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Hughes hits century mark with Musselburgh double

Brian Hughes chalked up his 100th winner of the campaign as Bareback Jack highlighted a double at Musselburgh for the reigning champion jockey.

Hughes secured his first championship last term and he leads the way again this year, with two wins for trainer Donald McCain at the Scottish venue seeing him hit the century mark.

Fiveandtwenty (6-4 favourite) got the pair up and running in the bet365 Scottish Triumph Hurdle, before Bareback Jack (5-2) lifted the bet365 Scottish Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in fine style.

Hughes told Great British Racing: “Reaching 100 winners is always the first main target for the season. Unfortunately, it’s taken slightly longer than I would have hoped due to racing being abandoned etc, but it’s great to finally reach that target. I now hope to push on and keep riding as many winners as I can.

“The championship is of course the main aim. Winning it last year has made me even hungrier and determined to win it again and retain my title. I will keep trying my hardest to hopefully become champion jockey once again come the end of the season.”

McCain added: “We take a lot of pride in having Brian, the current champion jump jockey, as our stable jockey, so I’m delighted to see him reach 100 winners for the season. In any season, riding 100 winners is a massive achievement.

“We are all behind him in his quest to become champion jockey again this year. It will be fully deserved, great for northern racing, and will cement his place as the top jump jockey at the moment.”

Paul Nicholls was also in double form at Musselburgh, with Threeunderthrufive (11-10 favourite) maintaining his unbeaten record over obstacles in the bet365 Scottish Stayers Novices’ Hurdle before Get The Appeal (7-1) took the closing handicap hurdle.

Bookmakers relieved after gamble is scuppered at Musselburgh

Bookmakers were spared losses estimated at millions of pounds after the third leg of an audacious betting coup came unstuck on Sunday.

The layers were prepared for the worst after the first two horses, Fire Away and Blowing Dixie, obliged at short prices after being backed at big odds, with only Gallahers Cross left to run.

The trio were linked together in a variety of wagers with several bookmakers when betting on Sunday’s races opened on Saturday night.

All three were sent off short-priced favourites after being snapped up at double-figure odds.

Paul Binfield, spokesman for Paddy Power, said: “I don’t want to reveal figures, but our liabilities would probably be on a par with others in the industry.

“The trading room at Power Tower breathed a huge sigh of relief when Get The Appeal foiled the gamble and crossed the line in front.”

After the victories of Fire Away and Blowing Dixie, the eyes of the racing world were focused on Gallahers Cross, trained Daragh Bourke, in the bet365 Handicap Hurdle at Musselburgh.

The race may only have carried a winning purse of £4,288, but it was worth an awful lot more to those in on the gamble and those punters would have been sitting comfortably for most of the two-and-three-quarter-mile contest.

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Gallahers Cross travelled well up to the second-last flight, only to find little under pressure, and the 4-5 favourite faded into fourth place as the Paul Nicholls-trained Get The Appeal made all the running under Harry Cobden.

Until then the three-horse gamble was very much on.

Fire Away, who was available at 22-1 when betting opened, went off the evens favourite as he kick-started the gamble in the bet365 Novices’ Handicap Chase.

Having his first start for Laura Morgan, the eight-year-old romped home by 19 lengths in the hands of Richie McLernon after taking the lead after the third-last fence.

“We’ve had him 11 days. We bought him from Daragh Bourke,” the Leicestershire trainer told Musselburgh’s Twitter account.

“He had a couple of horses for sale. He was one of them. I did go to buy the other one, but we bought him instead.

“Fingers crossed, he can win a few more.”

Backed down from 9-1 to 4-6 favourite, Blowing Dixie brought up the second leg in the Betway Casino Handicap at Southwell.

The Iain Jardine-trained five-year-old looked to benefit from a drop in class when defying top weight by a smooth two and a half lengths in the hands of Andrew Mullen.

“He’s travelled through the race really strong and I wanted something to take me further, but I was there three out, so I let him get on with it,” Mullen told Sky Sports Racing.

