Still bloated following their acquisition of Coral's betting business last week, Ladbrokes will be hoping to ease any indigestion with a bookie- friendly result in their handicap hurdle at Leopardstown this weekend, and after 26 runners stood their ground at the five-day stage yesterday, they appear to stand every chance of doing so. Even if there are a few absentees on Saturday afternoon, there will still be more than enough horses trying to squeeze their way around Leopardstown's tight inside track, and all bar the winner will probably have a hard-luck story to tell afterwards.
Seven of the latest acceptors will be trying to win the Ladbroke Hurdle for Britain for the second successive year, following the victory of Jenny Pitman's Master Tribe 12 months ago, but to judge by the latest betting, it is much more likely that normal service will be resumed. Irish-trained horses won every running of the race between 1988 and 1996. Commanche Court, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, is the sponsor's 5-1, with 8- 1 offered against Graphic Equaliser, who is trained by Arthur Moore. The same trainer is also represented by Major Jamie, who landed something of a gamble in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown in December, and is a 14-1 chance to follow up on Saturday.
The shortest price among the British contingent is the 12-1 chalked up against Nick Henderson's Sharpical, but of the remaining six horses making the trip, only Tibetan (Lady Herries) and Top Cees (Lynda Ramsden) are worth a quote of less than 20-1, and are priced at 14-1 and 16-1 respectively.
Punters who prefer something more akin to a horse race than the National Lottery also have plenty to look forward to this weekend, as Sandown stages the Cazalet/Mildmay Memorial Chase, the Tolworth Hurdle and a special event to replace the Challow Hurdle, which sank beneath the waves along with the rest of the card scheduled for Newbury last Saturday.
Entries for the Levy Board/Sandown Park Hurdle will close tomorrow, but at least two of the intended runners three days ago seem sure to be among them. Laredo, trained by Noel Chance, and Oliver Sherwood's Lord Of The River are both expected to run, although French Holly, who might well have started favourite for the Newbury race, may wait for an alternative engagement at Ascot instead. "He'll definitely be entered and I have also put him in the Tolworth Hurdle on the same card," Ferdy Murphy, his trainer, said yesterday. "But he has also got the option of the Victor Chandler Novice Hurdle over two miles and four furlongs the following Saturday when the trip and the track will be right for him. I am a bit sceptical about running over two miles six furlongs at Sandown where they walk home. Cheltenham is the whole plan and I don't want to give him a hard race before then."
Sherwood will send a strong team to Sandown, with Lord Of The River backed up by Buddy Marvel (Tolworth Hurdle) and Him Of Praise (Cazalet/Mildmay Chase). Grey Shot, a fine stayer on the Flat and a serious contender for the Champion Hurdle, will be among Buddy Marvel's rivals in the Tolworth.