King set for Ascot Succes
Conditions are sure to be extremely testing at Ascot for the £150,000 Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle and the winner will need to see out every yard on one of the stiffest courses in the country.
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The horse who could have the required attributes - and at generous odds too - is Double Ross who showed himself to be a progressive hurdler (after a fall first time out this season over fences) when making all and bolting up over 2m5f in soft ground at Cheltenham's Open Meeting in November.
Again ridden positively at Haydock (2m4f soft) just six days later, Nigel Twiston-Davies's gelding was still in front 150 yards from the finish after a dashing display of pacemaking, eventually fading into fourth place behind Yesyoucan.
It's possible that the Haydock race might have come a bit too soon for Double Ross after his easy win at Cheltenham but, a month on, he should be more than refreshed and will have conditions very much to suit here. I can recall seeing him win at Folkestone last season when the ground was bottomless.
On quicker ground, the drop to two miles would be a concern but his fine third behind Red Merlin in the Swinton Hurdle over the trip at Haydock (soft) in May suggests that the trip on this deep surface and on this stiffer course will not be a problem.
At a best early price of around 20/1, I reckon Double Ross looks great value.
A week on from the four-year-old Unioniste's victory in the big chase at Cheltenham, there are various Ladbroke candidates in the same age group - notably Balder Succes, Ranjaan and Lyvius.
Balder Succes, already twice a course winner, could well be Champion Hurdle material and has run well on both starts this season, easily beating the tough Hollow Tree at Haydock after a reappearance third behind last week's Stan James International winner Zarkandar at Wincanton.
A strong traveller who acts well in soft ground, Alan King's charge seems bound to go close in a race his trainer won 12 months ago with Raya Star.
Both Ranjaan and Lyvius are open to improvement; the former is said to have grown a great deal since scoring twice last season while the latter settled better than in the past when winning at Newbury last month.
Given that these two horses are trained by Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson respectively - the two trainers who, between them, have cleaned up every big Saturday race so far this season - then they just have to be respected.
Henderson is also represented by the top-weighted Petit Robin (closely matched with Into Wain on recent Sandown form), Cash And Go (second to Olofi - with Cause Of Causes third, Bothy fourth, Rattan sixth and Kazlian unplaced - in the Greatwood at Cheltenham) and First In The Queue who is 10lb better off for a narrow beating by Petit Robin here last time.
All of the above are possible contenders along with Jonjo O'Neill's It's A Gimme, a good second behind Raya Star over the course and distance in early November and the mount of Tony McCoy, but, in a typically competitive renewal, there are many with chances.
However, for me, the potential star performer in the line-up is Balder Succes and the horse who could thrive under the conditions (and looks value) is Double Ross.
Earlier, in the absence of the sadly injured Big Buck's, the Long Walk Hurdle has drawn a somewhat uninspiring field.
On his best form, which includes a creditable third behind the champion staying hurdler in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, Smad Place should be good enough to account for the progressive Haydock winner Trustan Times (who now steps up in class).
However, Alan King's grey was none too fluent on his reappearance at Wetherby before finishing a well-beaten third behind Tidal Bay and will need to sharpen up his act in that department. Perhaps a watching brief is the best advice.