“He’s very honest. He likes Southwell. He’s got course form round here and he came good today.

“I spoke to Iain this morning and he said ‘I think I’ve got him as well as I can and if he turns up, he’ll be hard to beat’. He was right.”

Not all bookmakers fell foul of the attempted coup. Simon Clare, head of PR at Ladbrokes Coral, revealed they managed to “dodge a bullet”.

“Our trading team who were on duty last night spotted the path of bets quite quickly and it was clear they were connected, so they reacted quickly and turned off the multiples for those three selections,” he said.

“We were aware something very organised was going on, but we managed not to face anything too scary.

“We saw what other people were saying and had our trader not spotted it and left it another half an hour or an hour, given the huge odds in play, you would have been facing huge liabilities.

“It’s hard to know what other firms were facing. We managed to dodge a bullet.

“Actually, for us, it was much more of those favourites winning was more of a nightmare for us than the attempted coup.”

At the request of the British Horseracing Authority’s integrity department, the connections of all three horses were interviewed by the race day stewards before their respective races.

Mighty Thunder strikes in Edinburgh National

Mighty Thunder was a runaway 20-length winner of the bet365 Edinburgh National Handicap Chase at Musselburgh.

Lucinda Russell’s eight-year-old was taking his chase record to three wins in four starts with this 14-1 success, having triumphed twice at Hexham this season.

One of only four finishers over the four-mile one-furlong trip, Mighty Thunder took the lead five out under Blair Campbell – and was unchallenged after his nearest pursuer Stay Humble took what sadly proved to be a fatal fall at the penultimate fence.

Russell is considering Ayr’s Scottish Grand National as a possible spring target for her winner.

“We’re absolutely delighted with him,” said the Kinross trainer.

“He’s such a happy horse, and I thought he travelled so well and jumped really well – that four-mile distance is made for him, really.

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“He likes Musselburgh. He’s run round there before, but I just think his jumping is very efficient, he can just cruise away at that four-mile speed forever.

“We’d love to take him to the Scottish National, but we’ll see. He’s still a novice, so he doesn’t have to go there. It’s just nice to be able to start making those plans.”

Gaelik Coast provided Donald McCain with his 50th winner of the season when taking the bet365 Frodon Novices’ Chase under Brian Hughes at 85-40.

The seven-year-old won on his chasing debut in October and is now two from four over fences after jumping accurately to defeat favourite Getaway Trump by four and three-quarter lengths.

Dubai Angel was a convincing 4-1 winner of the bet365 Auld Yin Conditional Jockeys’ Veterans’ Handicap Chase, his first victory since joining Richard Newland’s yard in November.

The 10-year-old led before the second-last and came home a comfortable five and a half lengths ahead of favourite Oscar Ceremony.

Ruinous went one better than his recent second at Newcastle, taking the bet365 Scottish Champion Chase for trainer Tim Reed – with his son Harry riding.

Shoulder to shoulder with favourite Rikoboy, Reed’s six-year-old held on tenaciously to prevail by half-a-length.

Ruinous joined Reed’s stable in November, from Gavin Cromwell’s Meath yard, and struck at 6-1 on only his second start for his new trainer.

“I’m absolutely delighted,” he said.

“We’ve thought a bit of this horse since we bought him – he’s still very much a baby and he’s really a next-year horse, so anything he was going to do this year was a bonus to us, but he did it well.

“As of yet, we haven’t really put him under any pressure, so what you see today is definitely not the finished article. If we can keep this horse healthy, I think he’s got quite a good future.

“He’s really a two and half-mile horse and he needs better ground, so we’d probably be looking at something at the Scottish National (meeting) or Aintree – and then I’d love to run him at Perth over the summer.”

Christopher Wood was a tough winner of the bet365 Scottish County Hurdle, passing Voix Du Reve after the final flight for a three-and-a-quarter-length victory at 11-4.

