Unowhatimeanharry left Ballyoptic in his wake when destroying what looked a competitive Long Distance Hurdle field at Newbury last month and the Harry Fry-trained eight-year-old will be looking for a repeat performance in the Grade 1 JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.
With last year’s champion Thistlecrack now making his mark successfully over fences, the staying hurdling division had looked wide-open until Unowhatimeanharry laid down a significant marker at Newbury. The eight-year-old has been a revelation since moving to Harry Fry, winning all six starts including the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. His improvement over that period is a testament to the brilliant skills of his trainer and he looks certain to be sent off a worthy favourite at Ascot. Success on Saturday would certainly make him the leading contender heading to the World Hurdle in March.
Like Unowhatimeanharry, the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Ballyoptic is a gutsy and talented staying hurdler who put behind a heavy final flight fall at Wetherby to finish second in the Long Distance Hurdle but while he remains lightly-raced under Rules there is no obvious reason why he should reverse the Newbury form.
Three other entries, Lil Rockerfeller, Ptit Zig and in particular Alex De Larredya catch the eye. The latter is trained by Francois Nicolle in France where he has regularly come up against British raiders including Ptit Zig. The pair clashed when Ptit Zig came out on top in a Grade 1 at Auteuil in June but the form was reversed when Alex De Larredya ran out an impressive seven length winner of the Grade 1 Grand Prix d’Automne at the beginning of last month. The French-based runner will be having his first start outside his own country on Saturday and any further rain would definitely suit the six-year-old who will be adding further intrigue to what appears to be a strong renewal.
Neil King’s Lil Rockerfeller remains unexposed at these staying strips having only had one previous start at 4800 metres when third at Wetherby in the same race that Ballyoptic came to grief. That was the five-year-old’s seasonal reappearance and he has since run another fine race when second to Yanworth in the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle over shorter. Last season Lil Rockerfeller had been a late supplement for the Champion Hurdle but found things happening too quickly when seventh behind Annie Power and these staying distances look better suited nowadays. Like Unowhatimeanharry, Lil Rockerfeller is as hard as nails and will not be letting up at the finish and will provide another good test for the favourite in what looks sure to be another key stepping stone to the Cheltenham’s Festival World Hurdle.
Catch the G1 JLT Long Walk Hurdle live from Ascot on Sky Racing 1 on Saturday night.
Grade B - Coral.ie Leopardstown H'cap Hdle
Grade A - Coral.ie Leopardstown Chase
G3 - Coral.ie Killiney Nov Chase
LR - Karaka Million ?
Listed - The 16th Segye Ilbo Cup