Cheltenham Ones To Watch: Could Paisley Park regain his Stayers’ Hurdle crown?

We continue our preview of next month’s Cheltenham Festival by profiling one of the most popular horses in training.

Paisley Park rolled back the years when landing a third Cleeve Hurdle last weekend in quite extraordinary circumstances, given he gave his rivals a fifteen-length start, and a comfortable beating.

Paisley Park first came to prominence, at least to me, when he defied top-weight on his seasonal reappearance in a handicap hurdle at Aintree back in October 2018. He won just one of four starts in his novice hurdle season and made no show at Cheltenham in the Albert Bartlett – last of thirteen to finish – although the combination of soft ground and a first-time visor did not see him at his best at the Festival.

Nick Schofield rode Emma Lavelle’s gelding in all four starts as a novice hurdler but Aidan Coleman was in the plate on Merseyside, and he has ridden the gelding in fifteen of his sixteen subsequent starts. That Aintree win came on good ground over two-and-a-half miles, but the gelding showed three miles held no terrors when he landed the Fixed Brush Final at Haydock the following month although that was a modest renewal of that valuable handicap.

Paisley Park took the step up in class from top class handicapper to Grade 1 winner in his stride at Ascot in the Long Walk Hurdle when he showed he could cope with soft ground giving Lavelle a first winner at the top table. It would be fair to say that a 2L beating of Colin Tizzard’s West Approach did not look top-class form with market leaders Unowhatimeanharry and Sam Spinner failing to complete the course.

It was his next start that confirmed Paisley Park as being top-class and the one to beat in the Stayers’ Hurdle when he landed his first Cleeve Hurdle this time giving West Approach 6lbs and a twelve-length beating on good to soft ground. Having been 8/1 to win the Long Walk, Paisley Park was 10/3 to land the Cleeve and was subsequently sent off 11/8 market leader in the 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle.

That initial Cleeve Hurdle success was, arguably, the most impressive performance of Paisley Park’s career and his success in the Stayers’ Hurdle was more workmanlike and he had begun an unwelcome habit of hitting a flat spot before finding top gear and staying on far too strongly for his rivals.

That 2018/19 season saw Paisley Park unbeaten in five starts and that was the pinnacle of his career given he lost his Stayers’ crown when a beaten odds-on favourite behind Lisnagar Oscar the following year on soft ground. Yes, the odds on favourite (4/6) lost a couple of shoes during the race and didn’t get the clearest of runs, but his trademark finishing kick was absent although I insist, he is a better horse on decent ground.

Emma Lavelle’s 9-y-old was again made favourite (9/4) for the 2021 Stayers Hurdle on the back of a heavy ground win in the Long Walk, but he was no match for the new kid on the Stayers’ block Flooring Porter at Cheltenham who led home a 1-2-4 for Ireland with Paisley Park the meat in the sandwich beaten five lengths back in third.

The horse is owned by Andrew Gemmell who was born blind but has lived a full and rich life. Gemmill for the uninitiated is a sports nut, West Ham fan, has ran two marathons, stood on the picket line during the miner’s strike of the 1980’s, has travelled the globe attending huge sporting events, a form book guru with horses in Britain Ireland and Australia and is a fan of Elvis Costello and The Smiths. I rest my case.

No wonder I/we want his horses to win – what a CV! By the way don’t give up on his Captain Bloomfield yet – the horse bled at Huntingdon last time and is better than he was able to show on that occasion.

I remember standing at Aintree after his handicap hurdle win in October 2018 and I do know connections were considering a novice chase career if he hadn’t won. At the beginning of this campaign there were noises coming out of the yard that they were considering a belated swtich to the larger obstacles.

Lavelle fitted cheekpieces on the 9-y-old for the first time at Newbury in their Long Distance Hurdle in November, but that experiment was binned after another laboured performance with an 11L defeat at the hands of Thomas Darby.

The headgear was replaced by a tongue tie in the Long Walk at Ascot, but he was no match for Champ and Thyme Hill in a race he had won twice previously. Going into the Cleeve Hurdle I could not see how he could make up the 5L he was behind Nicky Henderson’s Champ at Ascot and when he gave away north of 10L at the start, he looked to have lost any chance he had of reversing the form. What happened next was the stuff of legends or fairy tales.

Paisley Park was given time to recover by Aidan Coleman but was bumped along at the top of the hill with former Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar taking them along with odds on market leader Champ, seemingly, going best. As they came to the top of the home run Coleman was forced to go for his whip and it looked for all money as if his chance had gone.

Champ made his challenge in the middle of Lisnagar Oscar and McFabulous and did edge left when he took the measure of that pair making his challenge down the centre of the track while the galvanised Paisley Park was racing nearer the favoured stands’ rail. History tells us he had over 3L in hand of Champ at the line for what was an improbable almost impossible victory.

So where does that leave the Stayers’ Hurdle picture for next month? The bookmakers favour the reigning champ Ireland’s Flooring Porter – 7/2 Non Runner No Bet with Betfred, Bet365 and William Hill – over Champ – out to 6/1 with Paddy Power – with Thyme Hill – behind Champ at Ascot – now second in at 5/1 with Paddy Power. Paisley Park is a best price of 7/1 with William Hill and Betfred NRNB.

Both Champ and Paisley Park are now aged 10 and no ten-year-old has won the Stayers’ Hurdle since the race was first run back in 1912 although there have been two 11-y-olds (Waterford Glass 1926 and Crimson Embers 1986) and one teenager (Zarane 13 in 1927) who have won the coveted staying hurdling prize.

So, history suggests both Champ and Paisley Park have it all to do. I’m pot committed with Champ and hope to see Flooring Porter set a searching gallop for the Lambourn challenger, but there won’t be a dry eye in the house if Paisley Park can turn back time – not convinced Andrew is a Cher fan – next month.

The Stayers’ Hurdle is the least sexy of the four championship races, but I do feel Paisley Park’s Scurlogue Champ-like success in winning a third Cleeve Hurdle has given the race a huge boost. It promises to be a wonderful occasion and race.