The bet365 Handicap Hurdle went the way of Keith Dalgleish’s 6-1 chance Breguet Boy, who saw off 50-1 shot Sword of Fate to triumph under Craig Nichol.

The final contest of the day, the bet365 Scottish Foxhunter Open Hunters’ Chase, was won by 7-4 second favourite Salvatore for trainer Melanie Rowley and jockey Alex Edwards.

Sandown and Wetherby face morning checks

Sandown’s all-chase fixture remains under threat from waterlogging despite passing an inspection on Friday afternoon.

A precautionary inspection will be held at the Esher course at 8am, as more rain could fall overnight.

Twelve millimetres of rain on Thursday evening had resulted in waterlogged places in the home straight, forcing officials to have a look at 3pm on Friday.

Clerk of the course Andrew Cooper tweeted: “We have passed the 3pm inspection @sandownpark and will hold a Precautionary Inspection at 8am on Saturday given the potential for overnight rain. The Going remains Heavy, Soft in places.”

The six-race card features the Grade One Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase and the Grade Two Cotswold Chase, transferred from Cheltenham’s abandoned meeting last weekend.

The Cleeve Hurdle was switched to Wetherby but that all-hurdles programme is subject to an 8am inspection.

The chase track was found to be an unraceable on Friday morning which meant the three chases, highlighted by the Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase, had to be scratched.

The track tweeted: “Sadly, the steeplechase course has not improved enough & with further rain expected tonight, we have decided to cancel all steeplechase races for tomorrow & revert to the pre-planned all hurdle programme.

“The hurdle course has improved greatly & would be fit to race on today (Friday). The ground remains heavy. However, in view of the fact that there is rain forecast for tonight, we will stage a precautionary inspection at 8am on Saturday morning to check conditions again.”

Sunday’s meeting at Musselburgh must pass a precautionary inspection at 8am on raceday.

No problems are anticipated for the first day of a two-day fixture, but temperatures are expected to drop on Sunday, prompting a morning check.

Carlisle’s meeting on Monday is already subject to an inspection.

Officials will check conditions at 8am on Saturday as the course is currently waterlogged in places with sub-zero temperatures forecast over the weekend.

Sedgefield’s jumps card on Wednesday has been abandoned. The course is waterlogged and the forecast is described as “horrendous”.

Can Le Breuil Finally Come Good In Edinburgh National?

The weather continues to claim fixtures on a regular basis and Sandown’s card on Saturday will remain in some sort of doubt until a morning inspection. Prospects seem more encouraging at Musselburgh so we’ll head there for Saturday’s preview on one of their live ITV races.

The Edinburgh National at 4.15pm looks a really interesting contest. Testing ground and a marathon trip of 4m1f will make it a gruelling test and hopefully we can rule a fair few out based on conditions alone.

As usual we’ll go through the race using a number of tools available through a Geegeez Gold subscription.

Pace

Generally speaking the longer the distance, the less there is a hereditary front running pace bias in racing so let’s see if there is any pace bias over this 33f trip.

There is very limited data for this distance so it seems best to open up a few of the parameters here, especially the distance. Looking at chases that have taken place at Musselburgh over distances of 3m+ there does seem to still be a pace bias. It’s not with front runners though but with those that tend to race prominently.

Prominent racers have won 17.09% of qualifying races they have contested which is more than mid division and held up have provided combined. Those that race prominently have a better win percentage, place percentage, win PL, each way PL and IV than any other run style.

Front runners produce better results than mid division and held up so there is clearly an advantage in being closer to the pace than patiently ridden. Win percentage, place percentage and IV are very similar between mid division and held up but in terms of market expectancy mid division massively outperforms held up with win PL and place PL far worse for those held up compared to mid division.

How about the pace setup for this particular race?

We’re probably not going to see a hectic gallop and a steady early gallop should amplify the advantage of those that race prominently. It could also help those with slightly questionable stamina.

