Old foes renew rivalry
Views from connections ahead of Saturday's Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle including last year's dead-heat winners.
Jolly's Cracked and Sternrubin clash again at Ascot
Jolly's Cracked It and Sternrubin served up a pre-Christmas treat for Ascot racegoers 12 months ago and do battle once more in a fiercely competitive renewal of the £150,000 Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle.
Harry Fry's Jolly's Cracked It and the Philip Hobbs-trained Sternrubin lunged for the line as one in a race formerly known the Ladbroke, and with the judge unable to split the pair, a dead-heat was announced for one of the season's most sought-after handicaps.
The pair clash again and while Jolly's Cracked It has not been seen in competitive action since that tremendous battle, Fry is hopeful of a bold show on his comeback and he has been popular with punters in the build-up.
He said: "He picked up a slight tendon injury after winning the race last year. Obviously we had to pull stumps for the rest of the season.
"Luckily it was not too serious and we have been able to bring him back with a view to getting him ready for this race again.
"It is a big ask after a long lay-off to reappear in a competitive handicap. He has got a good record at the course and goes well fresh. We have got him as well as we possibly could without having a run before it.
"He didn't come back in until September and it was a case of balancing getting him over an injury and ready for this race.
"We are looking forward to the run and hopefully he will come back fit and healthy."
A lack of match practice will not be an issue for Sternrubin, the mount of champion jockey Richard Johnson.
The five-year-old went on to finish an excellent third in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, claimed another Ascot victory on his reappearance in October and was not disgraced when fifth in last month's Greatwood Hurdle back at Prestbury Park.
Johnson said: "He loves the track, which I always think is a big bonus, and I'm going there very hopeful.
"Jolly's Cracked It takes us on again. There's a bit of a weight difference this year as he's been off since, while we've won again at Ascot, but I think our horse goes there with a great chance. I don't really know why he's favourite and our horse is 16/1.
"I think the last run at Cheltenham probably came a bit quick after Ascot. He always puts 110 per cent into his races and he did run a bit flat at Cheltenham, even though he still ran well.
"He's had a nice break since, which should be a good thing, and I'm expecting him to run a big race."
Dan Skelton fires a formidable twin assault, with the well-fancied Meet The Legend joined by stable companion Willow's Saviour, who makes his first start over hurdles since winning this event in 2013.
Meet The Legend makes his first appearance since the spring, having missed the Greatwood Hurdle due to being under the weather. Willow's Saviour was last seen falling over fences at the Cheltenham Festival.
"It goes without saying it's very, very competitive," said Skelton.
"Meet The Legend wasn't quite right for the Greatwood, but this has been the plan since and I'm happy with him now. Hopefully he's got a chance in what is a very open race.
"Willow's Saviour is in great form. He's obviously a bit older now, but I think he'll run very creditably. I think we'll be sticking to hurdles with him this season."
Who Dares Wins impressed at Newbury last month, earning a 9lb hike in the weights.
Trainer Alan King said: "He has gone up a fair bit in the weights and this is a much stronger race, but this looked the logical place to go. He is only four and is near the top of the weights, but we will give it our best shot.
"He was very impressive at Newbury and he powered away at the end. He has always been a decent horse, but it is a big ask on Saturday."
There is a strong challenge from Ireland. Tony Martin saddles Quick Jack, Pyromaniac and bottom weight Golden Spear, while Noel Meade is represented by Waxies Dargle.
Martin said of his trio: "The three of them are in good form and hopefully they all have their chance.
"Pyromaniac has been solid all year and ran a good race in the Galway Hurdle when he didn't get the best of runs.
"Quick Jack has been running well all year and usually gives a good account of himself. With that much weight we thought we'd take a few pounds off his back.
"Golden Spear hasn't had many runs over hurdles, but won well on the Flat the last day.
"They're all weighted accordingly and I think the better the ground, the better they'll all be."
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