Ladbroke Hurdle Preview: Lavelle to raise a glass of Claret

Claret Cloak is fancied to win at Ascot on Saturday

Timeform's Tony McFadden takes an early look at Saturday's Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot...

"There are any number of dangers, but a horse with Claret Cloak’s obvious potential and scope to improve beyond his handicap mark should not be trading at 20.019/1..."

Falling only three days before Christmas this year, the Ladbroke Hurdle, a bookie-friendly, fiendishly-competitive handicap, probably isn't going to help everyone pay for the festive-season expenses; a cursory glance at the ante-post market demonstrates how open this year's renewal is, Balder Succes currently heading the field at 7.87/1. However, those of you wanting to stick the last tenner on a horse as opposed to begrudgingly buying the neighbours a cheap bottle of wine could do a lot worse than siding with the Emma Lavelle-trained Claret Cloak.

Having burst onto the scene with an impressive bumper victory at Wincanton, Claret Cloak has made an encouraging start to his hurdling career, winning a pair of novice hurdles last year before shaping extremely well on his seasonal reappearance over C&D last month, eventually finishing third having arguably been sent for home too soon. He was eventually overhauled by both Raya Star and It's A Gimme, both of whom had been held up, incidentally, but it was the way he travelled through his race, pinging numerous hurdles as he went, that suggested he could yet be a fair way ahead of his mark. 

Significantly, Emma Lavelle has hit form again having gone through a relatively subdued period, landing a cross-the-card four-timer on Saturday, signalling her horses are back in rude health at a crucial part of the season. There are any number of dangers, but a horse with Claret Cloak's obvious potential and scope to improve beyond his handicap mark should not be trading at 20.019/1.

It is easy to see why Balder Succes has been supported in the run up to the contest. Alan King's four-year-old will appreciate any rain that falls at Ascot and was an authoritative winner last time, barely having to come off the bridle to beat a useful hurdler in Hollow Tree. Although that victory came in a fairly uncompetitive four-runner affair, the way in which Balder Succes travels would suggest that a strongly-run competitive handicap should play to his strengths, providing, of course, his jumping holds up. 

Another of last season's juveniles that deserves a mention is the Paul Nicholls-trained Ranjaan. Highly touted from the start, Ranjaan let his supporters down twice, but he soon made amends, winning a juvenile event at Kempton before defying a BHA mark of 132 in a well-contested handicap at Taunton. A 9lb rise in the weights looks by no means prohibitive and it would be dangerous to rule out the progressive Ranjaan, for all that conditions are likely to be significantly more testing than what he has faced in Britain.

Saturday sees a host of improving youngsters, aiming to use the race as a stepping stone to graded company, clash with the veterans who regularly turn up in all the major, prestigious handicaps. Olofi may be a regular in these big events, but that doesn't necessarily mean he isn't still a progressive horse himself, having justified strong market support to win on his seasonal return at Cheltenham, posting a career-best performance in the process. This looks tougher, but his finishing effort was stronger than had often been the case and he isn't one to rule out.

Topping the weights is Nicky Henderson's Petit Robin, a one-time very smart chaser who has reinvented himself as a hurdler, winning on his latest two outings. He demonstrated an admirable attitude to prevail at Sandown most recently, but he may struggle to defy a BHA mark of 155. Prior to his Sandown win, Petit Robin had led home a Henderson one-two, beating the less-fancied First In The Queue. However, his stablemate, who had entered the race looking fairly exposed, shaped very nicely and if he can build on that effort could be an interesting alternative at a big price.

King of Queens, trained by Thomas Mullins in Ireland, would be an interesting contender if making the trip over. Off the track for over three years, King of Queens evidently retains plenty of ability, progressing nicely from a few spins on the Flat to prevail in two handicap hurdles, including a competitive race on soft ground at Fairyhouse last time. He still looks fairly well treated and is one of a number of horses that could be ahead of their mark.

In conclusion, Claret Cloak looks to be ahead of his handicap mark and a price of 20.019/1 looks extremely generous. However, Emma Lavelle's comment that Claret Cloak is a 'good-ground horse' would have to be a slight concern for ante-post players. The issue isn't that he won't prove effective on a testing surface, but simply that he may be withdrawn and saved for another day should Ascot receive plenty of rain. I believe the current price makes up for those concerns, but others may prefer to wait until the day, safe in the knowledge money will be returned should he fail to line up.

Back Claret Cloak at 20.019/1 in the Ladbroke Hurdle

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