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Little Bruce could find himself with an uncontested lead with The Ferry Master, Mighty Thunder, Le Breuil and Billy Bronco likely to race in the ‘perfect’ position for this course. That quartet could be worth marking up in our estimations.

Dino Boy and Saint Xavier are amongst the more fancied runners that have been patiently ridden more often than not on recent starts and that pair will do very well to win from the rear if that’s how they are ridden here once again. Dino Boy was prominently ridden last time though when winning so we may well see a repeat of those tactics here.

Instant Expert

The place data with some loose parameters should give us a fair idea of which runners are more likely to give their running than others in this contest.

It’s understandable that most horses should come out with a decent place record with the above filters and any ‘red’ results should be fairly concerning, especially if the data sample is more than a couple of races.

Perhaps the main standouts from a positive perspective here are The Ferry Master who has hit the frame for all filtered races as well as Dino Boy and Bob Mahler who display very solid profiles.

Saint Xavier looks a huge negative considering his odds, he has failed to place in all races in this going or in this field size and he also has a poor record in class 2 or class 3 races. Stay Humble also has some worrying stats, including four failures to place in soft ground. He does have a 100% record of placing at Musselburgh at least.

There are no real negatives over this extreme distance, although it’s worth noting that half the field haven’t gone anywhere near this far before so there are certainly some stamina question marks in the field.

Keeping those loose parameters but looking at win records, we obviously see a lot more with red profiles now.

The profile of The Ferry Master now looks a lot less attractive from a win perspective but Dino Boy remains a positive overall. Bob Mahler has a 100% win record at Musselburgh that’s only from one run.

Classic Escape and Billy Bronco look worth taking on from those nearer the head of the betting based on the bare statistics whilst further down the odds list Little Bruce is worth closer inspection solely because he has a decent strike rate at staying trips.

Stamina

Stamina will be key here and we seem to have two distinct groups of runners, those proven over staying trips and those who are yet to test their stamina over anywhere near this far. First let’s look at those with the proven stamina as they are more likely to throw up a solid each way bet.

Runners With Marathon Experience

Little Bruce was previously mentioned as a runner worth examining more closely because of two wins from five over extended trips. His latest run came in a 2m NHF flat race at Newcastle so a poor run there is of no concern over this much different test. He was beaten over 40 lengths on his two previous runs though without too many excuses and he was beaten the best part of 20 lengths in this last year when finishing 4th. This has presumably been the target once again but he’s only 2lbs lower than last year and doesn’t look in the right form to win this.

Last year’s winner, Bob Mahler, is arguably the most ‘proven’ runner here. He won this race last year in similar conditions and followed up with a good 3rd in the Kim Muir. He’s been in no sort of form this season though, pulled up in all three runs. A wind op hasn’t improved him and he’s another you couldn’t back with any confidence at the minute., for all he's interesting on last year's form.

Dino Boy was marked as a runner that looked interesting based on Instant Expert. Relatively lightly raced for an 8yo, he was pulled up on seasonal debut on his first start for Iain Jardine but put that run behind him on his first start beyond 3m2f last time when winning over an extended 4m, proving his stamina for this contest in the process. He has a leading chance on that form but it was noted by the stewards that the trainer declared the horse stripped fitter for his seasonal debut but also improved for returning to a left handed track. Musselburgh is of course a right handed track and he was also a beaten favourite a year ago at Wincanton (also right handed) so backers beware.

Le Breuil is the favourite here and a runner who has tested himself over extreme trips on a few occasions. He won almost two years ago over 1.5f shy of this trip at the Cheltenham Festival but has been fairly expensive to follow since (beaten favourite on three of his last four starts). He found things happening too quickly at last year’s Festival over 3m2f but ran creditably over the same distance on his first two starts this season. His best two runs since his last win have both come over 3m5f at Warwick and it’s likely that the extra trip has been the key there. That especially seems to be the case as he’s been outpaced even at those trips before staying on again and this step back up in trip looks a very smart move. Connections also reach for the cheekpieces here and he didn’t run brilliantly on his previous run with them on, for all it was a completely different test, so he’s a slightly risky favourite with that in mind for all he could be a class above here and ticks lots of boxes.

