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Cheltenham Festival: Stayers' Hurdle runner profiles as Flooring Porter bids to defend title

Flooring Porter will bid to defend his title but faces stiff competition with new rivals in Champ and Klassical Dream; Paisley Park won at Cheltenham last time out and will aim to regain his crown; look out for our Cheltenham live blog on Sky Sports next week

Thyme Hill
Image: Thyme Hill missed the Cheltenham Festival last year but won at Aintree - he will bid to land the big staying hurdle prize this time around for Philip Hobbs

Sky Sports Racing presenter Gina Bryce assesses the leading candidates for an eagerly-anticipated Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle is unquestionably the trickiest of Championship puzzles to decipher with a cast of protagonists posing more questions than conclusive answers.

Knowing which persona they may decide to inhabit is half the battle while a lack of standout form only adds to the task.

With no rock-solid star in the division and a horse whisperer of Monty Roberts' standing required to assess their prevailing moods on the day, the prize is up for grabs and all bets are on.

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Former Gold Cup winner Mick Fitzgerald heads out onto the Cheltenham track to analyse where next week's feature race at the Festival could be won and lost.


Trainer: Nicky Henderson

'When she was good, she was very very good and when she was bad, she was horrid' may have been the words of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about a little girl but with a slight adjustment, he could just have easily been talking about AP McCoy's equine namesake.

A dual Grade One winner as a novice hurdler, Nicky Henderson's inmate looked to have the world at his feet after a near perfect start to his novice chasing career capped by a stunning victory over subsequent Gold Cup winner Minella Indo in the RSA.

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Fast forward 12 months, and a hugely encouraging start to his career in open company was followed up with a dismal display when pulling up in the Gold Cup.

Champ and Jonjo O'Neill hold off Tom O'Brien and Thyme Hill to land the Howden Long Walk Hurdle
Image: Champ and Jonjo O'Neill hold off Tom O'Brien and Thyme Hill to land the Howden Long Walk Hurdle

Treated for back issues before reverting to hurdles this season, an impressive victory in the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle over Thyme Hill left onlookers in no doubt he was back living up to his name.

However, a lacklustre third last time out in dead, holding ground in the Cleeve Hurdle left everyone back scratching their heads.

Possibly the most naturally talented performer in this division, Champ undoubtedly has the ability to dominate this field but there are too many ifs and buts to be carrying my money this time round.

Flooring Porter

Gavin Cromwell

Last year's impressive front-running winner has had a somewhat unlucky season marred by an uncharacteristic error at the second last in the Lismullen Hurdle in November before conceding a significant lead to the trailblazing Klassical Dream in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The pair pulled clear to leave many, including trainer Gavin Cromwell, with a positive view of his chances of retaining his crown in March.

The lack of a recent '1' next to his name undoubtedly blots his copybook but an identical preparation to that of 12 months ago and an ability to handle any ground are ticks in the right boxes.

Flooring Porter wins the Stayers' Hurdle for Danny Mullins
Image: Flooring Porter wins the Stayers' Hurdle for Danny Mullins

The main negative might not be his lack of a recent win but the fact his peak performances have come at largely empty racecourses and the presence of a crowd for the first time will no doubt be a concern for this partially reformed but formerly exuberant, quirky customer.

His best is good enough to win a renewal no stronger than last year's race but the prospect of doing so in front of the 70,000-strong crowd tempers enthusiasm at the price.

Klassical Dream

Willie Mullins

This former Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner returned from an extended break with a bang last season, getting his career back on track with victory in the Grade 1 Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown in April.

He quickly proved the step up to staying trips to be right up his street with an assured victory over reigning champion Flooring Porter in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown but a bitterly disappointing effort in the Galmoy Hurdle behind Royal Kahala has raised several question marks since.

With the possible excuse of the race coming too soon, the previous exploits and back class of this lightly raced front runner could still see him garner plenty of support come the day particularly if the ground came up soft.

His defeat last time out coupled with the presence of a no doubt sharper Flooring Porter this time around, who may take him on for the lead, means the task facing Klassical Dream in his bid for a second Festival win is altogether trickier.

Paisley Park

Emma Lavelle

The 2019 winner of the Stayers' Hurdle, this popular Emma Lavelle-trained inmate produced one of the performances of the season to land a third Cleeve Hurdle last time out, powering home under Aidan Coleman after whipping round at the start to give the field a 15-length head start.

Utterly dominant in this division with an unbeaten campaign during the 2018-19 season, his career since saw a highlight Grade 1 win in the Long Walk Hurdle in 2020 followed by some head-scratching disappointments and a heart problem that led many to believe age and ailments may have got the better of him.

Paisley Park produced a stunning performace to win a third Cleeve Hurdle
Image: Paisley Park produced a stunning performace to win a third Cleeve Hurdle

Glimmers of his old brilliance however kept Andrew Gemmell's star firmly in the hearts of many and after the audacious win at Cheltenham last time, there will be plenty allowing their hearts to rule heads in the belief he could recapture his crown.

Now a ten-year-old, he will undoubtedly find the competition stiffer come the big day but with the fans back on course a positive for this crowd-pleasing veteran and the promise of a strongly run race to suit, he could be in the mix.

Royal Kahala

Peter Fahey

Peter Fahey's progressive mare has enjoyed a brilliant season so far, with a shock victory over the disappointing Klassical Dream in the Grade Two Galmoy Hurdle a career best.

With the option of the Mares' Hurdle still on the table, connections will no doubt be tempted to see if there is more in the locker over staying trips, given her best performance to date came on her first step up to the three miles last time.

Royal Kahala races clear in the Galmoy Hurdle, with Klassical Dream (red cap) left behind in fourth
Image: Royal Kahala races clear in the Galmoy Hurdle, with Klassical Dream (red cap) left behind in fourth

She is a mare on the up and soft ground would help her cause but a significant step up on what she has shown so far will be needed to figure at this level.

Thyme Hill

Philip Hobbs

Inconsistency may be the hallmark of the majority of this year's Stayers Hurdle field, but it is not a charge that could be levelled at Philip Hobbs's Thyme Hill.

Bar a lacklustre start to this season in an attritional French Champion Hurdle, this strong staying eight-year-old boasts a record that has seen him finish out of the first two only twice in his eleven lifetime starts.

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Sky Sports Racing's Mick Fitzgerald, a 14-time Cheltenham Festival winner, explores the Old Course and reveals the key battles facing the jockeys on days one and two of the four-day meeting.

The first of those was a creditable third to Envoi Allen in the Champion Bumper of 2019 12 months before a desperately unlucky length-and-a-half fourth to Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett.

His run last time out in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle behind an on-song Champ was a positive step back in the right direction for a horse who could be ready to peak come the Festival.

The fact he produced a career-best performance when winning the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle off a four-month break further bolsters confidence. Arriving fresh and primed to a track where he has performed well in the past, there could yet be more to come from this consistent performer.

Gina's verdict

A wide-open renewal of the Stayers' is littered with potential pitfalls, but I would venture the horse treading the most solid path this season is Thyme Hill.

He may have to step up again on what he's shown so far but a good Cheltenham record coupled with a progressive profile is enough to convince me this eight-year-old's peak is on the horizon.

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