Cheltenham Festival Preview: Stayers Hurdle

Throughout this week I am going to be previewing one of the big Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival one week from the off time, and on Thursday I’m looking at one of the two feature races – the Stayers Hurdle.

The Stayers Hurdle is a fascinating contest this year as there has been a very healthy injection of new contenders. Amongst those who are set to line up in the Championship 3m Hurdle for the first time include last year’s Albert Bartlett graduates Thyme Hill and Fury Road, as well as last season’s Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle forecast in Sire Du Berlais and The Storyteller. There are a few more intriguing potential newcomers who could also rock up here in Roksana (although the Skeltons may opt to run in the Mares Hurdle instead) and Flooring Porter – the latter of which a Horse who has improved an incredible 32lbs in the Handicap since this race was last run 12 months ago. It’s not all about the fresh-blood however, as there are still some quality well-known animals due to turn up too – with both the 2019 and 2020 Stayers Hurdle Champions in Paisley Park and Lisnagar Oscar returning to try regain/retain their crown.

I’ll start off by looking at the reigning Stayers Hurdle winner in Lisnagar Oscar, who sprung a massive 50/1 surprise when scoring in what ended up being quite convincing fashion last season. The reason he was going off at such big prices was because he had come back from a failed Chase campaign, but after a few spins in Handicap Hurdles he ran a perfectly good race in the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day last January – only beaten 4.5 lengths by Paisley Park in 3rd place. With Paisley Park underperforming in the Stayers (I’ll touch on this more later) it certainly suggests that performance wasn’t a fluke from Lisnagar Oscar, but things haven’t gone entirely to plan for him this season. It was widely thought that he would need the run when making his return at Wetherby in October for the Grade 2 West Yorkshire Hurdle, and he definitely ran that way when drifting out to 9/2 and finishing 4th. He was just as unfancied by the market on his next start in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury however, where he travelled strongly to the penultimate flight before completely emptying. When a Horse runs like that you can be assured that a wind-operation isn’t far away, and Rebecca Curtis sent him off to have one in December – so he was given a nice break afterwards. With Trials Day at Cheltenham abandoned due to waterlogging, connections had to scratch their heads a little to try and find where to place him for a much needed prep-run, and they ended up finding a Pertemps Qualifier at Exeter where he would’ve had to run off 159 – but very sensibly they pulled him out when the ground turned bottomless. Instead he took his chance in the much more conventional Grade 2 Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock last month, and to my eye he ran a cracker considering he will come on plenty for it. Sean Bowen left no stone unturned when hitting the front and trying to kick clear, but he just left himself open for a closer – and Third Wind duly got up in the final 150 yards. Although beaten into 2nd place, Lisnagar Oscar put in a very encouraging performance when rallying again close to the finish, and I’m sure connections will be delighted. Whilst the form of that race might not be good enough to see him retain his crown, you know he will give it his all and he is one for the each/way shortlist.

It’s not very often that you get two Handicap runners moving into the same Championship race the following season, but Pertemps graduates Sire Du Berlais and The Storyteller – who finished 1st and 2nd off marks of 152 and 149 respectively 12 months ago – will bid to do just that. It was a top performance from both Horses to give away plenty of weight and pull 6.5 lengths clear of the remainder in the Pertemps Final, and The Storyteller especially makes some appeal from an each/way perspective considering he has since gone on to win the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal in October, before most recently finishing 2nd behind Kemboy in the Grade 1 Irish Gold Cup – earning himself a rating of 165 over fences. That rating of 165 would give him a brilliant chance if it converted straight back to Hurdles, but in between those two great Chase runs he ran in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle alongside Lismullen Hurdle winning stablemate Sire Du Berlais. The pair were fairly kicked out of the way by Flooring Porter that day however, who made all the running under Jonathan Moore for Gavin Cromwell. There is no doubt that Flooring Porter will ensure we receive a strong gallop in the Stayers Hurdle next week, but his trainer has already voiced concerns about there being no true inside running rail the whole way around to guide him – and he certainly won’t be able to do what he did at Leopardstown by slipping the field from the front. Whilst Sire Du Berlais isn’t for me as he just ran so flat over Christmas, The Storyteller could be another to add to the each/way shortlist as he will appreciate the quicker ground and is likely be staying on strongly late in the day.

