Cheltenham Countdown: Nicholls leads southern raiders with Musselburgh 5-timer

Cheltenham races
More Cheltenham Festival clues arrived over the weekend

The Dublin Racing Festival might have hogged the headlines over the weekend, but Musselburgh's Scottish Trials meeting was informative too. David Cleary sifts through the action...

"Greaneteen is still raw, but has the tools to go a long way over fences. He would need another run in the next couple of weeks or so to qualify for the Grand Annual,...though a slightly more softly-softly approach could pay better long-term dividends."

The most significant action of the weekend obviously came at Leopardstown, with the feast that is the Dublin Racing Festival. However, on the domestic front, Musselburgh also staged some competitive fare at its two-day Scottish Trials meeting. Southern stables were well represented and plundered the lion's share of the prizes, Paul Nicholls leading the way with five winners over the two days.

Just four of the 14 races, all relatively minor events, went to Scottish or northern yards, though the 'home' team had near misses against runners from the top trainers in several of the feature contests. The fixture is testament to the ambition of the Musselburgh management and it's good that such a track wants to put on racing of the standard it did, though the meeting relies on the big yards in the south for most of the quality.

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Hill and Lad worth place on Pertemps shortlist

So far as Cheltenham Festival pointers are concerned, perhaps the race to focus on is the Pertemps qualifier. Once Traditional Dancer declined his partner's invitation to take to the floor, all six that set off were guaranteed qualification for the Final if they completed, which all six did.

Rocket Lad, whose mark is high enough to ensure a place in the Cheltenham field, was dropped out at the back and never in contention, not at all knocked about once the leaders kicked on at the end of the back straight. This will have helped his confidence after running as if amiss at Cheltenham the previous weekend (the fitting of a tongue strap here perhaps significant with regard to that run) and his early promise over hurdles may well be fulfilled once he's away from winter ground.

Keeper Hill was an interesting entrant, having a strong piece of handicap form from Aintree last spring that suggests he's on a good mark over hurdles. He is not that easy to place over fences, having jumping issues that are likely to be costly in big fields, so qualifying for the Pertemps makes a lot of sense. Keeper Hill found Musselburgh less than ideal, and he lacked the pace to land a blow in the straight, but he may well be much more of a player at Cheltenham.

The outcome of the race was one of fine margins between a pair that would need to go up a fair bit in the handicap to get into the Final. Mighty Thunder nearly made all under an enterprising ride, but was collared close home by the heavily-backed Highland Hunter, the winner ridden with more confidence than for most of the straight seemed justified from the stands.

Highland Hunter was having just his second run for Nicholls - ironically he was formerly with Mighty Thunder's trainer Lucinda Russell - and this suggests his form could be about to take off. He may not go up enough to get a run in the Final, but there's a good handicap in him this spring, one to note at Aintree or Ayr.

Thyme White has Winter target

Nicholls won the listed contest at the meeting, the Scottish Triumph Hurdle, with Thyme White. He holds an entry in the Triumph Hurdle, though seems much more likely to take his chance in the Fred Winter. Thyme White is progressing well, but his form looks short of the standard required for a Grade 1 at this stage, so that seems a good option. The Fred Winter may also be in the plans of connections of the second and fourth Group Stage and Goa Lil, the latter the type to make more impact in a well-run race on a much stiffer track.

Impressive Greaneteen just Champion in Chase victory

Greaneteen, who landed the grandly-titled Scottish Champion Chase, a well-run, two-mile handicap, in style on just his second start over fences, was the most impressive of Nicholls' five winners. Greaneteen is still raw, but has the tools to go a long way over fences. He would need another run in the next couple of weeks or so to qualify for the Grand Annual, also entered in the Arkle, though a slightly more softly-softly approach could pay better long-term dividends.

A couple of the feature-race winners are unlikely to be going to Cheltenham, even though they hold entries in the novice hurdles at the meeting. Neither Sebastopol nor I K Brunel look mature enough at this stage to cope with the demands of the Festival hurly-burly. Both will make better chasers next season, given time to develop between now and then.

Sebastopol ran an odd race in landing the Scottish County Hurdle, looking to be going nowhere in the back straight but picking up really nicely in the straight before dossing in front. He looks to have bundles of ability, but lives on his nerves, so it remains to be seen if he will progress smoothly, but skipping Cheltenham looks a very good idea.

I K Brunel benfitted from the front-running Saint Xavier doing a bit too much in front in the three-mile novice, but it was good to see him back on track, as he's a gorgeous looker and a chaser all over. Saint Xavier has an entry in the Albert Bartlett, but will presumably be back over fences next, needing a run in a chase by Gold Cup day to enable him to take his chance in the Grand National.

Saint Xavier is too highly rated to run in the Kim Muir for amateur riders, but the winner of the Edinburgh National Bob Mahler may well take his chance in that event, following a path successfully trod by his stable companion Missed Approach, who won that race after finishing runner-up in this. Bob Mahler landed this marathon despite looked far from home on the tight track, the longer trip helping enormously in that regard. Whether he will be so effective back at three miles, even on a stiff track, is questionable.

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Murphy captures Scilly Isles with Itchy Feet

Away from Musselburgh, I K Brunel's trainer Olly Murphy struck in the weekend's Grade 1 in Britain, the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown. Although the leaders looked to go faster than ideal, his Itchy Feet, third in the Supreme last season, ran out an impressive winner on just his second start over fences, doing well to recover from landing on his nose when moving forward two out. Given his good run at the meeting last year, Itchy Feet, who looked well served by the trip, has to enter calculations for the Marsh/Golden Miller.

By contrast, the Nicholls-trained Grand Sancy left the firm impression that the step up in trip was too much for him. He's yet to win in three starts over fences, but he looks as if he's going to be at least as good in this sphere as he was over hurdles. Grand Sancy holds Cheltenham entries, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him kept for valuable contests out of the heat of the Festival kitchen. The Maghull at Aintree or the valuable two-mile novice handicap at Ascot are races post-Cheltenham that spring to mind as options for Grand Sancy.

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