One of Thursday’s highlights at the Cheltenham Festival – along with the Ryanair Chase – is the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle over 3m on the New Course. As you can imagine given the course and distance, stamina and class are the two most sought-after assets.
Sadly, last year’s game and gutsy winner Nichols Canyon won’t be back to defend his crown having suffered a fatal fall at Leopardstown over Christmas. Willie Mullins’s charge was a real favourite of mine, and given this year’s renewal, would have gone very close to back-to-back successes.
His absence will be missed in what is an open year for staying hurdlers. Here, we’ll take a closer look at the main contenders.
Stayers’ Hurdle ante-post preview
At the moment, Jessica Harrington’s Supasundae (4/1) correctly heads the market. He was a ready winner of last season’s Coral Cup – a handicap – at the Festival and has just continued to progress. He was in a better tactical position than most in winning here in 2017, but subsequent form has brought him out of handicap company into Grade 1 races, leaving no doubt to him being flattered in his Festival success.
Since March of last year, the son of Galileo has only raced four times, all coming in top-level races. Last season’s backend Stayers Liverpool Hurdle effort behind Yanworth was no fluke as his two placed efforts behind Apple’s Jade this campaign proves; firstly, on his 2017/18 seasonal debut in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and then again at Leopardstown in Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle.
The 11 lengths beating he took over 2m4f in the Hatton’s Grace was down to just half-a-length come Christmas, this time over 3m, but it came in a race that didn’t test stamina. Next time out, he surprisingly dropped to 2m in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Here, he would beat Faugheen, outstaying him late to be a ready winner. That’s the best form on offer for this race this season, and probably the reason he is the race-favourite.
As stated, the horse that beat Supasundae in last season’s Stayers Liverpool Hurdle was Yanworth (5/1). Alan King’s stable star went to Aintree on the back of a miserable run in the Champion Hurdle, a race where he was sent off 2/1 favourite behind Buveur D’air.
“The Orange Machine” recouped his losses somewhat at Liverpool before he was put away for a chasing campaign this season. Said campaign has been hit and miss, hence the reason connections have correctly chosen to revert to hurdling.
Form figures of 1F21 over fences don’t read too bad to his credit, but the son of Norse Dancer just hasn’t fully convinced with his jumping. At times he could be brilliant, but he could also be unconvincing – there was just no rhythm or consistency.
I’ve always rated Yanworth, he’s a likeable horse who tries hard and his hurdling form of 2016/17 is solid. While the case, whether he is fully at his best over this 3m trip remains to be seen. He’s a horse who continues to split opinion, but there is no doubt about it, he deserves everyone’s full respect here.
The horse with the potential stamina kryptonite to the aforementioned pair is this season’s Stayers’ Hurdle big improver Sam Spinner (5/1). Rated 136 coming into the campaign, Jedd O’Keeffe’s stable star is now officially rated 164. Some going in three races!
Having finished second in a red-hot Silver Trophy Handicap Hurdle on seasonal debut at Chepstow, the son of Black Sam Bellamy then bolted up by 17 lengths in the Grade 3 Betfair Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock. A step-up to Grade 1 level came at Ascot in the Long Walk Hurdle where the strong-travelling bay fended off the quirky L’Ami Serge and last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle third, Unowhatimeanharry.
This victory solidified his rise to the top, and while he got the run of the race under Joe Colliver, there was absolutely no fluke about it; he went a nice gallop and maintained it late. Whether or not he is value for his new lofty rating of 164, remains to be seen. 158 is a fairer reflection of his ability, but with him being just six-years-old, there must be a significant chance of more to come.
On this season’s form, The New One (12/1) should probably be shorter in the betting. His price suggests that he’s almost certainly a non-stayer, but while stamina must be proven, his class will take him a hell of a long way on a track he loves.
Apart his second to Buveur D’air in the Christmas Hurdle, his other three efforts this year have probably seen him run to around 160. That puts him right in the mix, in terms of ability, with all those ahead of him in the betting.
Earlier in his career, he did win the Grade 1 Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f, beating a former Champion Hurdler in Rock On Ruby. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s inmate has only had one go over further and that came at the backend of last season at Sandown over 2m5f. He was well-beaten there, but that was at the end of a long campaign and is probably not an accurate guide to his endurance limitations.
He’s by a strong stamina influence in King’s Theatre so given his class, he’ll get my respect, for all going an extra half mile in this company could prove a step too far for a horse now aged ten.
The younger legs of Penhill (10/1) are interesting given he was a pretty impressive winner of last season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over this course and distance. There was maybe a slight suspicion of him picking up the pieces late, but given he travelled much wider than the runner-up (Monalee) and the third (Wholestone) throughout, to win like he did, was striking.
He then went to Punchestown and ran a gallant race to be second in another Grade 1, but hasn’t been seen since. Indeed, there were early reports of him being out for the season, but that’s obviously not the case given his entry here.
He’s owned by a gambling man in Tony Bloom, and goes well fresh, so should he run, he’d have to be respected.
The Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned pair of L’Ami Serge (12/1) Wholestone (16/1) deserve positive mentions. The former is a talented, but highly quirky horse who needs holding up and delivering late.
He can also be keen and hang/jump left, but he’s got extremely solid Cheltenham Festival form figures of 432. Hitting number 1 is probably out of his reach this season, but he does look to have strong each-way claims.
Wholestone ran a cracker to be third in last season’s Albert Bartlett behind Penhill. He shaped better than the distance beaten of 7 lengths suggests. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s charge just looked to be one-paced or maybe outstayed in the closing stages, while pulling 8 lengths clear of the fourth.
In his Festival prep in the Cleeve Hurdle over this course and distance, it was very much a similar story. Again, like in the Albert Bartlett, he travelled with great enthusiasm and looked set to go close, but he faltered late.
I’m not sure if he’s a bit of a monkey, there’s a breathing issue of small proportions or he was just outstayed, but he’s certainly a horse that catches your eye.
Elsewhere down the entries, not many really convince for varying reasons. Another ten-year-old and last season’s third in this race, Unowhatimeanharry (14/1) started his season well enough at Aintree, but his subsequent runs at Newbury, and especially at Ascot behind Sam Spinner, fully suggest he is a horse on the wane.
He’ll come to Cheltenham fresh, and Harry Fry have might his team in better order – he may even have had a wind op in the interim – but he needs softish ground to show his best and at this stage is an easy duck.
Last year’s gallant runner-up in this contest, Lil Rockerfeller (25/1) is in a similar boat to Unowhatimeanharry. As a seven-year-old, he still has age on his side, so his performances this season have dumbfounded me. He appears to be a stone below his best, for whatever reason.
To be fair to La Bague Au Roi (20/1), she has been in great form for the Warren Greatrex team compared to the above pair, winning three on the spin. She’s one that is guaranteed to stay the taxing trip, and could even improve on better ground, but I’m just not sure she’s good enough to be taking on the boys. She could well run a career best and finish sixth.
The Worlds End (25/1) has been disappointing this season, for whatever reason so it’s hard to see him winning on current form. He looked set to run a big race in last year’s Albert Bartlett before coming down two out. He went on to win the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree, but that form hasn’t really sparked.
Finally, a throwaway mention for Faugheen (16/1), who is still entered in this race. I may well be on my own, but I don’t think it’s totally mad to suggest he could run here should certain circumstances play out, albeit it’s small a chance. This is a horse who has won an Irish point-to-point over 3m and a Grade 3 Novice Hurdle in Ireland, on the bridle, on heavy ground, again over this race’s trip.
There is absolutely no doubt he can stay and with me being of the opinion he’s a stone below what he was pre-injury, and his lethal finishing kick gone, could he be targeted here with Min running in the Champion Hurdle, should Douvan make the Champion Chase? It’s mad, I know, but non-runner no bets concessions give you a great safety net.
The Final Verdict
A competitive renewal of the Stayers’ Hurdle with bookmakers going 4/1 the field. Of the leading trio of Sam Spinner, Supasundae and Yanworth, slight preference would be for Supasundae ahead of Sam Spinner and then Yanworth.
Supasundae brings the best form into this year’s race, but that came over 2m, and there is a small doubt about him getting outstayed late in the Stayers’. He’ll need the weather to be kind, as the better the ground, the better his chance. This is also true of Yanworth.
Softer going brings Sam Spinner into it even further, and should Cheltenham produce taxing conditions, it significantly enhances his chance. Why? Well, it will bring his guaranteed staying prowess into play, blunt the others’ class and relieve the slight worry I have about his ability to handle “quick” ground. He does have a knee action and it’s just something to bear in mind.
That trio, depending on conditions, will hardly contract much further in the betting, should the main protagonists make it to Prestbury Park healthy.
The New One has looked as well as ever this season and is overpriced, but the last ten-year-old horse plus to win the Stayers’ was back in 1986. I could see him running well, very well, but he’s just not the type of horse I want to risk when stamina is an issue.
I try and stay away from horses without proven stamina when I can – I like to get a run for my money with my money – and for that reason, I’ll step away.
To further insult The New One, the ante-post value to my eye appears to be WHOLESTONE, a horse who will stay better this season at the Festival, granted nicer ground than he encountered in the Cleeve Hurdle. I just can’t get out of my head how well he travels into contention when on song.
His finishing effort sometimes lacks, but maybe he’s just a horse that still needs to strengthen up? If the case, I think he’ll outrun his price of 16/1.
Finally, with the non-runner no bet concession there, FAUGHEEN should also be backed. Yes, he’s a ten-year-old like The New One, but he’s no ordinary ten-year-old and he’s not trained by an ordinary man.
If he runs, he won’t be 12/1. If he doesn’t, we get our money back.
1.5pts each-way Wholestone @16/1 (Betfair Sportsbook – Non- Runner No Bet)
1pt win Faugheen @12/1 (bet365 Non- Runner No Bet), 10/1 Betfred (Non- Runner No Bet)