The 2020 renewal of the Albert Bartlett is without doubt very strong, and the imperious winner Monksfish is now a hot favourite for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase. He was forced to pull out all the stops in that 3m Novice Hurdle when beating Fury Road (3rd) and Thyme Hill (4th) however, and it is very much the Philip Hobbs charge who has kicked on this season. Just to touch on Fury Road quickly, he has been a little disappointing since returning with an easy victory in the 2m5½f Grade 2 Celebration Hurdle at Punchestown in November, as it should’ve teed him up perfectly for a tilt at that aforementioned 3m Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas – but he once again showed he hates Leopardstown that day when a disappointing 4th. His latest start then came in the 2m5f Boyne Hurdle at Navan last month, but again despite being sent off favourite he was beaten; this time just being worn down in the final few strides by Beacon Edge (154). In the aftermath of that race Gordon Elliott said he wasn’t sure if he would run Fury Road in the Stayers Hurdle after that, but he would be interesting back at Cheltenham if Denise Foster were to let him take his chance. The Horse that many punters want to side with however is understandably Thyme Hill, and he has impressed during his short career in open company to date.

Thyme Hill made his seasonal reappearance at in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, and at the time I remember much of the media billing it as a mini-Stayers Hurdle considering the quality that was on offer. Tracking the leaders under Richard Johnson, Thyme Hill tanked his way through the race and was still on the bridle heading over the final flight – before he then kicked on nicely to hold the fast finishing Paisley Park at bay. Clearly beating the former Stayers Hurdle winner whilst also having some nice Horses such as McFabulous (158) a further 5 lengths adrift was a top performance, but as this was a Grade 2 Paisley Park did crucially have to carry a 3lbs penalty. The pair met for their rematch in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot almost a month later, but this time there were no penalties to potentially skew the results. Both Horses actually ran very similar races to Newbury in that Thyme Hill travelled largely on the bridle until trying to kick clear after the final Hurdle, and Paisley Park hit his usual flat spot before responding to the urgings of Aidan Coleman. The difference this time however was the fact that Paisley Park found himself quite far back turning for home, so he had a lot of ground to make up in order to get to Thyme Hill. In spite of meeting traffic in running, Paisley Park looked right back to his 2019 best when closing with every stride and powering home to score by a neck.

That really leads me onto my verdict for the Stayers Hurdle, as Thyme Hill ran as good a race as you could ask him too – yet off level weights he couldn’t manage to scoot home quick enough to hold Paisley Park at arms-length. Clearly Thyme Hill is worth another crack at Paisley Park and Richard Johnson will say he wishes he could have that ride back, but the bare facts are that Paisley Park found himself in a much worse position, and he even had to switch course around Roksana in running to find a clear path – so Aidan Coleman will have every belief that he can also give his mount a much better ride next week. Another major factor in that Long Walk Hurdle was the Heavy ground, as Paisley Park’s two highest RPRs have been recorded on Good-to-Soft – including when winning the Stayers Hurdle in 2019. The Heavy going certainly doesn’t suit his racing style of hitting a flat spot before staying on strongly as it is much harder to make up ground in testing conditions, but with the going almost certain to come up as Good-to-Soft next week, Paisley Park should have his ideal conditions. Considering both himself and Thyme Hill have been put away for the Stayers (albeit Emma Lavelle was going to run Paisley Park in the Cleeve had it gone ahead) there shouldn’t be any advantages to either Horse in that regard, and I’m confident that Paisley Park will be able to confirm the Ascot form back at his beloved Cheltenham which we know suits him so well. For anyone who is still doubting Paisley due to the fibrillating heart issue that saw him run so disappointingly 12 months ago then my advice is don’t; as this season he has already put that well behind him with two brilliant runs, recording his highest RPRs since winning the Stayers in 2019. Emma Lavelle will be doing everything in her power to ensure there is no repeat.

I probably will have an each/way play in the race once I see the final declarations, with The Storyteller and Lisnagar Oscar currently heading my shortlist for that honour. With regard to finding the winner however, I think it is hard to look past Paisley Park making it 2-1 against Thyme Hill considering he managed to beat the Philip Hobbs charge from a desperate position and on ground softer than ideal at Ascot. Taking into account that Paisley Park has put in his two best performances since that 2019 Stayers Hurdle victory so far this season, you certainly couldn’t argue that he has lost any of his ability, and a return to the Cheltenham New Course on Good-to-Soft ground provides him with perfect conditions. I’m quite confident that Paisley Park can return to his former glory here.

Good luck! – Jake Price

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