Shantou can Fly in Ascot Handicap

Finding a race to preview has proved difficult for this weekend. Un De Sceaux only needs to get round to win the The Clarence House Chase at Ascot. Whilst there’s every chance that the Haydock card will be lost to the weather. I’ve eventually come down in favour of the ultra-competitive Bet365 Handicap Chase at Ascot.

It lacks the cachet of a Clarence House or a Peter Marsh, but it’s competitive, and is certain to go ahead. Though Ascot could get a fair amount of rain overnight, the ground is currently described as soft, good to soft in places. The likelihood is that we’ll have testing conditions by the time racing kicks off early on Saturday afternoon.

Seven of the last 10 renewals have been run in testing ground (last year’s meeting lost to frost). Paul Nicholls has won three of those, with two victories coming in the last three. Hauling lumps of weight has surprisingly not proved to be such an issue. Four of the last 10 winners carried more than 11 stone, with Regal Heights in 2008, the last to win off top weight. Royal Regatta came close to repeating the feat in 2016 when runner-up to Dare Me.

Eight-year-olds have the strongest record in recent times, though only just. Dare Me was 12, and horses aged seven and 10 have took their fair share. Experience therefore appears quite important, with only a single six-year-old successful in the last 15 renewals.

That’s quite a concern for race favourite Acting Lass. Harry Fry’s seven-year-old is very lightly raced, with just five outings under rules. He is two from two over fences, with those victories coming in four-runner affairs. He jumped slightly out to his left at Leicester last time, which is another worry. There’s no doubting this fella is talented, and his form stacks up. He’s also proven in the conditions, but there’s enough niggling doubts for me to take him on.

Guitar Pete will look to continue the improvement which saw him land a valuable handicap at Cheltenham last time. Certainly fortunate when Starchitect tragically broke down that day, nevertheless, Nicky Richards has this grey back to his best after several years in the wilderness. It may sound blatantly obvious, but jumping is key to this fella. He’s not the biggest, and can get in close at times. But the ground will certainly aid his chances, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go close.

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Nigel Twiston-Davies is having a terrific winter, especially with his chasers. Almost a 20% strike-rate from 160 runs over fences is a tremendous return for the Cotswold trainer. Robinshill is another that lacks experience with just four outings over fences, though he did have 16 runs over the smaller obstacles. He’s won his last two at Ludlow, though the strength of those victories is more than questionable. This is a whole lot tougher, though the step up in trip is probably in his favour. On the face of it this looks a tough ask. But the trainer has a habit of getting more than most from these young chasers in this type of race.

His neighbour, Fergal O’Brien, is also having a cracking season and has Master Dee entered. He finished a place behind Guitar Pete back in September at Market Rasen, though is far better off at the weights. He’s a consistent sort having never finished out of the first three in 20 career starts under rules. Rarely tried in testing conditions, that may prove an issue. But his handicap mark remains competitive, and his only previous trip to Ascot resulted in a victory over San Benedeto. He’s certainly a major player if lining up.

Shantou Flyer returned to form last time at Cheltenham, and both ground and trip should prove ideal. Mitchell Bastyan is booked to ride, and his 5lb claim could prove crucial. His last run at Ascot was in the Grade One Ascot Chase last February when runner-up to Cue Card. A repeat of that performance would see him right in the mix, and I fancy he’ll run a huge race.

Should the 12 declared make the start line, this should prove a cracking renewal. I’ll be siding with Shantou Flyer for yet another Cotswold trainer, Richard Hobson. If he doesn’t make the start, my cash will switch to the vastly improved Guitar Pete. Still on an upward curve, there’s more to come from the Nicky Richard’s trained eight-year-old.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

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