Bobsleigh: Champion Cooke slips up in her bid to win New Year Sprint

THE 2009 World bobsleigh champion Gillian Cooke (Edinburgh) will not become the first woman to win the New Year Sprint, this time at least, after going out in her heat of the 110 metres handicap at Musselburgh Racecourse yesterday, but afterwards she promised: "I'll be back."

The 28-year-old former British international long jumper, who had a start of 16.5 metres, tired badly in heat six, finishing well back as last year's runner-up Greg Turnbull (Edinburgh), off four metres, won impressively in 12.35 secs.

"It was a bit soft but really I just didn't have enough prep," Cooke said. "I always said it was an unknown and it proved a bit far for me. I haven't had the chance to do what is over-distance training for me. But I enjoyed it and I'll be back next year."

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There is one female still very much in the hunt, however, in this the 142nd staging of the famous professional handicap, the cross-ties and finals of which will go ahead today, even though the National Hunt meeting has been called off.

Fiona Cleat (Edinburgh), the younger sister of Duncan, a previous finalist who had just won heat two in 12.24 secs, stormed home in heat four in the day's fastest time of 12.11 secs from a start of 22 metres.

A member of Edinburgh AC, with a 200 metres best of 26.31 secs set last year, Fiona is still only 17 and if she can repeat yesterday's form will be very hard to beat. Duncan, who won his heat in a photo-finish from Francis Smith, was one of four members of Charlie Affleck's training group to progress yesterday and the four included two more siblings, Ryan and Steven Charters, who took heats 10 and 12 respectively.

But with the Border "schools" having provided the last three winners, it will be hard to look past them today. The evens favourite last night to pick up the 4000 first prize is Sebastian Harrison (Jedburgh), who won heat three in 12.20 secs from a start of 7.75m. Coached by Chico Woods and just out of the youths' ranks, Harrison won the Hawick Common Riding 110 metres last summer and knows how to go the distance.

But another Borderer Leigh Marshall (Hawick, 5.75m) must have a great chance of repeating his win of two years ago after taking heat seven in 12.40.

Coached by Lee Notman and Drew Bryson, Marshall, a good 400m runner, is at his best in the soft conditions and he will have two more of the group in contention today - Ross Borthwick, who took heat five in 12.48 from 9m and was originally the team's favoured man, and David Rae, who was a fastest loser.

Craig Grieve (Jedburgh), who won heat eight in 12.40, must certainly have his backers as he was second favourite at 5/2 last night with Turnbull at 7/2. But this Sprint, like so many, is still wide open. Fife coach Eric Simpson certainly still believes so after his strongly-backed runners Martyn Paterson (Clackmannan) and Francis Smith squeezed through as fastest losers. Smith, who has previously won the Scottish 200 metres, 400 hurdles and 110 metres hurdles titles, confessed to being nervous. He added: "That's a good thing. I haven't felt like that for a couple of years."

His cross-tie, the first at 12.15pm, is a corker with Leigh Marshall, Duncan Cleat, Ryan Charters and Craig Grieve all there. Both the 60 metres and 90 metres handicap finals have now been switched to today to try to pad out the programme, which now reads as follows - 12.30: 110 metres Sprint Handicap 1st cross-tie. 12.44: 2nd cross-tie. 13.00: 3rd cross-tie. 13.20; 4th cross-tie. 13.50: 60 metres handicap final. 14.10: 90 metres handicap final. 14.45: New Year Sprint final.