Classic Escape and Billy Bronco have both tried this sort of trip before without success. Both have placed though. The former has a fairly consistent profile and he ran with credit last time behind Dino Boy when 2nd. That pretty much proved his stamina but he was beaten 15 lengths that day so it can’t really be argued that he ran brilliantly. Billy Bronco has finished 2nd over 3m6f but he’s been pulled up on his last two runs at that kind of distance and didn’t seem to stay 4m2f in the Midlands National a few years ago so looks a risky proposition.

Runners With Stamina To Prove

The Ferry Master had a solid place profile for this according to Instant Expert but looked less impressive from a win perspective. He’s won his last two starts over trips just shy of 3m and is yet to try anything like this kind of distance. His sire was a 1m winner on the flat and the furthest any of his offspring have won over is 3m1f so his stamina is certainly questionable. He is two from two in cheekpieces though and would have an excellent chance if he stays.

Saint Xavier had some serious question marks across the board according to Instant Expert so let’s take a closer look at his chances. He’s certainly not the most consistent and has been very up and down for both Paul Nicholls and Richard Hobson on these shores. He’s been gradually finding his feet this season though for Hobson and put in his best performance for quite some time last time out at Kempton over 3m in a first time visor. This will be a very different test though, going up in trip by a mile and he now tries first time blinkers. He is related to Irish Grand National winner Burrows Saint but his inconsistency is a worry as much as anything else.

The Delray Munky refused at the last on her most recent run when a remote 2nd but had won her previous race comfortably. She’s an extended 3m winner on heavy but she’s not always the strongest finisher and looks another suspect stayer in this. His trainer does have an IV of 1.65 in marathon handicaps though so it’s perhaps taking notice when one runs over this sort of trip for the first time. Her sire has had five runners at this distance and none have placed but three of them fell or were brought down and one of the two finishers was a 66/1 chance so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions. Her sire has had a winner at 3m6f in the past.

Fortified Bay tried an extended 3m4f last time out at Haydock in very deep ground and although he finished 2nd, he was beaten 45 lengths. He’s been given 77 days to get over that run which seems a wise move. His trainer has an IV of 1.36 with handicap runners returning from a 60+ day break so that too is reassuring. His sire seems to get more than his fair share of 2m winners and hasn’t had any winners at further than 3m so a big stamina question mark over this one.

Stay Humble was 2nd on his only previous run here but that was over just 2m4f last time out. He’s run okay on his two tries over distances further than 3m though and he does have some potential off this sort of mark at that kind of trip at the very least. He is a prominent racer which is a bonus here but the big questions is his stamina. His sire has had a couple of 3m1f winners but he’s 0 from 11 at 3m4f+ according to the Profiler. The horse’s better runs have also come on slightly better ground.

Mighty Thunder completes the field at big odds. He’s run here four times over hurdles and those efforts include and win and a 2nd at 13/2 and 22/1 respectively. He won on his penultimate start when making all and similar tactics wouldn’t be a huge disadvantage here but he was beaten a very long way last time out at Kelso. Whether or not he’s well enough handicapped to win this, will stay the trip or in better form this time around are all question marks and that’s at least one too many but if he is back to form and does stay he’ll outrun his odds.

Verdict

None of those without proven stamina look to be crying out for the step up in trip and many have form, or well being, question marks too. The Ferry Master would be very interesting over shorter but is short enough with such a stamina doubt. If they don’t go a very strong gallop and he is well placed off that gallop he might get away with it and would be ideally positioned and he would be one to potentially consider in running depending on how strong the early pace is.

