Henderson Holds Powerful Hand At Ascot

It may be small on history, but the Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle at Ascot is certainly big on popularity.

The valuable event, now known as the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle, is a Grade 3 run over two miles. It came into being back in 2001, with Nicky Henderson the most successful trainer having picked up the pot on three occasions. It’s a race that the Irish have started to target, with Gordon Elliott striking gold twice in the last four years.

Victories are spread between four, five and six-year-olds, with just one seven-year-old success. The race tends to go to unexposed types and is noted for going to horses with strong recent form. Every winner of the Ladbroke had won or finished placed on its previous outing.

And like last week’s Caspian Caviar, this is handicap that can be won by those carrying plenty of weight. In its short history, two have lumped top-weight to victory, whilst 12 months ago, Jolly’s Cracked It carried 11st 3lbs in the thrilling dead-heat finish with Sternrubin.

This is one Saturday handicap that has eluded champion trainer Paul Nicholls. He’s had plenty of cracks at it, and Ptit Zig came pretty close when runner-up in 2013 off top-weight. Discounting Nicholls would of course be folly, as Frodon’s success proved last weekend.

With a strong record in the race, it’s no surprise that Nicky Henderson’s Consul De Thaix is towards the head of the market. The four-year-old is certainly unexposed, with just four runs to his name. And he has the requisite strong recent performance, thanks to a second-place finish in his seasonal debut at Sandown. He stayed on powerfully on that occasion, though had to be stoked up plenty early enough to get on terms with the leaders. It’ll be quick on Saturday, and he’ll need to travel better if he’s to land a winning blow.

Stable companion Brain Power got the better of him at Sandown and is set to re-oppose tomorrow. He’ll be worse off at the weights, but travelled like a dream to win last time. He looked to have idled a little in front, and I’d be far from certain that those placings will be reversed. He ran a cracker in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival back in April, and is a big imposing sort. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t run a huge race.

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Henderson also runs top-weight Hargam. He was disappointing last time at Cheltenham, but better ground will certainly help. Though classy, he is not the biggest, and he may again struggle to haul 11st 12lbs in such a competitive handicap.

Nicholls goes with Diego Du Charmil and Modus, with the latter arguably his best hope. The former was well beaten by Sternrubin at the track in October. He was sent off favourite that day, and was incredibly disappointing. It’s a tough one to forgive, especially as he appeared badly outpaced from some way out.

Modus finished third in the same race and was undoubtedly suited by the sounder surface. He then ran another cracker in the Greatwood at Cheltenham, and is clearly in good heart. Barry Geraghty takes the ride, and he had plenty to choose from. He looks likely to go close, but is up 5lbs for that effort at Prestbury Park, and that’s enough to put me off.

Jolly’s Cracked It and Sternrubin are back to try and defend their crowns. The former returns from injury and therefore lacks a prep-run. Nevertheless, he has gone well fresh in the past, and has a terrific record at Ascot. He’s a seven-year-old, which on the trends is a negative, though he has relatively few miles on the clock. He’s been well-backed throughout the week, and may well go off favourite. He’s 6lbs higher than last year, and it’s a tough ask on his return, but he’s a huge rugged sort, and cannot be discounted.

Sternrubin is another that loves the track, and remains on a competitive handicap mark. He could only finish fifth last time at Cheltenham, which strictly speaking knocks him out of contention on trends. He’s also a little more exposed than most, even though he’s only a five-year-old. Trends say no, but I fancy this fella will go close again.

Dan Skelton hit the big-time with victory in this in 2013, and Willow’s Saviour is back for another try. A spell on the sidelines, followed by a season over fences, means that he arrives here a trend busting nine-year-old. Yet those two years off the track leave him with few miles on the clock, and he is two from two at the track. I fancy he’ll run a big race.

And what of the Irish challenge?

Tony Martin and Noel Meade have entries that are prominent in the betting. Martin has Pyromaniac, Quick Jack and Golden Spear, with any of the three capable of going well. Quick Jack is a hardy dual-purpose performer, and though high enough in the handicap, has the 7lb claimer James Slevin in the plate. He seems to have been around forever, yet it’s surprising that he’s only run nine times over hurdles, and has an impressive 33% strike-rate.

Pyromaniac was down the field in this race back in 2014. Another that mixes flat and jumps to great effect, he also looks plenty high enough in the handicap, and is tough to fancy. The one that sneaks in carrying 10 stone, is Golden Spear. The five-year-old is yet to make a real impact over hurdles, with one win from six outings. But the same cannot be said over the flat, where he was last seen winning the November Handicap at Leopardstown. He’d previously run a cracker in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket. He’s an interesting contender, and is as short as 7/1 in some places.

Despite having to carry plenty of weight, I’m keen on the chances of Brain Power after his impressive performance at Sandown. I would also expect Sternrubin and Jolly’s Cracked It to go close again, though Willow’s Saviour is my each-way fancy. Best of luck to those having a punt.

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