Ante-post focus: 2017 Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle

Forty-seven horses have been entered for what is now known as the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, formerly the World Hurdle. It’s great to see two past winners make the initial list, 2014 hero More Of That and 2015 victor Cole Harden. It’s also good to see the world “Stayers” appear in the race name again, it fits the race nicely.

It’s unlikely More Of That will bid to recapture his crown, a tilt at the Gold Cup looks on the cards, but Cole Harden is an intended runner. The betting is headed by Unowhatimeanharry, last season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winner who now runs in the JP McManus silks having been purchased during the summer.

Like the Champion Hurdle, Annie Power and Faugheen are both entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but won’t run, and having looked at the race in closer detail, despite 47 horses entered, it looks a pretty straight-forward contest to handicap. We’ll just have to try and eke out some each-way value against the hot favourite.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle ante-post preview

Unowhatimeanharry is the 6/4 favourite for the Harry Fry team. I must admit, coming into this season I wasn’t sure he’d be good enough to reach his current level, but he has proved me wrong and taken me by surprise.

The son of Sir Harry Lewis won last season’s Albert Bartlett making that his fifth win-in-a-row. Three further victories this campaign now see him bidding to make in nine on the bounce under new regular jockey, Barry Geraghty.

Two Grade 2 wins and a top-level success in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot have not only seen the nine-year-old progress, but have also shown continuity in the gelding’s versatility as he has climbed the ranks. His strong-travelling and stout-staying ability saw him capitulate into the Stayers’ Hurdle reckoning when winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Faster ground and running the other way round didn’t deter him at Ascot in the Long Walk before he followed up under a Grade 1 penalty in the Cleeve at Cheltenham on soft sod, again travelling into contention effortlessly before putting the race to bed.

There are very few chinks in his armour. Having been held-up in his earlier races this season, Barry Geraghty positioned him far more prominently in the Cleeve and the result was the same. The one slight worry I’d have is if the ground came up good or quicker. I have little doubt he’s much better on soft going, and should it turn soft come March, he’ll be banker material at 6/4.

Debate still rages about where the next three horses in the market will run. Jezki, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag all have multiple entries across the four days and it’s tough to know where they will line up at this time, especially the case of Vroum Vroum Mag.

Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins’s mare holds six entries at the Festival. It’s probably safe to say she won’t run in the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup, the Ryanair would also be a small surprise. The Champion Hurdle, the Mares’ Hurdle or this contest are most likely, but it’s impossible to say where she’ll go.

For that reason, she’s easily ducked at this juncture given the objective of the piece. Should she run here, however, Vroum Vroum Mag (9/1) would be a huge danger to the favourite, especially on good ground in receipt of 7lb. Some have crabbed her ability to stay three miles, but it’s not an issue for me. Her class will take her a long way regardless, but even so, she’s not a bet at this moment in time.

Even less so would be her stablemate Nichols Canyon (8/1). I’d have major doubts about Graham Wylie’s seven-time Grade 1 winner seeing out the three-mile trip. Although he’s had plenty of racing, he still runs keen in his races and I could see the petrol gauge emptying in the latter stages. He’s stuck between trips at the moment so it would be great to see a Ryanair-type Hurdle introduced to the Festival. That’s a joke by the way, let’s hope that never happens!

Jezki (6/1), another JP McManus horse, also has the option of running in the Champion Hurdle, but with his owner having two strong arrows for the Tuesday highlight in Buveur D’Air and Yanworth, it make sense for him to line up here.

An eight-time Grade 1 winner and former Champion Hurdler, the son of Milan has had to fight his way back from injury. Before his return this campaign, Jessica Harrington’s inmate was last seen in April of 2015 fending off the great Hurricane Fly over three miles at the Punchestown Festival.

There is no doubt that the son of Milan stays three miles well, but the question remains, has he returned in as good a shape before his injury? Still only nine, there is every chance physically he could be as good, but his comeback run gave me mixed signals.

In winning a low-key Navan event just over three weeks ago, visually, it was the perfect return. Jezki travelled with enthusiasm, jumped great and found plenty off the bridle over the minimum trip. In terms of form however, that run is just shy of 20lb below what will be required to win this Stayers’ Hurdle should the favourite run his race.

His Festival prep in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park will be defying for the rest of his season, but at the moment, it makes sense to duck him.

