For me, the Ladbrokes Trophy (ex Hennessey Gold Cup) is about as good as it gets in National Hunt racing. Newbury is a terrific track for this staying test: fair fences allowing quick jumping, the long run-in emphasising stamina, and the tight-ish bends requiring tactical speed. For that reason, it’s very unusual for the best handicapped horse not to win, or for there to be any hard luck stories. This decade the winners have been sent off at 12/1, 9/2, 7/2, 7/1, 8/1, 20/1 (trained by Nicky Henderson, so hardly a pin-sticking job), 4/1, 10/1 and 6/1. It is very much not a lottery and it pays to look closest at those towards the head of the market, particularly before extra place terms are being offered by the bookies on the day.
Nicky Henderson has two of the most fancied runners, which is unsurprising given his great record in this race. The current favourite is OK CORRAL, a very unexposed nine-year-old with just three chase starts to his name. Owner by JP McManus, it’s entirely possible he has been laid out for this and will hose up on Saturday, but there’s little real evidence to point us mere mortals out of the loop to that conclusion, and as such I can’t back him at the prices. Henderson’s other obvious chance is ON THE BLIND SIDE, and he makes more appeal having proven his rating of 149 is workable with a decent fourth place in a hot handicap chase at Ascot four weeks ago. The seven-year-old’s defeat of Talkischeap at Kempton in January reads particularly well, and his peak hurdles rating of 153 suggests he can progress from this mark. But all his good chase form is right-handed, and at short enough prices a leap of faith is required to back him to win this top class race.
Another trainer with an outstanding record here is Colin Tizzard, and his runners merit major respect given his two wins and two places in the last four renewals. In fact, of those at the head of the market, my pick is MISTER MALARKY, who looks to have been trained with this race in mind since his second place to Kildisart at Aintree in April. That is good form, and while he races off a 3lb higher mark here, Tizzard’s chaser can be progressive enough to defy the extra weight: he is just six-years-old and finished a good fourth in the RSA in March. Despite a poor at Ascot – “the handicapper can’t put him up for that,” joked Tizzard – the plan was always this race due to his superb run round the track in January and he wasn’t highly tried. Even with his price having shortened to single figures, he’s worth backing, especially with Jonjo O’Neill Jnr on board.
Tizzard also has the in-form WEST APPROACH entered, and he has claims, but it’s ELEGANT ESCAPE who is also of interest. Such a consistent warhorse, he was runner-up last year and then won the Welsh National in fine style before finishing a respectable 6th in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. His attitude no doubt means he will be involved again at the end, but with his lofty mark of 160 it would be an astonishing performance to actually win, having failed to land the prize last year off 155. There’s no each-way juice in the price, so he has to be passed over reluctantly.
Analysis of Elegant Escape’s excellent form means that a bet on YALA ENKI looks excellent value: their form tallies almost exactly, but Yala Enki can race off a mark of 155, just 1lb higher than last year when he finished third. The experienced nine-year-old was moved from Venetia Williams to Paul Nicholls over the summer, and while Venetia is an outstanding trainer in her own right, Nicholls has a mercurial ability to get an extra few pounds out of chasers in his charge. If he has managed to work his magic, that small improvement could make all the difference, and at 25/1 compared to 10/1 for Elegant Escape, the value is clear. Bryony Frost on board in a big staying chase is another plus.
Two others for the shortlist are DINGO DOLLAR, third last year and now off 2lbs lower, and THE CONDITIONAL, who beat West Approach at Cheltenham with plenty in hand and races off just a 6lb higher mark. But both horses’ chances will be affected by the ground on the day, and with no major reason for their prices to shorter dramatically, it is worth waiting. Besides, as much as I’d like to, I can’t back four horses!
YALA ENKI – 1pt e/w at 25/1 (Various, 4 x ¼)
MISTER MALARKY – 1.5pt win at 9/1