Trouble At Bay ready to thwart Henderson ploy

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Though team tactics are forbidden on the racecourse, there is nothing in the rules about collaboration behind the scenes. And should Jack The Giant, favourite for this afternoon's Ladbroke hurdle at Ascot, take the 84,000 first prize and oblige his punting supporters, thanks will be due not only to Nicky Henderson and Mick Fitzgerald but to Lynn Wilson.

Lynn who? will be the reaction of most. But without the assistance of the 68-year-old Northamptonshire-based construction industry magnate, Jack The Giant would not even have lined up today. The five-year-old made the cut for the two-mile handicap only because his stablemate French Opera owned by Wilson was not declared to run.

Henderson and his team knew that Jack The Giant's participation would be a nail-biter; the maximum field is 18 and 26 rivals were above him in the five-day entry list. But they were extremely keen to run the well-treated gelding before he reverts to fences, and Wilson and his ownership partners demonstrated admirable festive spirit.

He and his ownership partners agreed to switch French Glory, due to take in today's contest after missing a chance a week ago when Doncaster was frozen off, to another race at Kempton on Thursday.

"Jack The Giant has only got into the Ladbroke because I am very lucky in that I have a very good bunch of owners, who are all good mates," said Henderson. "Lynn Wilson has been a friend for a very long time and sportingly said they'd wait until next week to allow Jack in.

"We had to go to one minute to declaration time at 10 o'clock, and Jack was the last one in. It was a long, sweaty morning and a very tricky situation, but a great relief."

Jack The Giant sneaked into a position to make the cut after picking up a 6lb penalty for winning at Cheltenham eight days ago, his first run over hurdles since May last year. He spent last season novice chasing and proved among the best with three victories, including a defeat of Twist Magic at Kempton, and third place in the Arkle Trophy.

His rating as a hurdler compares most favourably with that as a chaser and success this afternoon would start the Christmas party at Seven Barrows. But even at this time of year, fairytales do not always have a happy ending and the role of panto villain may go to Trouble At Bay (2.15).

The Alan King-trained seven-year-old has not won over hurdles since his juvenile season, but shaped extremely well in hot company on too-soft ground on his seasonal debut at Cheltenham last month, when fourth behind Champion Hurdle candidates Sizing Europe and Osana. He made stylish progress before running out of puff up the hill and will have his preferred underfoot conditions today. The sole Irish raider, Viso, Willie Mullins's choice from his three entries, is also much respected.

There will be no more revered horse running this afternoon than Hardy Eustace, winner of two Champion Hurdles and nearly a million pounds in prize-money. At the age of 10 his trademark determination is still intact, as he demonstrated four weeks ago at Ascot when he simply refused to allow Afsoun to get by him.

Today's Grade One contest will be the evergreen gelding's first try at three miles-plus since his novice days; with younger legs now on the Champion Hurdle park, the World Hurdle is now also on his Festival agenda

"You'd think he was as good as ever," said trainer Dessie Hughes yesterday, "and we'll see what happens tomorrow before we decide what route to take."

There are questions about stamina, resolution and class to be answered if a challenger to the reigning marathon king Inglis Drever is to emerge. A chance is taken that Chief Dan George (1.40), who demonstrated his ability to stay and to battle as a novice at Aintree in April, can put a ring-rusty seasonal debut at Newbury behind him.

But if eyes are mostly on horses today, they will be on a jockey tomorrow. Ruby Walsh, due to partner hot favourite Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, returns to action at Thurles, five weeks after dislocating a shoulder in a fall at Cheltenham. He will put the joint to the test with two hurdles mounts, starting in a five-runner handicap on Paramount, trained by his father, Ted, for who he has been riding out during the week, and then partnering Cousin Peter for Willie Mullins.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Ofarel D'Airy(Ascot 12.30)

NB: Painted Sky (Newcastle 1.15)