Our racing expert gives his verdict on the televised action.
Ascot 1.50: 2m3f (2m2f175y) Ascot Underwriting Chase (A Novices’ Limited Handicap) (Class 3) (4yo+ 0-140)
While others come with better form claims and bring match practice over fences to the table, it would be worth chancing Gary Moore’s chasing debutant LARRY. A half-brother to five winners, including the very useful Thriller and Gaspara, he came good over hurdles at Plumpton in March and duly followed up at Fontwell the following month. It was always the plan to go chasing with him this season and on racecourse evidence so far an opening mark of 129 seems fair, with every likelihood he will improve again for the switch to fences. The stable won last year’s race with Benatar, another chase debutant, and Moore is likely to have the selection ready to do himself justice.
2:05 Wetherby 2m OLBG.com Mares’ Hurdle (Listed Race) (Class 1) (4yo+)
The two top-rated mares, Irish Roe and Lady Buttons, might prove vulnerable on their first run back after layoffs, while the latter ideally wants softer ground than she gets here. A chance is therefore taken on Fergal O’Brien’s OSCAR ROSE in the hope she can find the necessary improvement. A Listed bumper winner, she ran several good races over hurdles last season without managing to get her head in front, but she may have needed more time and couldn’t have won more easily when making all on her return to action at Worcester (2m, good) ten days ago. That will have done her confidence plenty of good and given she stays further, it wouldn’t surprise if Paddy Brennan again make plenty of use of her, especially as her fitness is guaranteed.
2:25 Ascot 2m1f (2m167y) Byrne Group Handicap Chase (Listed Race) (Class 1) (4yo+ 0-150)
Champagne At Tara was in great heart over the summer, winning back-to-back races at Aintree and Uttoxeter, but he’s gone up 14lb as a result and I’m not sure he is quite so effective going right-handed, having failed to complete on his last two tries racing that way round. So he’s opposed here and the obvious alternative is SHANTOU ROCK, who is trained by almost unstoppable Dan Skelton (105 winners and counting already this season).
The six-year-old only won once during his novice season, that coming on his reappearance at Newton Abbot last October when jumping well and making all, but he continued to run to a high level in Graded chases, finishing just behind the likes of Cyrname, Sceau Royal and Diego Du Charmil on ground softer than ideal. While he’s not top-class, he’s on a reasonable enough mark to bag a nice 2m handicap and this looks an excellent opportunity given that he should be able to boss this small field from the front.
2:40 Wetherby 3m (3m45y) bet365 Charlie Hall Chase (Grade 2) (Class 1) (5yo+)
Bristol De Mai won this under a full penalty last year so it would be wrong to rule out Definitly Red on that score alone and he looked very good when winning back-to-back Grade 2s either side of Christmas at Aintree and Cheltenham. However, the ground was heavy on both occasions and the forecast good ground is going to inconvenience him far more than BLACK CORTON, who bounces off a fast surface.
Paul Nicholls’ charge proved a revelation last season when winning eight times, all under Bryony Frost, who is back on board, and he proved he was up to this level when landing the Grade 1 Kauto Star on Boxing Day. Still only seven, it’s not inconceivable that he might find further improvement this term and while he acts on soft ground, his brilliant jumping is seen to better effective on a quicker surface like today’s. I also strongly suspect that Nicholls will have him ready to rock and roll on his first run back as this race is ideal.
Of the rest, Double Shuffle is best going right-handed and I’ve got more respect for Dan Skelton’s Virgillo as he arrives here on a hat-trick, while the form of his Sumner Plate success at Uttoxeter now looks stronger after the third Relentless Dreamer won a nice handicap at Cheltenham last weekend. It’s no real concern either that he has been off since that win as he has gone well fresh in the past.
3:00 Ascot 1m7½f (1m7f152y) Bet With Ascot Handicap Hurdle (Listed Race) (Class 1) (4yo+)
At first glance, GLOBAL CITIZEN looks to have a stiffish task under top weight of 11st 12lb and taking on eight rivals who include four last-time out winners. However, Ben Pauling’s six-year-old looked an exciting prospect last season, including when romping home in a Grade 2 novice at Kempton (good) in February, and he had valid excuses for a below-par effort at Aintree in the spring as the rain-softened ground was against him and was also found to be lame behind afterwards.
At least that effort saw him drop 4lb in the ratings and a mark of 145 for this first venture into handicap company should be well within his compass given there is scope for further improvement. Indeed, it would be no surprise to see him competing in Listed/Graded events before too long and the Christmas Hurdle back at Kempton may well be in the back of the mind of Pauling, who describes him as possibly the best hurdler he has trained. He needs to win this first, mind, and I fancy he’s up to the task.
3:15 Wetherby 3m (3m26y) bet365 Hurdle (Grade 2) (Registered As The West Yorkshire Hurdle) (Class 1) (4yo+)
A couple of these have stamina concerns with both Old Guard and Clyne, who probably wants softer ground besides, stepping up to 3m for the first time. In which case, it’s probably best sticking with top-class stayer WHOLESTONE (NON-RUNNER), whose best efforts last season came in defeat with placed efforts in the Stayers’ at the Cheltenham Festival and the Aintree equivalent. Anything close to that level is going to make him extremely hard to beat and I fancy he can go one better than 12 months ago when looking all over the winner turning in, only to be overhauled close home by the classy Colin’s Sister with previous World Hurdle runner-up Lil Rockerfeller back in third. This year’s renewal doesn’t look quite as strong. UPDATE – with Wholestone being declared a non-runner, I’m switching to Paul Nicholls’ OLD GUARD, a 15/8 shot with Coral.
3:35 Ascot 3m (2m7f180y) Sodexo Gold Cup Handicap Chase (Grade 3) (Class 1) (4yo+)
It’s easy to see why Go Conquer is favourite as he won last year’s renewal with ridiculous ease when under the care of Jonjo O’Neill and having lost his way a bit after, he is able to line up off just 5lb higher. Now with Nigel Twiston-Davies, who will surely have him as fit as he can, the nine-year-old looks sure to make a bold defence.
However, he might prove vulnerable to a younger chaser lurking further down the weights, with recent results suggesting that is just the sort of horse we should be looking for. Paul Nicholls’ Adrien Du Point has had just six starts over fences and a couple of those yielded second place finishes at this track, albeit both were three-runner affairs.
He has to be considered but at bigger odds I like the chances of Rebecca Curtis’ GEORDIE DES CHAMPS. He too is just out of the novice stage and, having reached a peak of 140 over hurdles, he is promising to be an even better chaser. His two victories to date (from five tries) came in small fields at Taunton and Hereford (both right-handed tracks) when the mud was flying, but he gives the impression that he will be even better in a bigger field on decent ground. That was the case for the Summer Plate at Uttoxeter in July and I thought he ran well to finish fifth (of 18) given his inexperience and that he raced wider than ideal throughout most of the race. Freshened up since and with Barry Geraghty booked for a stable operating at a 25% (5-20) strike rate this season, it seems he has an awful lot going for him.
Ascot 1.50, Larry @ 15/2 bet365
Wetherby 2.05, Oscar Rose @ 5/1 bet365
Ascot 2.25, Shantou Rock @ 11/8 BetVictor
Wetherby 2.40, Black Corton @ 7/4 BetVictor
Ascot 3.00, Global Citizen @ 9/2 bet365
Wetherby 3.15, Old Guard @ 15/8 Coral
Ascot 3.35, Geordie Des Champs @ 7/1 Ladbrokes
All odds were correct at time of posting.