They’re planning to inspect at eight o’clock in the morning before confirming that racing can or can’t go ahead at Ascot tomorrow. At the moment, with temperatures set to drop to just -1C, and the take-off and landing sides of the fences and hurdles set to rest easy for the night in the sanctity of the frost covers, you have to think that it’s long odds-on that racing will go ahead on this day for the first time in three years. Hopefully it does.
Prospect Wells is a worthy favourite for the featured Ladbroke Hurdle, or just The Ladbroke, if you know it well. Group 2 winner on the flat, second in the Grand Prix de Paris, impressive in all three of his runs over hurdles, his only defeat at the hooves of the potentially top class Steps To Freedom, progressive, trainerdby Nicholls, ridden by Walsh, nothing not to like.
However, he is a clear 4/1 favourite in a 17-runner handicap, so you are entitled – nay obligated – to look for chinks. Here’s one: he’s a novice. Here’s another: just three runs over hurdles and pitched into a hot hot handicap. Here’s another: a handicap mark of 142, not obviously lenient.
Here’s a science bit. Prospect Wells went down by a neck to Steps To Freedom in the Grade 2 novices’ hurdle at Cheltenham’s November meeting, getting 3lb. On his previous run, at Punchestown, Steps To Freedom had beaten Sailors Warn by a length and a quarter, getting 9lb. It is probable that Steps To Freedom did not show improved form from Punchestown to Cheltenham. Indeed, rider Robbie Power said after the Cheltenham race that his horse took a little longer to pick up at Cheltenham than he thought he would, that he just about got away with it, his third run in seven weeks, and it is not a coincidence that he is now on a winter break.
Of course, you can’t boil horses down to figures, down to weights and measures. If it’s a science bit, it’s an inexact one, but it is still a fair indicator, so just go with this for a second. Sailors Warn has been allotted a mark of 144 for tomorrow’s race, his handicap debut in the UK, which leaves him set to carry 2lb more than Prospect Wells. On those lines of form involving Steps To Freedom, then, Sailors Warn has a 10lb pull with Prospect Wells (9lb + 3lb – 2lb) for a one-length beating (a length and a quarter minus a neck – I know I know, we said it was inexact). Yet Edward O’Grady’s horse is two and a half times Prospect Wells’s price. Prospect Wells may win, but he is probably going to have to improve again by a fair bit in order to do so, and consequently, he is short enough.
Sailors Warn is a player, he is a significant runner for Edward O’Grady and Paddy Wilmott in a race like this, and the booking of AP McCoy is, likewise, significant. But it can be difficult for four-year-olds in these big handicaps, especially before the turn of the year. Twenty-seven four-year-olds have run in the Ladbroke in the last 10 years, and none have managed to win it.
My shortlist at the prices was comprised of Alarazi, Raya Star, Gibb River, Desert Cry and Act Of Kalanisi. It wasn’t an easy call, but I thought that Act Of Kalanisi was over-priced at 25/1 in the ante post market on Wednesday when we weren’t sure what the ground was going to be like, and I think that he is still over-priced at 16/1 now that we know that it’s going to be soft.
Dr Richard Newland’s horse was a stayer on the flat, but he proved that he could operate at two miles over hurdles when he beat Secret World on his debut over hurdles at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting last year, the pair of them coming clear. He also proved his ability to handle Ascot when he won a good two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle there last February on his final run last season.
The drop back to two miles is a bit of a worry, he may just get out-paced, but the testing ground and the fast pace that they usually go in these big two-mile handicaps should bring stamina into play, and an ability to stay further than two miles is likely to be a requisite.
He ran a lot better than his finishing position suggests when he finished a distant third behind Celestial Halo in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton last month, and that run should have put him spot on for this. As he is a course winner, it is probable that he has been aimed at this race for a while, it is probable that he will improve significantly for his seasonal debut.
His trainer’s horses are in good form, he is a five-year-old, statistically the right age for this race, and, with five runs over hurdles under his girth, he has the right mix of experience and potential for progression for a tight handicap like this. His handicap mark of 134 is just 4lb higher than the mark off which he won that race in February, and, because top weight Brampour has stood his ground, it means that he gets to race off a featherweight of 10st 1lb, less the 7lb that his talented young rider Brendan Powell can claim.
Don’t be surprised if he is one of the first horses to come under pressure, but don’t be surprised either if he starts to stay on up the home straight over the last two flights, and puts himself in with a chance. At 16/1, with 17 runners, and a relatively short-priced favourite, he is a win and place bet.
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