Turf Talk: Classy field heads for the coast

First visit: Nigel Twiston-Davies
First visit: Nigel Twiston-Davies
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If you had said a few years ago that a Musselburgh jumps meeting in February would be seen as a warm-up for the National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham, you would have been met with polite chuckles at best, and outright guffaws at worst.

Yet today’s meeting at the East Lothian racecourse, no longer the Cinderella of Scottish tracks, really is a major pointer to the Cheltenham Festival.

And that is thanks largely to years of investment and nurturing the meeting by the racecourse management, so much so that it has become the recognised Scottish 
trials meeting.

You can usually tell a classy meeting by the quality of owners, trainers, jockeys and horses intending to be present. British Horseracing Authority chairman, Paul Roy, who has horses with Nicky Henderson, is coming up with the trainer’s party, flying up in private jet.

Grand National-winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is coming to Musselburgh for the first time. He has had horses there before but never visited himself. Champion trainer Paul Nicholls will also be there, along with many of the 
leading jockeys, with the exception of Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh who ride today at Punchestown in Ireland.

The main equine star on show is Overturn, Donald McCain’s superb dual purpose nine-year-old who has effortlessly added steeplechasing to his repertoire.

He looks like a cert for the Scottish Arkle Novices Chase and, if all goes well, he’ll head straight to Cheltenham.

Racecourse general manager Bill Farnsworth said: “I think we are reaching the stage where this meeting is being treated as a serious try-out for the Cheltenham Festival.

“In the past we would probably have had seven or eight horses, with one or two of them having an outside chance of going on to perform well at Cheltenham. This weekend we have up to four entries which can go to the Festival with a serious chance.

“To a certain extent we may be a victim of our own success because that can scare away others who would have otherwise come to Musselburgh.

“But that’s a price we have to pay if we want to bring the best here and the racegoers are in for a treat.

“We’ve managed to increase the prize money by more than £20,000 and, with the exception of Ruby Walsh, all the leading jockeys are down to ride so it will be cracking day for National Hunt fans.”

But the ambitious Farnsworth isn’t finished.

“We’ve set out our stall and now the challenge is to keep improving this meeting each year so that we can maintain the quality and really establish Musselburgh as an important staging post on the road to Cheltenham,” he added.