished second on his hurdling debut at Perth before going one better on that track in June.

Mistakes in the closing stages were responsible for a below-par effort there the following month, but he returned after an 82-day break to finish second at Hexham recently. All those hurdles efforts have been over two-and-half miles, but he should not mind the extra distance tomorrow.

Mistiroc had some smart form on the level and I hear he has been schooling well at home, so he should be supported on his hurdling bow in the Racing UK Free for a Month Novices Hurdle (1.50).

A winner five times on the flat with a rating in high 90s, he was successful at Ascot on Shergar Cup day two years ago and was far from disgraced at the Royal meeting last year before finishing third in the highly competitive John Smith’s Cup at York.

However, there followed a 13-month lay-off before he returned to action, finishing last of five runners at Epsom and then in midfield in the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket before a fair effort – although unplaced – under a big weight at York last month.

He is a half-brother to a Listed winner on the flat and to three jumps winners, while his dam also won over timber, so the switch to the winter game looks a good call, given he is so high in the handicap on the level.

Selections: 12.45 Gentleman James; 1.50 Mistiroc; 2.25 Court Dreaming; 3.00 Iolani.