With the unhappy prospect that all three British jumps meetings today could be called off due to heavy rain, there are no such concerns for Musselburgh’s premier National Hunt meeting of the season tomorrow.
The current going is good-to-soft and the forecast for the John Smith Scottish Cheltenham Trials race day is for a cold but sunny and frost-free day as the big guns from the south of England head to East Lothian.
Firmly established as a bona fide trials day for the Cheltenham Festival proper, the eight-race fixture features five £20,000 races, including the Listed John Smith’s Triumph Hurdle Trial.
Nicky Henderson and former champion Paul Nicholls, who currently heads the title chase for 2013/14 trainers’ championship, both send powerful teams and will be joined by runners from the in-form yards of Venetia Williams and Newmarket’s John Ferguson, to provide arguably the best ever jumps programme staged at Musselburgh.
Nicholls’ three-pronged raid from his Somerset base is headed by the talented Sametegal who heads the weights for the John Smith’s Scottish County Hurdle at 3:30. Sametegal won the Scottish Triumph Hurdle at the corresponding meeting last year before going on to finish third in the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. One of his most dangerous rivals will be the Henderson-trained Lyvius, although Stuart Crawford is confident his Strongpoint can defy the handicapper.
The ten-year-old has won his last two races at the Scottish circuit in fine style and despite being 17lb higher for this assignment, County Antrim-based Crawford expects his charge to be in the thick of things. “He’s been in great heart lately and has taken really well to going back hurdling,” said Crawford. “We dropped him back to two miles last time and that seemed to suit him. The track does as well as he’s won there the last twice. You’d have to say he has a good chance.”
Brian Ellison’s Yorkist has won his last three and has the assistance of Tony McCoy, while the Peter Niven-trained Clever Cookie looks a young improver at the bottom of the handicap.
Henderson and Nicholls also go head-to-head in the John Smith’s Future Champions Novices’ Chase with Ericht and Funny Star, while the John Smith’s Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial (2:30), boasting Listed status for the first time, provides Ferguson with an excellent chance of improving his already lucrative Musselburgh strike rate with Broughton, who had useful form on the Flat with Mark Johnston and can put his experience to decisive effect.
While it will be all systems go at Musselburgh tomorrow, Henderson is still praying today’s meeting at Sandown is given the green light to allow Oscar Whisky to continue his education over fences in the Betfred TV Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.
The top-class hurdler was narrowly beaten by Taquin Du Seuil on his chasing debut at Cheltenham in November, but has struck twice at Prestbury Park since and will aim to complete the hat-trick against just two opponents in Saturday’s Grade One feature. Testing conditions are assured for the extended two-and-a-half-mile contest, but Henderson is more concerned about the fixture going ahead than the ground his charge is likely to encounter. “We hope racing takes place, that’s the main thing. We desperately want to get another run into him,” said the champion trainer.
Ffos Las also must pass an inspection where Grand Vision is due to warm up for a crack at the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham with a run in the Burns Pet Nutrition Welsh Champion Hurdle.
Trainer Colin Tizzard had hoped to saddle the eight-year-old in a two-and-three-quarter-mile handicap at Sandown the same day but with the hurdles races abandoned in Esher, the Dorset handler has switched him to the Carmarthenshire venue.
Grand Vision was a promising novice hurdler two seasons ago but had to have plenty of time off after he was injured when third in the Albert Bartlett at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival. Despite being pulled up on his return at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, Grand Vision put a highly encouraging effort when second to Uncle Jimmy in a series qualifier for the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at Warwick three weeks ago. “He jarred himself up in the Albert Bartlett. He had last year off and we’ve only just got him back,” said Tizzard. “He ran a nice race last time and I think two and a half miles on heavy ground is absolutely fine for him. He loves heavy ground. It’s a handicap and he’s a progressive horse.”
In the west Wales National, trainer Richard Lee senses Mountainous faces a tough climb in his attempt to follow up his Chepstow victory.
The nine-year-old ground out a fine triumph in the Coral Welsh Grand National. He carried the bottom weight of 10st that day, but is burdened with 11st 9lb in this long-distance handicap chase. “I think it’s almost as tough a race at the weights. We’ve a lot more to carry than in the Welsh National when he had 10st,” said Lee. “We are where we are and we have to put up with it. The big danger for me would be De La Bech (trained by Philip Hobbs).”