Best of the Rest

Cole Harden (14/1) blitzed the 2015 World Hurdle field from the front on good ground, but lost his way the following season, an issue with his knee sighted by his trainer Warren Greatrex. The son of Westerner only ran twice last campaign due to his issues, but that way well prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Cole Harden is an aggressive free-running horse, his style lends him to never having an easy race. Only seeing the track twice last season and just three times in 2016/17, he comes here a fresh horse. Under renewed energy and indeed a sturdier body, the eight-year-old looks to be getting back to his best.

A novice chasing campaign was halted after one attempt before Christmas, but his two hurdle runs since, especially the latest effort, see Cole Harden coming to the boil once more. Over an inadequate trip on soft ground, promise was shown in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham.

His latest second in the Cleeve Hurdle behind hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry was a step up again. Having raced at a strong gallop on the slowest ground throughout, it was really encouraging to see Cole Harden find plenty off the bridle and stay going to finish second. Back on quicker terrain, he’ll be even better.

The Irish have only won this race once in the last ten years, that victory coming via the classy Solwhit in 2013. There is no better man than Willie Mullins to try and improve the Emerald Isle’s record and in Shaneshill (12/1), he has a horse that looks certain to run here.

Second to Douvan in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and again runner up in last season’s RSA Chase, connections have made the right move in reverting him to hurdles. He doesn’t have the natural scope to jump fences; simply put, he’s a much better over the smaller obstacles.

After a tough 2015/16 campaign which saw seven runs, I had my doubts about him coming back strong this season. Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown festivals were all undertaken before a surprising trip Stateside.

Thankfully, his efforts over the last four months have been good. Having blown the cobwebs away on debut, where he finished behind Snow Falcon, an improved run came in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace. Finishing third behind Apple’s Jade and Vroum Vroum Mag was highly satisfactory and he would’ve been closer only for a bad mistake at the final flight.

Ailments in his jumping would come back to haunt him over Christmas, again at the final hurdle, but this time he would take a heavy fall. He’d never have beaten Vroum Vroum Mag, but second spot was still up for grabs before his exit.

To Shanehill’s credit, he bounced back next time out with the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park, making most of the running and jumping well to just hold off Snow Falcon on soft ground. A return to faster sod will be in his favour and he at least looks to be coming to Cheltenham in good order.

The horse that finished second to Shaneshill in the Galmoy was Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon (16/1). Considering he was giving the winner 5lb and conceded first run on a track that wouldn’t play to his strengths, it must go down as a brilliant run and probably a career best.

The son of Presenting has threatened to be a Grade 1 horse for a couple of seasons now, he was a solid fifth in the 2015 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, but a career blighted by injury has stalled his progress.

A back problem was the cause of much grievance for connections, but that now looks to be sorted, judging on this season’s form. He goes to Cheltenham on the back of a career best, but this has been supported by other solid efforts.

Snow Falcon was a sound third to Vroum Vroum Mag over Christmas at Leopardstown when the slack gallop probably saw him done for toe in the closing stages. The above pair of runs came on the back of a fall at Newbury in November, where the seven-year-old was in the process of running a cracker in the Long Walk Hurdle. Unowhatimeanharry, the race favourite, went on to win that race in some style, leading me to think Noel Meade’s charge was potentially the one horse that could’ve given him a proper race meaning he has to be respected here.

The final horse to get a significant mention in this section is Lil Rockerfeller (25/1), last season’s Champion Hurdle seventh. The improving six-year-old found things happening too quick at last year’s Festival behind the likes of Annie Power.

Before that run on the opening day however, Neil King’s stable star had been plying his trade over intermediate trips and looking much more at home than over the minimum distance.

The Champion Hurdle test on quick ground didn’t suit, but the Stayers’ Hurdle equation may be more to his liking. Connections correctly put him away after his run at Cheltenham last season and in three efforts this campaign, he has looked on the verge of breaking into Grade 1 class.

Just gone six, there is every reason to believe he can make that further step up in class and while maybe 10lb short of winning a ‘proper’ top-level hurdle, time is on his side.

The son of Hard Spun would start the season off positively in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby. Carrying a penalty, it was always going to be tough to turn over the likes of Silsol and Native River, but despite racing with little room at times, his gritty attitude saw him post a solid effort in defeat, finishing a close up third.

Connections would drop the former flat runner in trip for the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle on his next start, where he would again have to carry a penalty. Conceding 4lb to live Champion Hurdle contender Yanworth was always going to prove tough despite the winner making his debut, but in pulling ten lengths of the rest, it was yet another solid effort in defeat going on to run second.

