No horse has managed to dominate the staying hurdling ranks for any length of time since the mighty Big Buck’s, though we have been treated to some fleeting spells of brilliance by the likes of Thistlecrack (unbeaten in five 2015/16 starts) and Unowhatimeanharry (only defeat in five 2016/17 starts came at the hands of the ill-fated Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle).
It was only a switch to chasing – culminating in a win in the King George as a novice – which curtailed Thistlecrack’s reign as the top staying hurdler, while his successor Unowhatimeanharry was already nine when reaching his peak, preventing him from lasting longer at the head of his division.
Admittedly, the 11-year-old Unowhatimeanharry did add another Grade 1 to his tally when landing the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown in May, but, in truth, that race was more notable for who wasn’t there than who was, with the dominant staying hurdler of last season having already retired to a summer at grass by that point.
The horse in question is, of course, Paisley Park, who many will be hoping can succeed where others have failed by continuing his dominance in the months ahead, starting with Friday’s Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury. Emma Lavelle’s charge is as short as 13/8-on to get the new campaign off to the best possible start, despite former stars Thistlecrack (4/1) and Unowhatimeanharry (6/1) both featuring among the opposition.
There certainly looks to be more big days in Paisley Park yet, such was the impression he created last term, and, ahead of his eagerly-anticipated return on Friday, we’ve looked back at the careers of three greats of the past to see how he compares after that breakthrough campaign…
Baracouda (Timeform rating 176)
French-trained Baracouda showed top-class form and proved almost invincible in the four seasons between 2000/01 and 2003/4, with his sequence of 10 straight victories ending when he was beaten by the front-running Deano's Beeno when trying to win a third Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in 2002.
Baracouda suffered only his second defeat in 16 outings when going down to Iris's Gift in the following season's Stayers' Hurdle and wasn't so good in 2004/5, though he still won two of his three races, suffering his only defeat at the hands of Inglis Drever (more on whom later) in what had been renamed the World Hurdle.
Baracouda's record then stood at two wins and two seconds in Cheltenham's championship staying hurdle, a race he would surely have won three times but for the loss of the 2001 Festival because of the foot and mouth outbreak (he won a substitute event at Sandown a month after Cheltenham should have taken place).
Baracouda didn't win either of his races in his final season and was retired after finishing unplaced on his fifth appearance in Cheltenham's premier event for staying hurdlers in 2006.
Inglis Drever (Timeform rating 169)
Having inflicted a rare defeat on Baracouda to win his first World Hurdle in 2004/05, Inglis Drever made only three starts the following season before it was announced that he would miss the defence of his title due to injury.
It was business as usual when he returned in November 2006, though, with Inglis Drever strongly suggesting that he retained all his ability in winning the Long Distance Hurdle, and he continued to prove himself the dominant staying hurdler over the course of the next two seasons, typically racing lazily but staying on strongly where it mattered to beat Kasbah Bliss and register a record-breaking third win in the World Hurdle in 2007/08.
The original World Hurdle trophy was handed over permanently by the sponsors to Inglis Drever's owners, Andrea and Graham Wylie. While the owners and the trainer Howard Johnson were constants in the story of Inglis Drever's World Hurdle triumphs, the horse had his third different jockey in the race in 2008; after winning under Graham Lee in 2005 and Paddy Brennan in 2007, Inglis Drever was partnered by Denis O'Regan for his third win.
O’Regan was also in the saddle for Inglis Drever’s final two starts, the last of which saw him pulled up in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November 2008 after suffering a career-ending injury. He retired as the winner of 13 of his 23 starts over hurdles.
Big Buck’s (Timeform rating 176)
Big Buck’s won three of his first six starts over fences for Paul Nicholls, but the decision was made to revert to hurdling after he unseated Sam Thomas at the final fence of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in 2008/09 – the same day that Inglis Drever made his final racecourse appearance. It’s fair to say that that decision paid off handsomely.
Big Buck’s went on to win every one of his next 18 starts over hurdles – a record over jumps surpassed only last season by Altior – and had shown no signs of loosening his grip on the division when injury cruelly intervened in December 2012, with the previous campaign having arguably been the best of his career to that point.
📆 March 15, 2012— Racing TV (@RacingTV) May 2, 2019
"16 in a row, a fourth World Hurdle....we won't see his like for many years!"
Ruby Walsh and Big Buck's - a match made in heaven 😃#HappyRetirementRubyWalsh pic.twitter.com/xKcxh8oLQL
Only when gaining a record fourth win in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle did Big Buck's face any sort of challenge to his hegemony during that 2011/12 campaign, with the runner-up Voler la Vedette briefly looking to be going the better and becoming just the second horse since the 2009 Liverpool Hurdle to trade at odds-on in running against Big Buck's on Betfair, a measure of the manner in which he dominated the opposition.
The victory of Big Buck's in that season’s Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree was his fourth successive one in that race, too, following his third wins in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and the Long Walk Hurdle, and his second in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The latter event also provided the platform for an eagerly-anticipated return to action for Big Buck’s in January 2014, but he was ultimately well below his best and was quickly retired after finishing fifth in that season’s World Hurdle.
Paisley Park (Timeform rating 166p)
In pure form terms, Paisley Park still has a bit to find to match the achievements of his predecessors in this division, but the ‘p’ attached to his rating denotes that he hasn’t finished progressing yet, having swept all before him in 2018/19 with wins in handicaps at Aintree and Haydock, the Long Walk Hurdle, the Cleeve Hurdle and the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Paisley Park arguably saved his most impressive performance for last, capping an unblemished season of irresistible progress in perfect – and now-trademark – fashion at the Festival. The way he did the job bore more than a passing resemblance to Big Buck’s, with the sequence of his extraordinary surge to the front – having turned in around seven lengths down with as many rivals ahead of him – and subsequent recovery from a blunder at the last being so stunning that it ought to become a mainstay of any Festival highlights reel.
WHAT A STORY!— ITV Racing (@itvracing) March 14, 2019
He nearly died two years ago but now Paisley Park has won the Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle at @CheltenhamRaces!!!
The magic of the Festival strikes again
Watch the #CheltenhamFestival LIVE on @ITV pic.twitter.com/pOY64K8E0u
Still only a seven-year-old, he certainly looks well placed to join Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s as multiple winners of that contest, though it will take more than 1s next to his name to join them so far as Timeform ratings go. For that, he needs another top-class rival to push him to even greater heights, and, in the shape of If The Cap Fits (Timeform-rated 161), he may have found just that.
The anticipation of a potential dual between the pair went up a notch after If The Cap Fits produced a high-class effort to make a winning reappearance in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot last weekend, staying on strongly to give weight and a beating to the talented Call Me Lord with a performance that was backed up an excellent timefigure.
Harry Fry’s charge looks unlikely to take up his entry in Friday’s Long Distance Hurdle, but we may not have to wait long for what has the makings of a fascinating clash, with the pair seemingly on a collision course for next month’s Long Walk Hurdle should all go well with Paisley Park this weekend.