First run in 1963 under the banner of the drinks firm, Schweppes, a sponsorship that continued until 1986, it was the most valuable handicap hurdle in the calendar. That racing legend, Captain Ryan Price, won four of the first five runnings, but alas achieved a lasting notoriety when his Rosyth, ridden by Josh Gifford, won the 1964 renewal. Having won the inaugural race the previous year, Rosyth trotted up, following four unplaced efforts, resulting in Price being warned off, and Gifford getting a six weeks suspension. Further controversy followed the 1967 win of Price’s Hill House, who tested positive for a banned substance. It was subsequently discovered that the horse himself was manufacturing an excess of steroid, (Cortisol) and kept the race. Let’s hope that skulduggery and dodgy pharmaceuticals play no part in Saturday’s renewal, and the best horse on the day crosses the line in front. Whichever animal it proves to be it is unlikely to be carrying more than 11st6lbs, as only two horses, both future Champion Hurdle winners, Persian War, ( 11st 13lbs 1968,)and Make a Stand (11st7lbs 1997) have managed it. Indeed only four winners have carried more than eleven stone since 2000. Good recent form is a prerequisite as out of the last seven winners four had been successful last time out, and the others had managed a top three finish. In recent renewals it has been a good contest for the younger unexposed contender with four novices winning in the last six years, and nine of the last ten winners being aged five or six.
Willie Mullins, who has never won the race, is mob handed at the time of writing with eight entries. The one that stands out for me is the J.P McManus owned ex French 5yo gelding Blazer. Probably purchased with a chasing career in mind, his two attempts at the larger obstacles demonstrated some serious flaws in his jumping technique. A return to the smaller obstacles in a Leopardstown handicap last weekend revealed an extremely well handicapped horse, as he won with his head in his chest off a mark of 125 in a contest run in a decent time for the conditions. Only 6lbs higher on Saturday, giving him a nice racing weight of 10st4lbs he looks really well treated. He does need three to come out for him to get a run, but with the Mullins legion all above him in the handicap, this shouldn’t be a problem, and it will come as no surprise to see J.P Collecting the winners trophy for the third time.
Paul Nicholls runs the 6yo Modus in the same colours as Blazer, and having won over course and distance, certainly enters calculations. However he disappointed last time on heavy ground at Taunton and the suspicion remains that he will prove a better performer on a surface faster than we are likely to see on Saturday.
Philip Hobbs’s 7yo War Sound has been prominent in the betting despite not having been seen since his facile win in Haydock’s Swinton Hurdle last May. While an 8lbs rise for his Haydock effort looks reasonable, it does leave him with a burden of 11st7lbs to carry on ground that is more than likely going to be pretty deep, and combined with a lack of recent match practice, Hobbs’s other runner, the progressive Sternrubin may prove the better option.
The 5yo has won his last three races, including a win over course and distance last November, where he had Saturday’s opponent, John Constable 4L back in second. Last time, he put up a very brave performance in the Ladbroke at Ascot eight weeks ago, where having made all, he was headed after the last, but battled back to gain a share of the spoils on the line. However he is up another 8lbs at the weekend, and as no Ladbroke winner has gone on to win this he does seem to have it all to do.
The aforementioned John Constable is of considerable interest. A 5yo entire horse by Montjeu, he was previously trained on the flat by Aidan O’Brien, where he achieved a rating of 92, and was effective up to 2miles. Now with top Welsh handler Evan Williams, he won his first two races over hurdles pretty easily, last January and April. He reappeared in November in that race with Sternrubin at Newbury, and as it was his first run after a nine month break, he acquitted himself pretty well, finishing 4L behind the Hobbs horse. He meets Sternrubin on 12lbs better terms on Saturday, so at least on paper, must have serious prospects of turning the form around with the Hobbs contender.
Selection : Blazer.
E.W. : John Constable.