Ascot would again be the scene of his next run, a step back up to three miles in the Long Walk Hurdle saw yet another commendable place. Having had to wait for a run turning for home, Unowhatimeanharry got first run; it made no difference in terms of the result, but maybe he could’ve finished a little closer.

His season took a turn for the worse on his next start however, where Lil Rockefeller ended up a well-held and disappointing fourth in the Relkeel. Neil King’s horses weren’t going well at the time and the six-year-old returned home sick. It’s a run that can obviously be forgiven.

One of my favourite horses in training, Clondaw Warrior (20/1) must also get a positive mention. Willie Mullins’s charge has taken his owners all over the world to compete and given them many special days, there is literally too many to mention, but on the flat and over jumps he has been a star.

He’s getting on now, but the son of Overbury is still holding his form well. At Christmas, he was a sound second to Vroum Vroum Mag on unseasonably nice Irish winter ground before he looked to get stuck in the mud at Gowran Park behind Shaneshill and Snow Falcon.

The faster the ground, the better his chance as it should help him stay the trip in a race run at Championship pace on a stiff track. Stamina is the concern, but you couldn’t rule him out of hitting the frame.

Ballyoptic is the horse I felt could be the one of last season’s staying novice hurdles. He hasn’t improved like Unowhatimeanharry has however, and his run in the Cleeve suggested to me he is not up to winning a Stayers’ Hurdle.

OK, he had a penalty there and sat close to strong fractions, but Cole Harden was on that pace too and held him nicely at the line. Ballyoptic will meet him on better terms come March, but on better ground I’d be confident the Greatrex horse will uphold the form.

Apple’s Jade, Footpad, More Of That, One Track Mind The New One and Yanworth all look like they won’t be running here for various reasons and are best swerved.

The Final Verdict

A race that obviously revolves around the hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He has looked bombproof this season, improving on last campaign’s brilliant novice year. There is little doubt Harry Fry’s horse is better on softer ground, the more juice there is in the Prestbury Park sod on March 16th, the better his chance. Good ground just leaves him that tiny bit more vulnerable, but all in all, he is nearing value NAP material of all the hot favourites over the week.

The trio of Jezki, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag may not run here. Of the three, Jezki is the most likely. I can’t have Nichols Canyon over this trip, but I’d have a healthy respect for the Mullins mare, should she run here.

This is the race for Jezki, but while the case, I’m happy to take him on at the prices at this juncture. He appeared to return in good order when winning at Navan, it was great to see him happy and healthy again, but the quality of that form worries me. There is also a chance he could bounce next time out in the Red Mills Hurdle. On old form, he’s a huge price, but he comes with question marks at the moment.

With those four out of the running for a bet at this time, we have four solid options to choose from; Cole Harden, Lil Rockerfeller, Shaneshill and Snow Falcon. Dealing with the Irish pair first, it’s a surprise to see Snow Falcon a bigger price than Shaneshill based on their Galmoy running.

The Meade horse will meet the Mullins inmate on 5lb better terms come March and given he only conceded the run of the race to Shaneshill, there is an even stronger argument to suggest he should be the shorter of the two. The Willie Mullins factor is clearly at play here, but no doubting the Meade horse offers much better value.

At the prices, splitting the British-trained pair of Cole Harden and Lil Rockerfeller isn’t too tough. The former is half the price of the Neil King horse and to be fair, I can see why. Lil Rockerfeller has to prove his wellbeing, whereas Cole Harden appears to be getting back to some of his old form.

At 25/1, I’d chance LIL ROCKERFELLER at the prices ahead of Snow Falcon. He is due to run at Fontwell in the National Spirit Hurdle, a race he won last year. That will obviously be key in letting us know where we stand, but this guy is a classy horse.

He doesn’t travel too well in some of his races, which makes life tough for his regular jockey Trevor Whelan, but what he does do is find for pressure. He has to bounce back from a poor effort last time out, but his good form ties him in with the race favourite and a live Champion Hurdle contender.

Given the bet, we could really do with Vroum Vroum Mag running elsewhere. Were she to turn up here, punters could well be scrapping around fort third place on their each-way bets, assuming Unowhatimeanharry makes it too.

Advice

1pt each-way Lil Rockerfeller @25/1 (Betfair, Betfred – both Non-Runner No Bet)

1pt win Lil Rockerfeller ‘betting without Unowhatimeanharry’ @12/1 (Betfair), @10/1 (Paddy Power)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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