Dan Skelton trained last year’s Ladbroke Hurdle hero, Willow’s Saviour, and he can do so again this year with the well-fancied Shelford. The five year-old has been well backed along with the favourite Activial, and the forecast soft ground will be right up his street.
The £150,000 race is held at Ascot Racecourse this Saturday 20th December, and has attracted a strong field of 19 runners. The weather has played havoc with the meeting over the last few years, with the race abandoned in 2009 and 2010, and the two-miles can easily turn into a test of stamina this time of year.
Historical trends can often point to future winners in racing, so it’s worth a little look back at the profile of previous winners. The race has been contested nine times at the Berkshire track, and all nine of the winners were aged between 4 and 6. Each of them had also finished in the first three in their previous races. Eight of the nine winners were rated between 130 and 144, and six carried a weight of 10-11 or more.
The favourite has a bad record in the race, with only one ‘jolly’ obliging in the nine renewals; but only two winners were priced bigger than +1200 , so it’s not been a race for outsiders in previous years. On the other hand, it has definitely been a race for progressive types, with none of the previous winners having run more than ten times over hurdles before taking the Ladbroke.
Harry Fry’s four year old head the market and has been the subject of a significant gamble throughout the week, backed from +1200 in to +400 . His trainer admitted that the gamble wasn’t inspired by him, and he didn’t take any of the big prices, but also that his horse in in good fettle for the big race. Writing on his blog for Stan James, Fry said, “…we wanted to have a go at a good handicap off his current mark. He’s well at home and we’re looking forward to him taking his chance”. Activial was a good juvenile last season, but hasn’t been seen on a racecourse since he slightly disappointed at Aintree in April. He could be on a very lenient handicap mark, and if he’s fit and primed for the race he is a big contender. However, favourites have a poor record in the race, and the value has gone for those who didn’t get on at the better prices.
Dan Skelton has had a great start as a trainer since leaving the tutelage of Paul Nicholls, and winning this race last year with Willow’s Saviour was the greatest achievement in his short training career. His charge this year, Shelford, has also attracted plenty of support this week, and with the ground expected to be testing, he looks a good bet to make it a happy return for connections. This race has been the target since the horse landed the Silver Cup at Chepstow last October, and he looks to be an improving type on a decent handicap mark. He’s only run four races over hurdles and has never finished outside the top two. This will be his toughest test to date, but the 19 runners will ensure a relentless gallop and that will suit Shelford’s stamina.
One horse that hits the right note on all the stats in Jonjo O’Neill’s entry, Goodwood Mirage. The four year-old won his last race, a handicap at Haydock, and comes here off a mark of 142. He’s around the right age, the right weight and the right price; and he’ll have the assistance of champion jockey Tony McCoy for the big race. The runner-up of that Haydock race has gone on to win twice since, so the form has a good look, but O’Neill’s horses haven’t been in superb form of late which does temper enthusiasm slightly.
Best of the Rest
The race has never been won by an Irish raider, but there are several horse making the trip over with a good chance. Willie Mullin’s Clondaw Warrior comes with a good chance after finishing third in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham. He’s joined by Bayan from Gordon Elliott’s yard, the Arthur Moore trained Sea Beat, and Tony Martin’s Pyromaniac – the latter of which also has a good chance based on the stats.
The winner of the Greatwood Hurdle was the Phillip Hobb’s trained Garde La Victoire, He will carry top weight and jockey Tom O’Brien will have his work cut out to defy the burden. Nicky Henderson has a good record in this race over the years, and he’s represented this time around by Cool Macavity. Another trainer with a good record here is David Pipe, and he saddles two runners in Swing Bowler and Balgarry, who hasn’t seen a racecourse for over 700 days. He looks the pick of the two judging by jockey preference, with Tom Scudamore taking the ride. Balgarry could be the most unexposed of the field and it remains to be seen how much ability he retains; but he’s obviously well thought of to be returning to the track here, even if it would be a huge effort to win after so long out of action.
Shelford fits the bill for the type of progressive horse that usually wins this race, and with the softening ground improving his chances he looks the best bet to take the spoils. Of the other runners, Goodwood Mirage, is an interesting contender for Jonjo O’Neill, and with Tony McCoy on board could be set for a big run. All of the bookies are offering 1/4 of the odds for the first four finishers, so it can pay to take an each-way chance on a couple of runners in such a large field.
Ladbroke Hurdle, Ascot Racecourse – Saturday 20th December
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