While the Champion Hurdle was trimmed to 14 entries at the six-day stage, the Champion Chase to 12, and the Ryanair to 18, a whopping 28 horses remain in Thursday’s Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle, suggesting that the final line-up may rival the bumper field of 20 that lined up for the 2006 renewal won by My Way de Solzen. The standard-setter on that occasion was an 11-year-old (and then-163-rated) Baracouda, who eventually finished fifth in his bid to turn two preceding runner-up finishes in the race into an historic third success, having won it in 2002 and 2003.
For comparison, this year’s favourite Paisley Park is rated 166p after a coming-of-age season. He was well held in last year's Albert Bartlett but has done nothing but progress this term, winning a handicap at Aintree in October, the Betfair Stayers' Handicap Hurdle at Haydock in November and the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot (by two lengths from West Approach) in December.
Jockey Aidan Coleman reacts after his first Grade 1 winner with Paisley Park! pic.twitter.com/DNXIY2aCeD— ITV Racing (@itvracing) December 22, 2018
Paisley Park duly completed a four-timer in the Cleeve Hurdle over C&D (impressively, by 12 lengths from West Approach, leading before the last and staying on strongly to quickly put the race to bed) last time. He very much stands out on British form and looks the one beat as a result; the general 13/8 looks pretty fair.
With reigning champion Penhill out through injury, Paisley Park's closest rival in the market is Faugheen, a top-class hurdler who has won the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle and Champion Hurdle at this meeting in the past. He looked a shadow of his former self when only sixth in last year’s Champion, but was much more like his old self when storming clear in the three-mile Champion Stayers' Hurdle (by 13 lengths from last year’s winner of this race Penhill) at Punchestown seven weeks later.
Faugheen's defeat in the two-mile Morgiana on his reappearance can be ignored, and it’s more significant that he was yet to be asked for his effort when falling heavily two out in the Christmas Hurdle won by Apple's Jade at Leopardstown last time. He evidently still retains plenty of enthusiasm for the game and is sure to be a player here if none the worse for that fall.
Second-guessing trainers ahead of Cheltenham is risky, but the suspicion is that last year’s Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon will attempt to go one better in that race rather than step up in trip here, so the other likely Closutton contenders appear to be Bacardys and Bapaume. The former would probably have finished third (staying on well) in this race last year but for falling at the last, and arrives this time around having had a similar preparation, again failing to fire over fences, while Bapaume won the 2½m Group 2 Prix La Barka at Auteuil in June and ran to a similar level when a good one and a quarter lengths second to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran last time. That form gives him a solid place chance here, and he’s still only six, so there could be more to come.
Supasundae won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown and Punchestown Champion Hurdle in 2017/18, both over two miles, and also finished runner-up in this race in-between. He has filled that same position on all three starts this term, his best effort coming when 16 lengths second to Apple's Jade in the latest Irish Champion Hurdle, where he was no match for the winner. He may take her on again in the Champion Hurdle, but would appear to have a stronger chance of a place (or possibly even more) in this race; in contrast, his chances of beating the holy trinity of Apple’s Jade, Laurina and Buveur d’Air in the Champion look slim.
While not meaning to denigrate the claims of last year’s Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm, who lines up here after failing to impress over fences, the most interesting runner outside of the first three in the betting is Petit Mouchoir. Though the 40/1 on offer with one firm is tempting, only the brave (or foolish) would back him without a NRNB concession at this stage, as he has an entry in the Champion Hurdle and has done most of his racing almost exclusively over two miles. However, his profile is not dissimilar to that of former stablemate Identity Thief who went from smart two-miler to high-class stayer in the blink of an eye when hacking up in the three-mile Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree last season.
Petit Mouchoir has plenty of Cheltenham Festival form to his name, including finishing third in the 2017 Champion, and his one-paced effort in the Irish Champion last time suggests that now might be the time to change tack. He’s worth backing each-way at 33/1.
Like Kilbricken Storm, last year’s Ballymore Novices' Hurdle second Black Op is back over hurdles after an aborted novice chasing campaign. He won the Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree (by half a length from Lostintranslation) last April and wasn’t disgraced back in this sphere when 14 lengths third to Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle last time. He’s yet to fully prove himself over this trip, though, so the more emphasis on speed the better.
Top Notch has plenty to find on hurdling form, for all he shaped encouragingly when five and three quarter lengths third to Paisley Park in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on his return, but he is a top-class chaser and there are no obvious reasons why he won’t get closer to that level of form if running in this race in preference to the Ryanair; he’s slightly shorter in the betting for that race at the time of writing, though. The fellow Simon Munir/Isaac Souede-owned Wholestone won a 2½m minor event at Aintree (by two and three quarter lengths from Vision des Flos) in November, but produced a rare poor effort here when well beaten in the Cleeve last time.
Of the rest, West Approach didn't click over fences, but proved at least as good as ever when 12 lengths second to Paisley Park in the Cleeve last time. He’s something of a temperamental sort, though, and isn’t sure to be in the same form now. Fellow chase exile Lil Rockerfeller will likely give his all once more, but he’ll struggle to get near his second-placed finish in this race in 2017, while Sam Spinner – who was only fifth when sent off the 9/4 favourite last year – finally kicked his season into life when fourth in the Cleeve last time. However, he’ll need to improve markedly for a change of jockey if he’s to make a more indelible impression than he’s managed since winning last season’s Long Walk.
To sum up, Paisley Park has proven himself to be far superior to the British staying regulars this season, but he hasn’t faced a horse with the class of Faugheen yet. It’s perhaps unrealistic to expect the 11-year-old to match his Punchestown effort last season, but he certainly has the engine for another big performance judging by the threat he still posed to Apple’s Jade when departing late on at Leopardstown in December. Preference instead, though, is to take advantage of the Non-Runner No-Bet concessions and back Petit Mouchoir each-way at 33/1. As we saw in the Cleeve, there’s no guarantee of a strong pace in these races, and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see him travelling well turning in.
Back Petit Mouchoir each-way in the Stayers’ Hurdle at 33/1 (NRNB)