Willie Mullins feels City Slicker faces a “tough task” as he aims to defy a steep hike in the weights in an ultra-competitive renewal of the Ladbroke Hurdle today.
A runaway winner of a Fairyhouse bumper last December, it took the five-year-old four attempts to get off the mark over hurdles, but he did so in some style at Punchestown in May.
Making his handicap debut at the same track last month, the JP McManus-owned gelding proceeded to make every yard of the running and barely came off the bridle, taking his right-handed record to three from three.
The handicapper has not taken any chances, however, with City Slicker competing off a 19lb higher mark when he lines up at Ascot this weekend.
Mullins said: “It’s a tough task for him having gone up a lot in the weights, but there is a lot of prize-money on offer and we’re happy to let him take his chance.
“The track should suit him as he has a preference for going right-handed.
“I don’t think the ground will be an issue, either, so we’re hoping for a good run.”
City Slicker is joined at the head of the market by Nicky Henderson-trained duo Rolling Star and Chatterbox.
Barry Geraghty has sided with Rolling Star, the beaten Triumph Hurdle favourite who went some way to repairing his reputation when scoring at Haydock last month.
Chatterbox, the mount of David Bass, also made a pleasing return when second in the Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury.
Henderson said: “I think Rolling Star has plenty of weight (11st 11lb) to carry on that ground, the ground is a concern but he’s in good form. Chatterbox does seem to like soft ground, he’s been there and coped with it.
“They have both got chances, but whether they should be first- and second-favourites in the betting is another thing.”
Brian Ellison is confident the heavily-supported Totalize will make his presence felt in the £150,000 contest.
Having been as big as 25-1 when the market opened, the four-year-old is now single-figure odds across the board.
Malton-based Ellison said: “He’s in good form. It’s competitive and the more rain the better for him.
“I’m very happy with him. If he’s good enough, he’ll win. If not, I’m sure he’ll run well anyway. He couldn’t be better.
“The owners haven’t backed him, but someone has jumped on the bandwagon somewhere along the line.”
David Pipe launches a formidable assault on the valuable prize, with Greatwood Hurdle winner Dell’ Arca one of six runners for the Pond House handler.
Pipe said: “Dell’ Arca is in good order. He did it nicely at Cheltenham. I think this a tougher race with more unexposed horses in there, but he deserves to take his chance.
“I think the ground will be OK for him. He might be a better horse on better ground, but we’ll see how he goes.
“Swing Bowler goes well fresh and is in good order. If you go back to her third in the Betfair Hurdle last season that gives her a chance.
“The softer the ground the better for Shotavodka. He keeps running well without winning and, as a result, keeps creeping up the weights, which is why we’re claiming off him. Hopefully he’ll run well.
“Waterunder ran well in what was not a true-run race at Sandown last time and there should be more pace.
“Dan Breen was third in this race last year and Ronaldo Des Mottes is another who would have a small each-way chance on his best form.
“Obviously, Dell’ Arca and Swing Bowler look the best of our chances.”
The Paul Nicholls-trained Ptit Zig was last seen winning a Grade One at Auteuil over two and a half miles, earning him a mark of 151 and top weight for his return to handicap company.
The Ditcheat handler also saddles outsider Irish Saint.
Nicholls said: “When we got Ptit Zig we thought he wanted better ground, but he won over two and a half on heavy at Auteuil and it should suit him fine at the weekend.
“Irish Saint is a big price considering his form from Cheltenham, Kempton and Aintree last season. He has slipped under the radar a bit and isn’t without a chance.”
Nicholls’ former assistant Dan Skelton has made a flying start to his own training career and has an interesting contender in Willow’s Saviour, successful at Ascot and Musselburgh on his last two starts.
Skelton said: “We have trained him for this race since Musselburgh and everything has gone very smoothly. We’ve had no hold-ups at all with him.
“It’s a massive step up in class.
“We’re pleased with our horse, but we’re not underestimating the competition.”
Joining City Slicker on the trip from Ireland is Gordon Elliott’s Flaxen Flare, who boasts strong form in similar big-field handicaps.
The four-year-old won the Fred Winter in the spring, was second in the Galway Hurdle in the summer and was fourth in the Greatwood last month.
Elliott said: “He’s in good form and we’re just hoping they don’t get too much rain as he’s a better horse on better ground.
“We’re happy with him at home and hopefully if the ground is all right he’ll have a good each-way chance."
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