Ascot plays host to the Ladbroke on Saturday. The Grade 3 handicap hurdle is run at just shy of two miles and was established in 2001.
In that time only 10 renewals have managed to survive the ravages of winter, with eight of the races being won by five or six-year-olds. Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer, though his last win came in 2008, thanks to Sentry Duty.
Gordon Elliott has won two of the last four, and his main hope this time round will be carrying silks very familiar to UK racegoers. Diamond King, formerly trained by Donald McCain, is owned by Mrs Diana Whateley. Her colours have been carried to major victories by the likes of Captain Chris and Menorah. She was represented in last year’s Ladbroke by Garde La Victoire, who ran a cracker when carrying top-weight to a fifth place finish.
Diamond King was highly touted before spending a year off the track through injury. He disappointed on his return last spring, though his first two outings for Elliott have shown a great deal more promise. The handicapper has done him no favours with a mark of 144, though the potential is clearly there for further improvement. The season on the ‘easy list’ leaves him a lightly raced, relatively unexposed seven-year-old.
Harry Fry is in the midst of a Dazzling December with a strike rate nearing 50%. For the season as a whole he’s rattled in 20 wins from just 70 runs over hurdles. He trains the likely race favourite Jolly’s Cracked It. The powerful six-year-old gelding was last seen going close over course and distance in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle. That was his seasonal debut, and he’s sure to have improved a bundle. It would come as a no surprise to see him go very close again.
Willie Mullins looks set to send over Renneti and Noble Inn for the contest. The former is talented, though certainly has his quirks. He made a promising return to hurdles with a fourth place finish at Cheltenham in the Greatwood, and re-opposes third home Waxies Dargle and sixth placed Devilment. All three appear closely matched, though whether any can improve enough to take this is questionable.
Noble Inn could prove a more interesting contender. The five-year-old has returned from injury in fine fettle. He hosed up last time at Clonmel, and although this is an altogether different proposition, he did have some eye-catching form as a juvenile. Again the handicapper appears to have taken no chances, but he remains interesting if taking up his entry.
Nicky Henderson runs top-weight Sign Of A Victory and may also risk classy novice Altior. The former needs decent ground and appears to be in the grip of the handicapper. The latter would prove an intriguing contender, though he may be kept for a novice event over Christmas.
Two years ago, Dan Skelton hit the headlines when making this event his first major success as a trainer. Since that win for Willow’s Saviour, Team Skelton have gone from strength to strength. He may well run both Hurricane Hollow and Zarib on Saturday. Though only a four-year-old, the latter interests me. His return in the Elite Hurdle was full of promise, and his handicap mark remains an attractive one. I’d be hopeful of a good run, especially as the stables horses are flying at the moment.
Saturday’s Ascot meeting will certainly whet the appetite, with the main feast on Boxing Day only a week away.