Trials results up in the air
Enterprise and racing are not always the easiest of bedfellows, the natural cynicism of many of those within the sport hardened by the belief that things genuinely were better in the old days.
Nicky Henderson is a big supporter of Musselburgh
It's perhaps no great surprise therefore that Musselburgh's venture in first initiating a Cheltenham Trials meeting and then extending it to cover a whole weekend has failed to quite hit the bullseye so far.
Here they managed to draw the big names of the training world, with Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson between them taking home seven of the 15 prizes on offer, but failed to attract either any genuine Cheltenham market leaders, the ITV racing cameras, or, sadly, much of a crowd for either day of action, Saturday's card in particular being hit hard by an unfortunate clash with the opening Six Nations rugby match five or so miles away at Murrayfield.
However, there was still much for track officials to be very proud about, and while it is a shame that Musselburgh failed this weekend to attract the crowds and the mainstream television coverage it deserved, the show was entertaining throughout and the praise from the horsemen universal.
Nicky Henderson may have made his disappointment clear at the fact that the bottle of champagne he was presented with after the victory of Lough Derg Spirit was empty and purely for display ("aaaaagh!") but he also once again gave the meeting his full support, even if it could have done with the presence of the exciting Charli Parcs, pulled out at the final declaration stage.
"I love coming to Scotland and so do the horses, especially when there is a nice bit of good ground like there has been this weekend," he said.
His Lough Derg Spirit took the Sky Bet Supreme Scottish Trial under a bold ride from Nico De Boinville, who looked pleasingly rust-free less than half a dozen rides into his comeback from a fractured arm sustained at Cheltenham in November.
Henderson regards the winner as "only a baby" and "a long-term project" and seemed caught between two stools as to whether to commit the winner to the Festival. "He is quite a quick horse but you wouldn't want to be trying to make all in the Supreme and I just wonder whether it might all be a bit much for him."
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He said he'd talk things through with owners Michael Grech and Stuart Parkin, whose team of 10 young horses cost plenty to put together and also includes the likes of Stowaway Magic and Lough Derg Farmer.
"They know what they're doing these two, and we'll see what they think – they're wise owls," he said.
"They've actually got some seriously lovely young horses with me, they have two six-year-olds and everything else is younger so I hope they're going to have a lot of fun – this fellow is speedy enough, but he wouldn't be as quick as River Wylde, who I was also considering for this race. Now he can go a bit.
Henderson later also gave a clean bill of health to Saturday's Sandown scorer Buveur D'Air (and how that non-race can possibly be considered a much more credible Cheltenham Festival 'Trial' than any of the Musselburgh contests, I have no idea) and also to Altior, who will go to Newbury this Saturday for the Game Spirit Chase "provided the going isn't heavy". He added that Consul de Thaix and Hargam would be kept in the field for the Betfair Hurdle at the five-day stage and believed both were "likely" runners.
Henderson's former assistant Charlie Longsdon claimed two more victories to add the win of The Queen's aptly-named Forth Bridge 24 hours earlier and proved a good advertisement for the powers of team bonding, having taken some of his team, owners and grooms mucking in together, for a knees-up in the city.
Also getting in on the good vibes was Harry Derham, who continues to cut a most impressive impression as assistant to Paul Nicholls. He invited all of the staff who had travelled with the horses to the podium after Sam Twiston-Davies had made it five wins for the stable at the meeting when El Bandit won the Pertemps Qualifier.
I wondered whether such a good weekend's work for the stable, particularly from horses who were returning from their usual mid-winter training break, had left him feeling particularly positive.
"I read a few things about our horses being quiet and I think a lot more has been made of it than I might have expected," he responded. "Honestly, I think a lot of the performances that have been disappointing you can put down to real winter ground and when they have come up here today for some nice ground, you can see the result.
"We're lucky enough to have some superb gallops at Ditcheat and I think our horses get used to doing their job on a good surface like we have today at Musselburgh."
Twiston-Davies, meanwhile, was busy celebrating the fact that winning jockeys were given Marks & Spencer's vouchers as an additional prize. "My mum is going to be over the moon," he said, illustrating neatly the ongoing issues that brand has with embracing a younger generation of customers.
Effusive, self-deprecating and informative in all three of his post-race interviews on the winner's podium, he is a man racing needs to treasure, although he did touch upon a theme that is likely to be re-visited time and again after edging out amateur Rachel McDonald in a photo-finish for the last of his three victories.
"She gave her horse a great ride and really got him jumping and I only just managed to get to her," he said. "It's just lucky she didn't have a 4lb allowance."
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