Formerly run as the Ladbroke, Saturday’s Grade 3 Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle at Ascot is shaping up to be another quality renewal of what is traditionally a very competitive contest that has a history of throwing up smart winners.
Last year’s renewal was a particular highlight after the game Sternrubin set a fierce pace under Richard Johnson before rallying late on to dead-heat with Jolly’s Cracked It. Both are entered at the five-day stage for Saturday’s contest but the pair have had contrasting fortunes since a year ago. Sternrubin went on to be tested at the highest level and ran a fine third in the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. This campaign he’s warmed up for Saturday with two excellent runs having won on his seasonal reappearance in an Ascot Listed contest before a decent fifth on unsuitably soft ground in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham. In contrast Jolly’s Cracked It has not been seen since the dead-heat having picked up a tendon injury after the race and has clearly been targeted for another crack at this contest. Prior to the injury the long term plan for the Harry Fry-trained seven-year-old had been to go chasing this season but those plans have clearly been put on hold and while he has a long absence to overcome, he has an excellent record first-up and his record at Ascot reads three wins and a third place in four starts.
Trainers with a particularly good recent record in this race include Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott. Henderson trained back-to-back winners in 2007 and 2008 with Jack The Giant and Sentry Duty and at the five-day declaration stage has three entries with Consul De Thaix, Brain Power and Hargam. Consul De Thaix and Brain Power clashed in a Listed contest at Sandown at the start of the month with the latter leading home a Henderson one-two. Brain Power had previously disappointed in the Greatwood, however like Sternrubin he was totally unsuited by the soft ground and it was no surprise to see him leave that form behind on a better surface. In contrast Consul De Thaix was having his first run of the season and only his fourth career start in what was a really eye-catching fast finish. Still only a four-year-old he was well beaten in the Triumph Hurdle last season but had reportedly matured physically over the summer and looks a really smart prospect for this season.
Consul De Thaix is likely to be sent off favourite, however it would be no surprise to see support for Gordon Elliott’s Mick Jazz. Elliott won this in 2012 and 2014 with Cause Of Causes and Bayan. Formerly with Harry Fry, Mick Jazz has just had three starts this season for his new trainer and will be spot on for Saturday. The five-year-old heads here off the back of a dramatic third at Fairyhouse where he suffered interference when travelling strongly three out before a bad mistake at the next and finally hampered once again at the last. He ran on really strongly to the line and is an obvious candidate off the back of such an unlucky performance.
Dan Skelton trained the 2013 winner Willow’s Saviour who was not seen for another two years after the success due to injury problems. Now a nine-year-old he returned as a chaser last season and was posting a serious challenge when a faller two out in a novices’ handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival on his last start. He clearly goes well fresh but may be susceptible to younger more progressive types which include his stablemate Meet The Legend. Still only a five-year-old, Meet The Legend had three runs in novice company last season and while this remains a big step up, with another summer under his belt he has the scope to progress significantly.
There are many others with chances in what looks a typically open renewal, however one to keep a very close eye on in the betting should he run would be Tony Martin’s Quick Jack. The seven-year-old mixes Flat racing with hurdling much like his stablemate Heartbreak City who he finished third to in last season’s Ebor. Similar to the Melbourne Cup runner-up he has shown big improvement in the past and is interesting based on a remarkable run when sixth in a Group 1 at Saint-Cloud on his last start. He now reverts back to hurdling and is a smart performer in this sphere having won the 2015 Galway Hurdle.
Quick Jack is joined in the five-day entries by stablemates Pyromaniac and Golden Spear with the latter being a potential big improver over obstacles. The five-year-old is still lightly-raced over hurdles having only had six starts but showed good improvement on the Flat this year with a win at the Galway Festival, a fifth in the Cesarewitch and then a fine win in Leopardstown’s November Handicap. Formerly trained by Noel Quinlan, only two of his runs over hurdles have been for his current trainer but he showed good ability on his most recent spin when winning a decent Listowel handicap hurdle in 2015. Rated only 124 over hurdles and having showed big improvement on the Flat since, Golden Spear could well be a handicap blot and wherever Martin chooses to run him next it would be no surprise to significant market support.
Live on Sky Racing 1, it’s going to make a fascinating betting event on Saturday night and while it’s hard to get away from the credentials of Consul De Thaix, I’m going to be paying particular close attention to the final entries of Tony Martin.
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