Matt Tombs / Friday 19th December 2014 / 16:06
Given the £150,000 prize fund, the 2m Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle is usually a fiendishly difficult puzzle to solve. I like the shape of the race this year though, as there’s a favourite I want to take on, and plenty of horses at big prices I give a chance to. The ground on Friday was soft, but they looked to be getting through it pretty well.
Activial (4/1) is that favourite, running off 137. He’s been absent since a disappointing 16½l 8th to Guitar Pete in the 4 year olds Grade 1 at Aintree, (ground blamed as being too quick, though it was dead rather than the official description of good). His form claims depend entirely on his Adonis win, (on soft ground). His supporters during the midweek plunge point to the fact that 3½l 2nd Commissioned has won twice since, earning a rating of 141, and 3rd Solar Impulse, (beaten 6¾l when conceding 7lb,) is now a 145 rated chaser.
That’s true but Commissioned’s wins were at 4/9 and 1/6 and he was beaten 25l in a Grade 2 last time. Solar Impulse’s subsequent hurdles form last season was 7th in the Fred Winter off 135 and 5th off the same mark at Taunton. He’s improved this season switched to fences, but at the time Activial beat him he was an early-mid 130s handicapper – who came out a similar horse to Activial at the weights. Activial’s form needs rating through the level of those beaten horses, at the time he beat them. If you think they were showing latent ability at that time, then the form can be rated strongly, but I don’t think they were. Solar Impulse looks a much better chaser than hurdler and Commissioned seems much better on a sound surface.
Learning to understand the vibes of up and coming trainers is important. It takes time and I haven’t got a handle on Harry Fry’s modus operandi yet. He’s clearly conservative about running his horses and I wonder if Activial will be battle-hardened enough for this. (His other similarly hyped, lightly raced horse, Vuvokar, was a big disappointment in the JLT and Paddy Power.)
The second favourite is trained by fellow graduate from Ditcheat, Dan Skelton, who saddles Shelford, (6/1). He beat subsequent fixed brush winner Aubusson ¾l off 127 in a Grade 3 at Chepstow in October, (though the result might have been reversed had Aubusson been under more experienced handling). That was over 2m4f on soft ground, and the obvious concern is that he’s looked a stayer in the making and, even on soft ground, something will have too much toe for him.
Balgarry (8/1) has been off since the 2012 Coral Cup. He’d made his British debut for David Pipe 11 days before that and had a hard race winning off 129 to get the penalty to get a run at the Festival. He might have bounced, (had been off for 18 months before that British debut,) or might not have got the trip. He’s a complete unknown quantity and is in the right yard to defy such an absence, but we’ve no idea what he can do. Unless you’re on the inside, if you back him you’re really just taking a wild guess.
Clondaw Warrior (8/1) improved hugely on the flat after joining Willie Mullins, winning off 52 in August and 86 in October. Similar improvement in his hurdles form suggested he’d be a big player off 121 in the Greatwood. He ran a fine race there to be 2l 3rd. That was his first hurdles run for Willie Mullins and, up 6lb here, he should be in the mix again. The ground will be much softer than he’d like though and it might be that his big pot will come in the spring in something like the County.
Greatwood winner Garde La Victoire (12/1) looks to have a tough ask off 153, Goodwood Mirage’s (16/1) yard is badly out of form and the ground looks a bit soft for Bayan (12/1) who keeps going up the weights without winning, so I think there are 4 to concentrate on.
Any runner Tony Martin has in a big handicap needs respecting and he saddles Pyromaniac (20/1). He won a Killarney maiden in August, (modest affair, form hasn’t worked out,) was 2nd in a novice at Listowel, (winner 8th of 10 in a Grade 3 on his only subsequent start,) and was 13l 3rd in a Grade 2 novice at Cheltenham’s Open meeting to Vyta Du Roc, (graded winner again since.) I suspect he might want decent ground and, with a mark of 134, he’s currently in the ideal spot in the weights for the County or Coral Cup.
Sea Beat (20/1) is another Irish raider for the ultra shrewd Arthur Moore. He beat the smart Le Vent D’Antan in a maiden hurdle at Naas in February on soft to heavy ground, (not clear how wound up Le Vent D’Antan was at that stage.) He was 10th on good ground off 125 at the Punchestown Festival. He blew away the cobwebs on the flat 8 weeks ago and it’s interesting Moore pitches him in here, (runs off 127.)
Jebril (66/1) isn’t the no-hoper his odds suggest. He won a weak maiden at Plumpton in October, and then ran a cracker over course and distance, beaten just 1l when splitting Jolly’s Cracked It and Clondaw Banker, (who received 5lb.) Jebril was slightly flattered as Jolly’s Cracked It made a mistake 2 out, but it looked a good novice, (the winner heads for the Tolworth). On his last run at Plumpton, Jebril blundered away his chance, (leading at the time,) 3 out and 2 out. That’s a concern but if he jumps like he did here the time before, he has a chance off 130.
The vote though goes to Hello George (14/1). Philip Hobbs described him in his Racing Post stable tour as a horse he thought good enough for the Festival, with the Neptune the likely target. He’s contested 3 novices at Exeter this autumn, all over 2m1f. He won cosily in October, (3rd and 5th have won since.) Whilst you wouldn’t want to take a line through Alcala, (21l 6th here and only 8¼l behind Activial in the Adonis,) literally - he’d have a lot in hand of Activial if you did.
He was then beaten 5¾l when trying to give 6lb to Jollyallan – and would have been much closer but for a blunder 3 out. Jollyallan has won again since and is a leading fancy for the Neptune, (20/1). He was a shade disappointing last time, 9¼l 3rd at odds-on to Robinsfirth and One For The Guv’Nr – but they were unexposed types who are well regarded by Colin Tizzard and Nicky Henderson respectively, (only 4 hurdles were jumped so the form might not be reliable).
He was very keen in the first 2 of those races and still took a tug last time. A big field handicap looks to suit ideally, for all they won’t go a breakneck gallop in the ground, (won a bumper on heavy and the going should hold no fears.) If he’s anywhere near a Neptune horse, he’s well in here off 129. With Richard Johnson banned, it’s a concern Tom O’Brien has picked Garde La Victoire. However, given he has first call on some of the same owners horses, like Sausalito Sunrise, he might have felt obliged to ride the top weight. James Best is a decent substitute and I think Hello George is a big price here if inexperience doesn’t get the better of him.
1pt Hello George to win the Ladbroke @ 14/1