With no sign of reigning Stayers' Hurdle champion Penhill, young pretender Paisley Park has swept to the top of the ante-post Cheltenham betting, connections saying they fear no one as the Festival approaches.
No horse that is, bar Penhill, who although unsighted this season, defied a lay-off as big last year to win his second successive Cheltenham Festival race. Can trainer Willie Mullins pull it off again? Rory Delargy ponders that and more below, but first:
The Stayers' Hurdle is a Grade 1 run over 3m on the third day of the Cheltenham Festival, making it the pinnacle for long-distance hurdlers. It's caller the 'Stayers' Hurdle' because the horses that run in it can 'stay' galloping for a long time, 3m to be exact.
It's suggested that the race was first run in 1912, but the race called the Stayers' Selling Hurdle bears little resemblance to the current contest, and while the Spa Hurdle, run over the same course and distance between 1946 and 1971, was quite similar, it's fair to say that the Stayers' Hurdle under its present guise only began in 1972.
That's when that name was adopted and the race took on the conditions of a true championship contest.
Penhill comes to the 2019 Stayers' Hurdle in a bid for a Cheltenham Festival hat-trick, having won the race last year and the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle in 2017.
He is a horse with a fine turn-of-foot for a stayer, and that is what he has utilised to gain both wins, the slow pace in the Stayers’ 12 months ago playing perfectly into his hands. He has been campaigned superbly since joining Willie Mullins, and has clearly had his issues.
His owner Tony Bloom would have loved a crack at the Melbourne Cup with him last November, and other major Flat targets have been mooted, but the eight-year-old has has been raced sparingly over hurdles instead, running just four times in two years.
His Cheltenham win last year bestows great credit on his trainer, given how poor his reported preparation for the race was, but for all that praise, his success cannot be viewed especially highly in terms of merit.
Now in his sixth season to race, it would be a huge surprise if he could show improvement, and he looks very vulnerable as he bids to follow up.
>> Bet on Penhill for Stayers' Hurdle repeat at 7/1 with William Hill
Apple’s Jade is supposed to be running in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle, and should be running in the Champion Hurdle, but she would have very strong claims if lining up in this race, due in large part to the generous mares’ allowance.
She would have beaten Faugheen over the distance at Christmas had that rival not fallen, and given Faugheen had beaten Penhill comfortably at Punchestown in the spring, it’s clear that she would be a huge player if turning up. Those who want to take the top-price 4/1 NRNB will be getting value, for all she will almost certainly not be running.
>> Bet on Apple's Jade at 4/1 NRNB Paddy Power
Faugheen is a possibility, but of the few horses aged nine or older to win this since its inception, all were either previous winners of the race, or in the case of Brown Lad and Gaye Chance, were reverting to hurdles having been chasing.
He would certainly get involved if showing the form which saw him slam Penhill by 13 lengths at Punchestown, but he no longer fires regularly, and the difficulty finding him on a going day must be factored into his price of 12/1 with William Hill.
Stablemate Melon enters calculations on ratings, but seems a very unlikely participant, or stayer, for that matter.
>> Bet on Faugheen at 12/1 with William Hill
Paisley Park ran his only poor race when surprisingly tried in a visor for last year’s Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, and although that may put people off, an unplaced effort there has not stopped the likes of subsequent Festival winners Chief Dan George, Bostons Angel, Oscar Park, Cape Tribulation, Teaforthree, The Druids Nephew, O’Faolains Boy, Black Hercules, Native River, Blaklion and Balko des Flos.
That is a remarkable list, and the notion that Paisley Park should be marked down for finishing down the field in that Grade 1 is utterly bonkers when the evidence is considered. Throw in others like Ladbrokes Trophy winners Carruthers and Elegant Escape, and it’s clear that just competing in the Albert Bartlett is a positive.
Paisley Park has improved markedly since then, and took a big step up when winning the Cleeve Hurdle over the same C&D as he will face in March. He was particularly impressive there, given he was niggled along before the home turn as he idled, then proved tremendously strong up the hill.
That effort is by far the best effort by a staying hurdler this season (Apple’s Jade notwithstanding). He can only get better, it seems, and his laid-back attitude will enable him to cope better than most with the atmosphere.
>> Back Paisley Park at 9/4 NRNB with Paddy Power
Crimson Embers, winner in 1982 & 1986, was also the de facto victor in 1985, when he was badly hampered and beaten by a neck. He would have won the race in the stewards' room, but his connections were also responsible for the winner, Rose Ravine, and jockey Stuart Shilston was disinclined to object.
The local stewards, in absence of any useful evidence from the jockeys, let the result stand, but the Jockey Club's Disciplinary Committee ruled that Crimson Embers should have been promoted to first place, although at the time they didn't have the power to enforce that judgement.
Galmoy was the first back-to-back winner of the race, and it's remarkable now to think his wins in 1987 and 1988 were the only successes for Irish stables at the Festival in those years. He finished second in 1989, which represented an annus horribilis for Irish trainers, with just two seconds to show for their efforts over the meeting.
The first truly outstanding winner of the Stayers' Hurdle was Baracouda, who won in 2002 and 2003, while Inglis Drever gained huge popularity in winning the race three times between 2005 & 2008. The bar was raised further by Big Buck's who won four consecutive renewals from 2009.
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