Thirty-two runners remained in the contest after yesterday's five-day declaration stage, of which a maximum of 30 can go to post for the two- mile melee around Leopardstown's tight inside track. The ground on Saturday will at least be fresh, but it is likely to be heavy too, which is a description that Irish clerks of the course generally use only when the hurdles are floating out of the front gate. Since it is always run at top speed from flagfall, this year's Ladbroke will take even more winning than usual.
It seemed to be tempting providence, then, when the trainer of one of the leading fancies yesterday dispensed with the standard, non-committal expressions of hope and forecast that her runner has "a big chance" on Saturday. Jessica Harrington, what's more, knows what is required, having won the Ladbroke three years ago with Dance Beat. Her representative this time is Slaney Native, and if punters take his trainer at her word, the 14-1 offered by several bookies is unlikely to last long this morning.
Slaney Native is in his novice season - as was Dance Beat - but his third place behind Joe Mac and Colonel Yeager, two of the best young hurdlers in Ireland, at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting implied that 10st 4lb is unlikely to hamper him this weekend.
"I felt that was a good Ladbroke trial," Mrs Harrington said yesterday. "He was still going well on the turn for home and I thought for a moment he might spring a surprise over the leading pair. If there is a fast-run race and Slaney Native is up with the pace then he could bring me my second Ladbroke. I am very hopeful and if I didn't think he had a big chance I wouldn't be running him."
In the Ladbroke, every horse is a danger, but the market seems to think that Advocat, trained by Noel Meade, has the best chance of all. Advocat, who finished second to Blowing Wind in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham and fifth in the Ladbroke last year, has been at the top of the betting since the weights were framed, having won with a great deal in hand on his return at Thurles last month. He was cut from 9-1 to 7-1 by Coral yesterday.
Impulsive Dream, who started this season in novice chases, is another runner to attract good money, but Polar Prospect, the leading British challenger, drifted yesterday when the 11 horses above him in the handicap were removed. The weights rose by 15lb as a result, leaving Philip Hobbs's runner with top weight of 11st 12lb.
The potential British challenge is completed by Sadler's Realm, also trained by Hobbs, Decoupage (Charlie Egerton), New Inn (Steve Gollings) and Once More For Luck (Mary Reveley). Both Decoupage and Once More For Luck are doubtful runners, however, as a result of the heavy ground and an unexpectedly high racing weight respectively.
The Ladbroke is the most valuable handicap hurdle of the year in Ireland, but there was a reminder yesterday that the most richly rewarded event anywhere on the planet is now less than three months away. The Godolphin operation certainly needs no reminding about the Dubai World Cup, which will take place on their doorstep on 28 March, and their search for a horse to go one place better than Swain, last year's runner-up, has now extended to South America.
Lignify, a five-year-old mare who won a Group One race over 12 furlongs in her native Argentina last year, is the latest recruit to the royal blue silks and is now on her way to Dubai. There she will join other recent acquisitions including High-Rise, last year's Derby winner, Xaar and Saratoga Springs, as well as Comeonmom and Worldly Manner, both of whom were bought from the United States.
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