Several of those with proven stamina or near proven stamina have to prove their well being so the two most reliable selections could end up being Le Breuil and Dino Boy. If there wasn’t the question mark over Dino Boy being as good right handed as he is left handed he would be the first choice here but he’s no guarantee to run as well around this course. Le Breuil has been expensive to follow and does have to prove himself in the cheekpieces but those cheekpieces could be the making of him. He does come with risks attached but that can be said about every single runner in this field and on the balance of things he looks the most likely to win this, for all he’s not the greatest value play you’ll ever see on a Saturday.

Bareback Jack leads McCain’s Musselburgh raid

Few trainers have started 2021 in better form than Donald McCain, who takes some of his big guns up to Musselburgh for this weekend’s Cheltenham trials meeting.

Bareback Jack is arguably one of the most exciting prospects in McCain’s team, having won his first two outings over timber as well as a point-to-point.

He is set to put his unbeaten record on the line in Sunday’s Bet365 Scottish Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

“We think he’s a nice-ground horse, which is why we took him up to Musselburgh for his debut,” said McCain.

“He then won on heavy at Catterick – but that doesn’t get as heavy as some places, and we’re getting to the point where we have to run them. It wasn’t a great race, but he couldn’t do any more than he did.

“The ground is probably going to be a bit too soft on Sunday. But I can’t not run him now, because of what he did at Catterick – and we’ve got to run them.

“I’m not thinking beyond Sunday – and while you obviously have targets in the back of your mind if things go well, we’ll worry about it after this.”

McCain enjoyed a treble at the track on New Year’s Day – and Fiveandtwenty, who runs in the Bet365 Scottish Triumph Trial, was among those winners.

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“We had the option of here or Doncaster last week, but the ground there would be even more extreme,” said McCain.

“She’s a dual course-and-distance winner – she’s taking on better horses, but we may as well take a punt. Black type would be important for her as well, it being a Listed race.”

Another New Year’s Day winner was Blakeney Point, a classy Flat horse in his day, who runs in Saturday’s Bet365 Scottish County Hurdle.

“I have to say, since there has been a reshuffle in the handicapping, the northern horses seem to be getting a bit better deal – in the short term anyway,” said McCain.

Blakeney Point won a decent race last time out
Blakeney Point won a decent race last time out (David Davies/PA)

“He went up 2lb for his last win, and he didn’t win by far, but in the past he might have gone up a fair bit more. He probably wants better ground – but like everyone else, there is nowhere else to go at the moment.

“We also have Theo (Gillard) taking 7lb off Dear Sire, who has won this race before (2018) – he’s got targets in the spring. He ran very well on the all-weather the other day.

“We’ll have plenty of others, and they are what they are, but let’s just hope they all get to run.”

Traditionally there is a strong Irish presence at the meeting – and despite the complications brought on by the pandemic, there will still be plenty from the Emerald Isle.

Peter Fahey is bringing two of his brightest talents in Belfast Banter, fifth to Not So Sleepy in a valuable handicap at Ascot, and the lightly-raced Born Patriot.

Belfast Banter will take on Bareback Jack, and Fahey said: “The ground maybe told close home at Ascot, but he’s in good form and he should put in a good run. I was pleasantly surprised with his new mark.

“He’s in good nick – I’m just not sure the ground is going to suit.”

Born Patriot was an 80-1 winner on debut, but showed it was no fluke when second to Gordon Elliott’s Frontal Assault at Thurles next time out.

“I think he’s a horse that’s improving all the time. He needs a trip, but a fast pace as well,” said Fahey.

“He’s a lovely horse. He lacks a little in experience – but he’s done very little wrong, and if he can improve from his last run he should have a good chance.

“It wasn’t a surprise when he won on his debut. He’d always worked well, and I was more surprised after the race at the price he was.

“He’s a very nice horse – and whatever he does over hurdles, he’ll be a lot better over fences.”

Wetherby switches to Saturday hurdles card

Saturday’s meeting at Wetherby will be an all-hurdles card after the chase track failed an inspection on Friday morning.

The venue was due to stage three chases, highlighted by the Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase.

However, the chase track is not fit for action, with two hurdles now added to the card instead, although the meeting must still pass an 8am inspection on Saturday if it is to go ahead.

