Saturday’s Cleeve Hurdle looks the race of the season so far in the staying hurdle division, with Britain's two leading Stayers' Hurdle hopes heading the betting.
Rising stars Paisley Park and Midnight Shadow, each 12/1 for the Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, are no bigger than 4/1 in the Cleeve Hurdle betting, along with Black Op.
The trio are set to do battle with more established performers, the likes of Wholestone, Unowhatimeanharry and Aux Ptit Soins lining up to test the young talent in as tight a betting heat as you'll get at Cheltenham this Saturday.
First held in 1983 the Cleeve Hurdle is indeed a good trial for March’s Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Inglis Drever (2008), Big Buck’s (2009 and 2012) and Thistlecrack (2016) all won the Cleeve Hurdle in the same season they took that Festival crown - as our Stayers' Hurdle trends usefully highlight.
Lady Rebecca holds the record for Cleeve Hurdle victories, having taken it three years in succession between 1999 and 2001, but last year's winner Agrapart, Lizzie Kelly already booked to ride for Nick Williams, will attempt to become the first dual winner of the race since Big Buck’s.
On heavy ground, he beat Wholestone by three lengths last year, having been beaten by that rival over a shorter distance at Cheltenham a month earlier. He's only run four times over 3m, and that was the first time he'd tried the trip outside Grade 1 company.
No, he's no Big Buck's as the highest level appears a step too far for this eight-year-old, but this is his kind of race. Having said that, the ground looks set to be too quick for Agrapart to really shine. Hence, he's 14/1 with Paddy Power.
Paisley Park (BetVictor) has improved this season, following up a hard-fought victory in a 3m Grade 3 handicap at Haydock, with a soft-ground success over the same distance in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
He saw off West Approach (10/1 Black Type), who could re-oppose, by two lengths on and he looks the pick of those at the head of Cleeve Hurdle betting, with trainer Emma Lavelle’s horses running well in the main in recent weeks.
The one slight concern is his heavy defeat in March’s Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle over this course and distance on soft going. It’s possible that the 3m trip came too soon for him that day though, so given the improved form he’s shown this season, he's still the best bet, with some concerns surrounding his main rivals.
>> Back Paisley Park to win at 4/1 with BetVictor
The Long Walk Hurdle last month looks the key piece of form to follow and that race's second West Approach (10/1 Black Type )Looks a big each-way chance on Cheltenham Festival Trials day.
He has been racing over fences with limited success for much of the last two years, his 2018 Festival engagement resulting in a 21-length sixth in the Grade 1 2m4f JLT Novices' Chase.
Tried over a variety of trips, including when pulled up over 4m at Ayr last April, West Approach ran well for a long way when finishing fifth in the 3m2f Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury (soft) in December.
The return to hurdles appeared to suit when chasing home Paisley Park last time out and, while he has a bit to to reverse that form, he has run well in this race in the past, finishing third to Unowhwatimeanharry two years ago.
>>Back West Approach Each-Way at 10/1 with Black Type
Chief among Paisley Park's rivals is the aforementioned Midnight Shadow (4/1 Paddy Power), who has won his last two starts and appeared to appreciate the step up to 2m4f when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle.
Trained by Sue Smith and ridden by Danny Cook, the six-year-old stayed on gamely to see off his five rivals that day, but has still to prove his stamina over this distance.
Both Paisley Park and Midnight Shadow were novices last year and they are joined in that category by Black Op (5/1 Coral), who could return to hurdles on Saturday, following a couple of defeats in novice chase company.
While an outing over hurdles is clearly not what connections had in mind when they started the season, it’s worth noting that Tom George’s charge was a Grade 1 winner on soft ground over 2m4f at Aintree last year, and had chased home the classy Samcro over 2m5f the time before that.
There are some concerns about how well Black Op will handle open company though, given he also has to prove his stamina on his first attempt at this distance. His price looks on the short side.
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