Saturday 30th November
The Ladbrokes Trophy Chase (formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup) is a Grade 3 chase handicap contested over Newbury’s extended 3m2f trip and 21 fences and this year, in contrast to 12 months ago when the smallest field of the century lined up, we have a maximum number of 24 contenders lining up.
This race has produced future Gold Cup winners, such as Bobs Worth, Denman and Native River, in recent years as well as a future Grand National winner, Many Clouds and, whilst it’s difficult to see anything of that calibre in this year’s contest, it is, nonetheless, an intriguing race and a very competitive one.
Outside of The Grand National and The Cheltenham Festival, this is traditionally the most competitive Handicap Chase in the calendar and this year’s puzzle looks no easier to solve than any other year with a maximum field of 24 runners. The upside to that, of course, is that there are plenty of enhanced place offers available and plenty of horses running at decent each-way prices. There may be a ‘plunge’ on one of course in the hours leading up to the race but, at present, the odds reflect how open the race looks
The weights are headed by last year’s runner-up ELEGANT ESCAPE, who is one of four entries in here for Colin Tizzard who, of course, trained the 1st and 2nd a year ago.
The 7 year-old is a hugely consistent chaser and has finished in the first 3 places in 12 of his 14 career starts over fences. The only two occasions where he finished outside of the frame came in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, where he finished in 6th place after losing a shoe, and at Aintree in April when, perhaps, finding that one race too many for the season. Both of those races also came on Good To Soft ground and, with most of his best form coming on ground softer than that, the drying ground will not be in his favour. He is 5lbs higher in the handicap than last year, and this looks a better renewal, which makes this a tough task, off 160, but connections try blinkers for the first time in a bid to eek out a bit more improvement. He may be doing his best work at the end of the race and a repeat of last year’s Welsh National victory looks to be on his agenda after this.
Just one place behind ELEGANT ESCAPE last year, in 3rd, was DINGO DOLLAR and he, too, returns again for another crack this year. His preparation has been the same this year as it was last year, with a ‘pipe-opener’ over hurdles here earlier this month. He finished 4th in that hurdles race 12 months ago but went one better this year, finishing 3rd. He does look like a stayer and his best two runs last season came over this distance. He possibly paid the price for chasing the pace too hard, and for being a bit keen, in soft ground last year and, with conditions set to be not so testing this time around he could be better suited. He is, also, 2lbs lower in the ratings than last year and Alan King applies a first-time visor. The trainer’s record when using this headgear for the first time is a good one and, of course, the trainer tasted success in this race 4 years back with the popular grey Smad Place. The other positive for me is course form as, in addition to last year’s 3rd placing in this, the horse’s only other run here, over fences, resulted in a 15-length demolition of the field two years ago. Amongst the horses in behind that day was subsequent Scottish Grand National winner, JOE FARRELL, who re-opposes here on 2lb worse terms.
In 4th place last year was BEWARE THE BEAR and he is another to return for this year’s contest. He is a horse who runs very well when fresh and won on seasonal reappearance in both 2016 and 2017 so, whilst a previous run can often be a benefit in a race of this nature, his absence since April should not be seen as too much of a disadvantage. Following his bold showing in this last year, he went on to win his next couple of outings with the latter of these being in The Ultima Chase at The Cheltenham Festival. Both of those wins came with plenty of cut in the ground and, whilst he has won over hurdles on good ground, he is best in softer conditions. The combination of the drying ground and his higher rating (up 10lbs from last year) makes it a difficult task to over-turn the form with DINGO DOLLAR and, indeed, to win here.
A further place behind last year, in 5th, was WEST APPROACH. He comes here off an 8lbs higher mark than last year but he looks an improved horse and does seem re-vitalised over fences since being re-united with jockey Robbie Power. The Irishman’s record in the saddle on this horse reads 2 wins and a second-place finish from just the 3 runs. The runner-up spot came at Cheltenham earlier this season, when he was a selection for this service, and he looked all over the winner approaching the last fence. He is a horse that has to be produced as late as possible, however, and the jockey admitted he got there too soon that day. He duly made amends next time, back at Cheltenham, and, with a 4lb penalty for that win is actually 4lbs ‘well-in’ here now and running below his revised mark. He is, however, best suited by soft ground and all of his wins have come in fields of 7 runners or less.
