Backmarkers seldom win the New Year Sprint – even 1970 winner George McNeill just failed in 1971 – and a woman has never won it, although they have been trying for 37 years. But this week, when the 145th edition of the famous professional handicap takes place at Musselburgh Racecourse, there are strong candidates in both categories to buck the trend and capture the £4,000 first prize.
Not since Willie McFarlane (Glasgow) in 1934 has a champion returned to overcome the penalty for his previous year’s success. It will not be for want of trying if Ben Robbins (Edinburgh AC), the winner at the age of only 16 last January, is not successful despite having his start pulled from 7.5 metres last time to 4m when the heats take place on Tuesday.
George Watson’s rugby winger Robbins has recovered from a recent injury and, according to his coach Dave Goodall, successfully completed a session on grass on Boxing Day.
But it is his Edinburgh AC clubmate, Morro Bajo, who could well be the favourite after an impressive showing in a recent time trial on the all-weather “tartan” surface at Meadowbank.
The 17-year-old Gambian-born Liberton High schoolboy, the back marker off 2.75m, apparently won easing up, although his premature celebrations after what was only a training run did not impress his veteran coach Bill Walker, who is quick to downplay Bajo’s chances. “I don’t know how he’ll go on grass and he needs to get himself pair of long spikes,” he commented.
A third teenager from the same club, although originally from Ayrshire, is Heriot-Watt University student Sam Revie, the second back-marker off 3.75m and a member of coach Keith Ridley’s squad.
When it comes to the New Year Sprint, however, none can match the experience of Gemma Nicol (Dunfermline), who has been a finalist six times, was third last year and in 2003, and runner-up in 2006.
Strangely, the biggest obstacle to Nicol winning the final on Wednesday is probably the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, when she has a strong chance of representing Scotland for the third time, following appearances in Manchester in 2002 and Delhi in 2010. So her focus remains firmly on her training for the 400m and 4x400m relay for which Scotland have already qualified. But, without Lottery funding and still working full-time, the 27-year-old book-keeper does not deny that the winner’s money would come in handy, even if she has postponed her wedding until 2015.