Fry star out to deliver Long Walk knockout punch
Richard Birch on some quality fare to get the festive season in full swing
With no racing on Christmas Eve, Ascot will provide the final opportunity for Saturday punters to pay for the expenses and excesses of the festive season.
The Berkshire track can always be relied on to stage high-class action and, with a whopping £410,000 in guaranteed prize-money, it is no surprise racegoers are to be treated to some belting contests.
In terms of pure quality, the race for the connoisseur is undoubtedly the JLT Long Walk Hurdle, in which race legend Reve De Sivola will attempt to clinch the prestigious Grade 1 for a record-equalling fourth time.
Winner in consecutive years between 2012-14, Nick Williams’s relentless galloper made another bold bid last December, but was thwarted by the staying sensation that is Thistlecrack.
He went down by eight lengths, but beat the rest, who included Saphir Du Rheu and Dynaste, decisively.
Since 1971 five winners of the Long Walk – named after an avenue of trees in Windsor Great Park – have gone on to land Cheltenham’s World Hurdle in the same season, including four-time scorer Baracouda, and Unowhatimeanharry, as short as 4-1 for the festival staying showpiece, appears to hold strong claims of clinching the first leg of that double on the royal heath.
Unowhatimeanharry brings a similarly progressive profile into the race as Thistlecrack 12 months ago, having stretched his winning sequence to six with a seriously impressive six-length defeat of useful Ballyoptic in Newbury’s Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle last month.
Winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, the Harry Fry-trained Unowhatimeanharry is a most exciting young stayer whose best days should still be in front of him.
It will be fascinating to see how he deals with the likes of dual Grade 1 hero Ptit Zig and smart French performer Alex de Larredya on his first visit to Ascot.
Spare a thought for Hatch
And spare a thought for the sadly sidelined Ryan Hatch. Currently hospitalised with multiple injuries following a terrible fall at Cheltenham last Friday, he has already missed a winning Grade 1 ride on The New One in the International Hurdle.
His place aboard Ballyoptic, on whom he has struck up such a fabulous rapport – landing three races last season, including an Aintree Grade 1 – is taken by champion Richard Johnson.
The most valuable event on the six-race card, the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle – formerly known as the Ladbroke – has attracted 19 runners, including the pair who dead-heated in a thrilling finish 12 months ago, Jolly’s Cracked It and Sternrubin.
Despite having been on the missing list since, Jolly’s Cracked It has been all the rage in the ante-post market, shortening from 12-1 to 6-1 on Monday as punters pinned their hopes on the talented seven-year-old, who is another big-race runner with leading claims on an important day for Fry.
A useful staying handicapper on the Flat, Golden Spear finished a highly creditable fifth of 33 in Newmarket’s Cesarewitch on his penultimate start, and has since landed the November Handicap at Leopardstown from useful stayers Nakeeta and Magic Circle.
While Ascot is the undoubted jewel in the weekend racing crown, there are other tracks that host interesting affairs.
Haydock’s card includes the 32Red.com Tommy Whittle Handicap Chase, which usually produces a strong-galloping performance through the Merseyside mud, while it will be fascinating to see how Buveur D’Air, third to stablemate Altior in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, shapes in his first venture over fences.
Cut a point to 7-1 by Paddy Power on Friday for the Racing Post Arkle at Cheltenham in March in anticipation of a polished first performance over birch, Yorkhill could emerge as one of the biggest stars of this campaign, and his transition from hurdles to fences will be monitored hawk-like by those who love an ante-post Cheltenham dabble.
That’s all to come before we even start thinking about the Kempton turkey feast of Cue Card versus Coneygree plus all the Boxing Day trimmings. Bring it on.