Not from one of the major yards and not having raced since he was down the field in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival in March, Ask Ben won’t necessarily be one who is on many people’s lips.
Graeme McPherson’s charge however needs more than just a second look having started off last winter with two good hurdle wins, the second of which was rather impressive at Ayr before he came here to Haydock to contest the Grade 2 Prestige Novices’, running second in the end.
With natural improvement doubtless to come especially on this slightly softer ground, he looks rather well handicapped to us and he could prove to be great value in a race of this nature.
Sent off the 6/1 joint-favourite when moved into handicap company for his seasonal debut at Cheltenham, more could have been expected of him in a race in which he eventually finished fourth.
While an improvement should be forthcoming on this flatter track, it remains to be seen whether off 130 we can consider him to be well enough handicapped to take front rank in a race like this.
One of a number of horses in this field it’s hard to read when it comes to answering how far they can go in the game, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ gelding is certainly climbing the ladder but he remains an enigma form-wise.
Having started off at Hexham this season, winning in a common canter, the problem we have is deciding whether Echiquier could be 10lbs better than what he showed that day because it was so easy for him, or whether how easy things were mean he’s not as good as he looked visually.
Certainly, when upped to graded company at Cheltenham he was found wanting a little, finishing nine lengths behind Thyme Hill, but back on a flatter surface he may well continue his development and has to enter calculations
Flash The Steel
Dan Skelton’s 7-year-old has improved slowly and steadily in seven hurdle runs since making his debut in the discipline this time last year; he was very good in October when taking a good race at Chepstow and it’s felt he can go on from that.
The down side is that it’s not certain this significant step up in trip will really suit him and so with that doubt in mind, he seems like a solid candidate for a place rather than for the win.
Many horses see their form tail off at the end of the season when they are somewhat ‘over the top’, and we’re taking the angle that it is indeed what happened to Rebecca Curtis’ gelding when he was beaten at both Cheltenham and Aintree, albeit having performed admirably.
Before that, his rate of improvement was astounding and we’ve no reason to feel that it has stopped for the longer term.
With that in mind, his ten-length demolition of Ask Ben over this course and distance, who we think has a real chance here, reads incredibly well now and so with the prospect of more to come on a surface he should relish, Lisnagar Oscar is beginning to look like the best handicapped horse in the race.
Having had a wind operation and having been improving previously, it’s this horse many have been throwing their weight behind this week.
His form, bearing in mind his handicap mark, doesn’t scream such considering he was put in his place at Aintree in April and it may well be that, while he is a good horse, the handicapper has perhaps overestimated his current abilities.
Both Umbrigado and Echiquier could make into very good horses in this sphere, but nothing is certain as of yet. The key form may well be from this course and distance in the shape of February’s Prestige Novices’ Hurdle in which Ask Ben ran second, although he may have to settle for the same position here.
The winner that day, LISNAGAR OSCAR, was in receipt of 3lbs but gave his rival a ten-length beating which could have been much more, so given that gap and his potential for further improvement the 8lbs he now gives away should not be seen as too much of a problem.