Fabulous contests in prospect at Ascot's Christmas Racing Weekend
Ascot stages its most valuable day of Jump racing on Saturday, December 23, day two of the Christmas Racing Weekend, which offers £420,000 in prize money.
Entries are revealed today for the three feature contests - the £150,000 Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle (a G3 contest staged over two miles), the £100,000 JLT Reve De Sivola Long Walk Hurdle (which carries G1 status and is run over an extended three miles) and the £100,000 Lavazza Silver Cup (a G3 handicap chase held over three miles).
JLT has recently extended its sponsorship of the Long Walk Hurdle for a further three years and this year's race will be run in honour of the late Reve De Sivola, who ran in the contest for five consecutive years from 2012 to 2016, winning in 2012, 2013 and 2014, while the feature handicap hurdle to marks the invaluable work of Racing Welfare.
Nick Smith, Director of Racing and Communications at Ascot, said: "Having recently announced that £20,000 has been raised through our IJF initiative which provides past and present jockeys to educate and entertain in hospitality areas, running our feature £150,000 handicap as the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle further supplements our policy to support important racing charities.
"It is also tremendous news that JLT's support of the JLT Long Walk, which this year commemorates race legend Reve De Sivola, has been expanded to run a further three years."
Dawn Goodfellow, Chief Executive of Racing Welfare, commented: "We're absolutely thrilled to be working with Ascot Racecourse during the Christmas Racing Weekend to help raise the profile of Racing Welfare.
"The charity plays a vital role in supporting the thousands of stud, stable and racecourse staff who are working behind-the-scenes all year, including over the festive period"
Jonathan Palmer-Brown, Chairman of JLT International Specialty, said: "JLT has had a long and successful collaboration with the horseracing industry, and we recognise the important contribution that Ascot Racecourse makes to this.
"We're delighted to renew this deal with one of the UK's most successful and popular racing venues and help support the work they do to promote and support the horseracing industry as a whole."
There are 36 entries for the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle, headed by Elgin (Alan King). The five-year-old, who is owned by the Elite Racing Club, is seeking a hat-trick of wins in big-race handicap hurdles, having landed the Listed William Hill Handicap Hurdle over the course and distance on November 4 followed by the G3 Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on November 19.
Alan King, who landed this race with Raya Star in 2011, said: "The Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle is the plan for Elgin.
"He hasn't done much since Cheltenham and he is just cantering away at the moment. He's up to 151 now and it's getting more difficult but there you go. I think we have got to stay down the handicap route with him for the moment.
"We also have William H Bonney (fifth behind Elgin at Cheltenham) entered. He would only be a possible at this stage and could maybe go to Sandown this weekend."
Ireland has landed the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle twice since it was first run at Ascot in 2001, with both of those winners trainer by Gordon Elliott - Cause Of Causes (2012) and Bayan (2014). There are eight Irish-trained entries in 2017 with Elliott responsible for Mick Jazz and Veinard. Ireland's champion Jump trainer Willie Mullins has made entries for three - G1 winner Bapaume, Bleu Et Rouge, Cilaos Emery and Meri Devie. Completing the Irish-trained entries are Tigris River (Joseph O'Brien) and Top Othe Ra (Tom Mullins).
Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer in the Racing Welfare Hurdle with four victories, most recently Brain Power last year. His quartet of entries for the 2017 renewal are Charli Parcs, runner-up in a Listed contest at Newbury on Saturday, Verdana Blue, who scored over the course and distance on November 24 when defeating Speredek (Nigel Hawke), plus Lough Derg Spirit and Jenkins.
The 13 entries for this year's JLT Reve De Sivola Long Walk Hurdle include last year's hero Unowhatimeanharry (Harry Fry) and Lil Rockerfeller (Neil King), runner-up in 2016 and successful last time out in the G2 Coral Ascot Hurdle on November 25.
The two Irish-trained entries are formidable - last season's G1 Stayers' Hurdle hero Nichols Canyon (Willie Mullins) and the mare Apple's Jade (Gordon Elliott), who got the better of that rival by nine lengths when recording her sixth G1 success in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on December 3.
Sam Spinner (Jedd O'Keeffe) sauntered to a very impressive 17-length success in the valuable Betfair Stayers' Handicap Hurdle over two miles and seven furlongs at Haydock Park on November 25. Following his Haydock Park success, the five-year-old was raised 16lb in the handicap, taking him up to a rating off 155.
O'Keeffe, who trains in North Yorkshire, commented: "We are definitely aiming Sam Spinner at the JLT Reve De Sivola Long Walk Hurdle. We really need to get a guide as to how far he has progressed and far he is going to progress. This will help us to map out the rest of his season. Ascot is a definite target.
"Going up 16lb has forced our hand a little and probably just pushed us out of handicaps for the moment.
"He has been spot on since Haydock and couldn't be better at the moment. I was really surprised how well he won at Haydock. We knew he was decent, would improve for his first run of the season at Chepstow and that there was general improvement in him as he learns his craft better but I didn't expect him to win as well as he did.
"I don't think he has to have ground as soft as it was Haydock and he has won on ground that has been nearly good in the past. He certainly handled heavy ground and whether it played to his strength more than the horses, we just don't know.
"With the race at Newbury (the G2 Long Distance Hurdle on December 1), it looks an open division and shows even the top horses are beatable."
Other interesting contenders include the Nicky Henderson-trained duo of Thomas Campbell, an impressive winner at Cheltenham last month, and L'Ami Serge, a G1 winner in France in June and runner-up to Lil Rockerfeller in the Coral Ascot Hurdle.
Last year's winner Regal Encore (Anthony Honeyball) is among 34 entries for the Lavazza Silver Cup. The nine-year-old ran a good race at Newbury on December 2 when third in the Ladbrokes Trophy.
Another Ascot winner among the entries is Go Conquer (Jonjo O'Neill), an eased-down winner of the Sodexo Gold Cup at Ascot on November 4, when he came home four and a half lengths to the good over Rock Gone (Dr Richard Newland).
Weights for the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle and Lavazza Silver Cup will be revealed on Wednesday, December 13.
Saturday, December 23 is a designated family day, with children under 18 admitted for free. There will be plenty happening off the track to keep younger racegoers amused with a visit from Father Christmas and Mrs Christmas, carol singing in the grandstand after racing, funfair rides and Christmas-themed activities.