The horse who beat WEST APPROACH in that first Cheltenham race was THE CONDITIONAL and he re-opposes here off 8lbs higher. That rise in the weights means that he is able to get in here off a low weight of just 10st 3lbs and this Irish recruit shaped like a real stayer at Cheltenham who seemed to relish the stamina test in very soft ground. Whilst stamina should not be an issue here the drying ground may not suit so well.
There are two others down near the bottom of the weights who I thought were worthy of some detailed attention at the likely prices. The first of these is the bottom-weight COMMODORE who runs here for Venetia Williams. He has only had 5 chase starts in his career (3 for his current yard) but he has won 3 of those. He is a confirmed front-runner and he absolutely spread-eagled the field on his chase bow for this yard last December at Warwick before just about repeating the dose 3 months later at Sandown. They were lower grade contests than this but he did it well on both occasions. His last run was less spectacular, when he finished 5th at Bangor earlier this month, but a bad mistake at the last did mean that the result looks worse on paper than it was in reality. Venetia knows how to win these big handicaps and he is worthy of much respect at his big odds.
The other horse near the foot of the weights who commands respect is WALT. He won the big 3 mile handicap chase at Kempton last February, defeating a strong field, and is just 4lbs higher in the ratings here. Prior to that, on his only visit so far to this track, he had been narrowly beaten by DE RASHER COUNTER who re-opposes here. Neil Mulholland’s inmate is 1lb better off at the weights (when taking account of rider allowances) and yet can be back at 5 or 6 times the price at the time of writing. The drying ground will also be in his favour as all 3 of his career chase wins have come on good ground – including earlier this month at Taunton.
DE RASHER COUNTER has been well-supported in the market this week and warmed up for this race with a prep run over hurdles at Uttoxeter last month. He gets the services of a very good up-and-coming conditional jockey, who takes off 5lbs, but does have plenty of questions to answer, at the current price, in regards to the trip and the ground.
In addition to BEWARE THE BEAR, Nicky Henderson has 3 other horses entered in here and, given the trainer’s good record in the race, each one is worth close inspection.
OK CORRAL has been at the top of most ante-post betting lists and his trainer has said that he fits the right profile for this race. Whilst he has undoubted potential, he has very little experience over fences which has to be a worry in a race like this. He was a high class hurdler and may, yet, develop into a top notch chaser but, at the current odds, I can see many more who offer better value in the market.
The Henderson horse who looks to have the best chance in my opinion is ON THE BLIND SIDE. He is another who is lightly-raced over fences with just 4 starts and is another who was a smart hurdler. Based on his win over Talkischeap at Kempton in January he could be well-handicapped and is another for who the drying ground would be a help. He was well beaten on seasonal debut at Ascot at the start of this month but ran better than the bare result suggests and, after 3 miles, was staying on well at the line.
Willie Mullins took this prize 2 years ago and he sends over 2 horses this year in a bid to take the prize back to Ireland once more. The one more prominent in the betting is CABARET QUEEN who arrives here after her easy victory in The Munster National in October. She was very impressive that day winning by 13 lengths in the heavy ground but she has gone up 16lbs for that win and runs here off her revised British mark which is actually 20lbs higher. She didn’t have a good chase record when trained by Dan Skelton but has run with credit since switched to her current stable and if any trainer could get the necessary improvement out of a horse needed for such a hike it is certainly Willie Mullins. Her situation is not unlike that of Total Recall who triumphed for the Irish trainer 2 years ago.
