Trainer Harry Fry is out to perform another Jolly's Cracked It miracle in Saturday's Ascot Handicap Hurdle, his delicate star favourite in the betting despite having run just twice since winning in 2015.
That year, Jolly's Cracked It dead-heated with Sternrubin to win as the 7/1 joint-favourite, but he has been plagued by injuries for the three years since, remarkably returning from 706 days off to win last time out.
That was a victory over the course and distance of the Ascot Handicap Hurdle, and when 2017 winner Hunters Call bowed out through an injury of his own, Jolly's Cracked It became favourite to become the first horse to win the £150,000 rae for a second time.
Jolly's Cracked It (13/2 Bet365) tops the Ascot Handicap Hurdle betting, after running away with a course-and-distance handicap hurdle on his latest return from injury. He may be nine, but this favourite has only run 13 times in his staggered career, nursed by his trainer, and jockey Noel Fehily.
When he won in 2015, he was rated 141 and had already won twice over the same distance at Ascot. However, off a rating of 147 the following year, he beat only six horses home, and his recent win now puts him on 145 for Saturday's test.
With the ground also likely to be too testing for the fragile hurdler, those looking for a bet from the top of the Ascot Handicap Hurdle odds should look elsewhere. The Alan King-trained Fidux (8/1 Betway) is next in the betting, after also winning over course-and-distance last time.
The four-year-old is rapidly on the upgrade, returning from an autumn break to win two handicap hurdles by a combined 12.5 lengths, but both came on quick ground. The Greatwood Hurdle winner Nietszche (10/1 William Hill) is also a short price, but wants more of a stamina test, leaving Lisp (12/1 Paddy Power) as the best bet from the Ascot Handicap Hurdle favourites.
Also trained by King, Lisp relishes testing going, and was a close second in a Listed handicap hurdle at Newbury last time out, having won at Fontwell previously. There is the concern the four-year-old prefers a sharper track, but he's still learning, and looks the most exposed at the head of the betting due to that.
The Ascot Handicap Hurdle trends are very clear: Each of the last 11 winners (including the pair that dead-heated in 2015) had finished in the first three on their last hurdle start.
They had won at least one hurdle race, 9/11 winning just 2-3, and they had run in a handicap hurdle, 10/11 running in no more than four handicap hurdles. Only one horse (Grade 2 winner Brain Power) won rated higher than 146, and 8/11 winners had already won in the same season. That number was also aged 5-6 years old.
Four-year-olds appear to do well, but in fact 21% of them have made the first three, their number representing 30% of the past 11 fields. Discounting runners unlikely to make the cut, or go on the ground, forms a short-list of four.
Not Never, Mont Des Alavoirs, Lisp, and Forecast, but the horse that best fits the Ascot Handicap Hurdle trends is Not Never (20/1 Bet365), with second preference for the Paul Nicholls-trained Mont Des Alavoirs (14/1 BetVictor).
Recent 15-length Lingfield winner Forecast (20/1 Betway) is dangling one place shy of the cut, but should make the field of 21 when topweight Call Me Lord defects for the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle - for which he is the 2-1 favourite.
The weights will then go up 12lbs, placing Forecast near the bottom at 10st 5lb. He has been a transformed horse since a wind operation in September, and though he has jumped 11lbs in the ratings could have more to give.
He handled heavy ground well last time, the only concern being that the Ascot Handicap Hurdle trip is on the short side for the 2m3.5f winner.
After Call Me Lord, Cyrus Darius and Apple's Shakira (25/1 888Sport) are the only Grade 2 hurdle winners in the entries, the latter seeming over-priced. She pulled up on heavy ground when top weight at Sandown last time out, but that was her first run since last April.
She's actually a two-time Grade 2 winner, and will have no problem with soft ground, if she was just lacking fitness at Sandown.
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