The track tweeted: “Sadly, the steeplechase course has not improved enough & with further rain expected tonight, we have decided to cancel all steeplechase races for tomorrow & revert to the pre-planned all hurdle programme.

“The hurdle course has improved greatly & would be fit to race on today (Friday). The ground remains heavy. However, in view of the fact that there is rain forecast for tonight, we will stage a precautionary inspection at 8am on Saturday morning to check conditions again.”

Sandown’s Saturday card is also under threat, with a 3pm inspection scheduled for Friday.

Clerk of the course Andrew Cooper tweeted: “Following 12mm rain yesterday evening, the chase course is now waterlogged in places in the home straight. There will be an inspection at 3pm this afternoon to assess prospects after what should be a dry day.”

Sunday’s meeting at Musselburgh is subject to a precautionary inspection at 8am on raceday.

No problems are anticipated for the first day of a two-day fixture, but temperatures are expected to drop on Sunday, prompting a morning check.

Friday’s card at Chepstow goes ahead as planned after the track passed an inspection.

Carlisle’s meeting on Monday is already subject to an inspection.

Officials will check conditions at 8am on Saturday as the course is currently waterlogged in places with sub-zero temperatures forecast over the weekend.

Covers giving Chepstow encouragement for Welsh National card

Officials at Chepstow are hopeful Saturday’s rescheduled Coral Welsh National meeting will beat freezing temperatures.

Covers have been down since Sunday before the current cold snap kicked in, and clerk of the course Libby O’Flaherty is banking on that proving sufficient with a couple of cold nights to come.

O’Flaherty told Sky Sports Racing on Wednesday afternoon: “We’ve covered the whole track, chase and hurdle.

“The cold weather will start to have a greater influence as it starts getting colder from tonight – we’ve done all we can to keep temperatures above freezing.

“The rain isn’t a worry now, it’s cold. Friday we have wintry showers possible. The forecast for Friday into Saturday gives us hope, along with a good grass covering underneath the fleece so fingers are crossed.

“Monday and Tuesday this week we had 25 guys in putting the covers down, but it is easier to take it off. The plan will be to take them off on Saturday morning.

“The official going is heavy, but it has dried out since the heavy rain on Christmas week. With it being dry I expect it will ride testing.

“Looking at the forecast there is the potential for a precautionary inspection. There are declarations tomorrow so there’ll be an update first thing.”

It was not good news at Musselburgh, however, where a precautionary inspection for 8am on raceday morning had originally been called ahead of racing on Thursday but was brought forward to 4.30pm on Wednesday, with clear skies giving an indication of what was to come.

The meeting at Ffos Las on Thursday needs to survive an inspection at 8.30am with the prospect of the mercury dipping to -7C in Wales.

A tweet from the course read: “There will be a precautionary inspection at 8.30am tomorrow to assess prospects for racing. Overnight temperatures are due to fall to potentially -7C. The track was raceable at 11am today after temperatures dropped to -3C overnight.”

Racing at Clonmel in Ireland is also in some doubt, too.

The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board said in a statement: “Due to a Status Yellow weather warning in place for frost and ice, there will be an 8am precautionary inspection at Clonmel tomorrow (Thursday) ahead of the fixture scheduled to take place on Thursday 7th January.

“The ground remains heavy, was fit for racing at 8am this morning and remains fit for racing currently.”

McCain makes flying start to new year with Musselburgh treble

Triumph Hurdle fourth Navajo Pass highlighted a New Year’s Day treble at Musselburgh for trainer Donald McCain.

Arguably the classiest horse on the card, he was carrying top weight in the Betway Handicap Hurdle, but was assisted by the very handy 7lb claim of conditional jockey Theo Gillard.

He showed his class as a juvenile last season, when he won a Grade Two at Doncaster before running a very fine race at the Cheltenham Festival.

While his first two starts this season did not offer too much encouragement, back down in grade and with Gillard’s claim, the 7-1 chance pulled almost 10 lengths clear of Newtown Boy.