Mullins’ other runner is one probably more familiar to many racegoers and he is an interesting contender here. That horse is YORKHILL who is a dual Cheltenham Festival winner and who was once seen as a future Gold Cup winner by his connections. He is a horse who has always had trouble settling in his races, and that may be one of the reasons why he’s never been further than 3 miles before, plus his tendency to jump left has often cost him too. He is, however, undoubtedly talented and, running here off 154, was once rated as high as 164 and his trainer must be seeing something to think it worth trying this trip. They’ve, reportedly, tweaked one or two things in his training at home and he is certainly a big price for one of his ability.
In addition to training the first 2 home last season, Colin Tizzard also saddled the winner of this race in 2016 when Native River announced himself on the staying chasing stage. This is a meeting where the stable have generally done well in the last few years and they have 4 runners being targeted at the big race this time around. In addition to ELEGANT ESCAPE and WEST APPROACH mentioned above, they also run MISTER MALARKEY and ROBINSFIRTH.
MISTER MALARKEY has been on my radar for this race for a while and, whilst he has been ‘nibbled at’ in the market this week, he still represents some value at the current odds. Like a number in here, he is a second-season chaser who showed some decent form last year as a novice. I was at Plumpton when he won on chasing debut and he looked a stayer that day as he needed every inch of the 2 ½ mile trip. Stepped up in distance after that he ran some good races with the pick of them probably being his win in The Reynoldstown at Ascot in February. I was hoping they’d run him in the 4-mile NH Chase after that but they opted, instead, for the RSA where he finished 4th in what was a ‘hot’ race. He then ran another strong race when finishing 2nd at Aintree, despite losing a shoe, and the form of that race was boosted on Friday at Newbury when the 3rd horse, Oldgrangewood, won.
His return at Ascot earlier this month was disappointing but he may have badly needed the run that day and an early mistake certainly didn’t help his chances. His course form includes a 13 length victory here in January and he looks to be fairly versatile ground-wise. A strong pace should also help bring his stamina into play whilst young Jonjo O’Neill Jnr takes off a handy 3lbs.
ROBINSFIRTH is a horse that connections have always thought very highly of but, unfortunately, he has not been the easiest to keep sound and, at the age of 10, he has had only 13 races under rules. He has not been seen on the track since February when he won The Grand National Trial at Haydock but he has not found long breaks an issue in the past, so that should not be an excuse here.The owners have always said that they wouldn’t allow the trainer to run the horse in The Grand National so he is one who may have this as his major target for the season or, even, The Welsh National next month. He has raced just 8 times over fences but has won 3 of those and finished 2nd on 3 other occasions. He has had a wind operation since his last run and, given the fact that he is likely to be raced sparingly again this year, his trainer is sure to have him primed and ready for this contest. Although he has won at Cheltenham, his record at Haydock would suggest a flat left-handed track like this suits him and if it becomes a stamina test that will suit him. He is another whose odds look too big for one with his talent.
At big prices another who is of interest if the ground dries as forecast is SOME CHAOS. He has won 4 of his 6 chase starts and finished 2nd in another with the only time he finished out of the places being when he got struck into during the race. He went up a total of 43lbs in the handicap during last season and has had the benefit of a run over the hurdles at Cheltenham last month to blow away the cobwebs from a summer break. This is a clear step up for the horse but the trainer can be a shrewd operator and it will be no surprise if he out-runs his big odds.
In summary, given the competitive nature of the race, we want to give ourselves as much chance as is reasonably possible of gaining a return so it’s worth firing 3 bullets at the race and, whilst I like the claims of SOME CHAOS and WALT at big prices and think that ELEGANT ESCAPE could be staying on into the places late on under his big weight, the 3 to side with are DINGO DOLLAR (who looks well-weighted to either reverse or confirm the form with those who raced alongside him last year and may be ridden will a little more restraint this time on better ground), MISTER MALARKEY (who has always looked the type to run well in this race) and ROBINSFIRTH (who may well have this as his season’s target and looks over-priced for a horse with his talent).