McCain said: “All the good juveniles from last year have struggled and the only one to have won over hurdles is Henry de Bromhead’s (Aspire Tower).

“There’s a real lack of options for them. He had top weight in his last run against seasoned handicappers and when I was carrying the saddle over to him, I could barely lift it and I just thought it wasn’t fair on him.

“That’s why I’ve waited for better ground and it’s why we put Theo on today, to take seven off and he’s one of the best conditionals in the country for me.

“He was bought to last and he’s been trained to last. It’s nice to get his season back on track.

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“I’ve always thought he was a staying hurdler rather than a prospective chaser. I know he’s only won a handicap at Musselburgh so I can’t get carried away, but long term I think he’s a Stayers’ Hurdle type.”

Earlier McCain teamed up with champion jockey Brian Hughes to win the Betway First Foot Juvenile Hurdle with Fiveandtwenty.

Sent off as the prohibitive 1-4 favourite on the back of a seamless hurdling debut over the same course and distance, she was not as impressive on this occasion.

The former Mark Johnston inmate had won by 26 lengths on her first run over obstacles and while she never looked like losing on this time, Hughes had to get fairly serious to beat Herbiers by two lengths.

“I think she found the ground testing enough, she’s only a light-framed filly and it was quite holding. Spring ground will suit her better,” said McCain.

“There are a couple of obvious races. There’s one at Musselburgh on their Trials Day, while there’s also a Listed fillies’ juvenile at Doncaster and black type would be important for her.

“We’ll be governed by ground, but you are only a juvenile once.”

Hughes was also on former smart Flat performer Blakeney Point in the Betway Hogmaneigh Handicap Hurdle.

Blakeney Point remains unexposed over hurdles
Blakeney Point remains unexposed over hurdles (David Davies/PA)

A Listed winner for Roger Charlton, Hughes appeared to have delivered his mount perfectly after the last, but the 22-1 chance still had to fend off the late lunge of Voix Du Reve, a Grade One winner over fences in his days with Willie Mullins.

“It’s not usually my way to go straight from a novice into a big handicap, but it wasn’t a massive field, I knew he’d like the ground and it’s worked out,” said McCain.

“He does have loads of experience in big handicaps from the Flat which helps, but it was really satisfying to win a decent race with him.

“I don’t think he wants much further than two miles, surprisingly given he was a stayer on the Flat, and truthfully I don’t think he does a whole lot in front. He’s still unexposed over hurdles.”

Hughes then grabbed a treble for himself on Nick Alexander’s Eagle Ridge (9-4 favourite) in the Betway Casino Handicap Chase.

Carrying a penalty for a recent win at the track, he just held off the slightly unlucky Oscar Ceremony by a nose.

The long journey north proved worthwhile for Harry Skelton, who made most of the running on Romain De Senam (13-2) in the Betway ‘Auld Reekie’ Handicap Chase to continue the excellent form of his brother, Dan’s, yard.

Exeter frozen off

Friday’s meeting at Exeter has been called off due to a frozen track.

An initial inspection was held at 9.30am and while the frost sheets deployed on the track had done their job, officials were concerned by a slow rise in temperature, forcing another check.

That 10.30am inspection showed there had not been sufficient improvement in conditions, with the track tweeting: “Unfortunately, we have not passed this morning’s second inspection. New Year’s Day Racing at Exeter has been abandoned.”

Musselburgh is the only jumps meeting to go ahead after it passed an 8am precautionary check. The card scheduled for Cheltenham had already been cancelled earlier in the week.

Saturday’s Cork card will also need a morning inspection, with officials planning to assess conditions at 8am.

An Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board statement said: “Due to the risk of frost overnight, there will be an 8am precautionary inspection at Cork tomorrow morning ahead of the fixture scheduled to take place on Saturday.

“Following a dry 24 hours the ground at Cork is now soft to heavy and the forecast is mainly dry and cold.”