David Cleary begins a series of Cheltenham Festival championship race previews with a look at the Stayers Hurdle where Bacardys looks the value bet against Paisley Park...
"Bacardys is certainly not the luckiest horse, having been badly baulked when well fancied for the 2017 Ballymore and having ended up on the floor a couple of times in his quest for a win over fences. His first attempt at chasing having been called off, Bacardys turned up in last season's Stayers' and took another tumble, at the last when likely to finish third."
Paisley a good look after perfect season so far
The obvious starting point is the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham last month. Current Stayers' Hurdle favourite Paisley Park (pictured below) forced his way to the head of the market after a 12-length success in what beforehand had looked a closely matched contest. That was a fourth success from four starts this season for Paisley Park, following handicap wins at Aintree and Haydock and a victory in the Long Walk at Ascot, marking him out as the one upwardly mobile runner in the line-up.
It's a measure of the progress between Ascot and the Cleeve that Paisley Park had beaten the runner-up in both, West Approach, by just two lengths at the former at level weights (he was giving him 6lb at Cheltenham). The key to Paisley Park's progress is essentially stamina - the Cleeve was a well-run race and enabled him to bring that quality to the fore after taking up the running going to the last. For those looking to find something against him, the question is whether he will get a race in the Stayers' that suits him so well as the Cleeve did? Drier ground wouldn't be a problem, but combined with a lesser gallop it just might be.
Whether any of those behind him in the Cleeve can turn the tables is doubtful. Perhaps the third Black Op, given a race with less emphasis on stamina, is the one who might. He travelled well for a long way, but didn't see things out nearly so well as the winner.
Black Op, runner-up to Samcro in the 2018 Ballymore, was back over hurdles after his jumping had let him down in two starts in novice chases, so it might be that he could also come on over hurdles having got his eye in in the Cleeve.
Penhill's long absence no great concern
Sam Spinner and Lil Rockerfeller had forced the pace in the Cleeve and had led the field in last season's Stayers', though on that occasion they hadn't set anything like so searching a gallop. That day, the runners were well bunched after two out before Penhill quickened on the outside from the back of the pack. He went on to beat Supasundae by two lengths, gaining a second Festival win, having landed the Albert Bartlett the previous year. Penhill hasn't been seen since last April's Punchestown Festival, but it was the same situation a year ago, so it's not of great concern that he hasn't had a prep run.
Supasundae hasn't run at three miles since last year's Stayers', though having been thumped by Apple's Jade twice this winter, he seems more likely to have a second go in this, rather than tackle the mare again in the Champion. He is a player, but there is some doubt as to whether he's quite so good as he was.
Bacardys a different beast over hurdles
The most interesting of the others from last season's Stayers' is Bacardys. He's certainly not the luckiest horse, having been badly baulked when well fancied for the 2017 Ballymore and having ended up on the floor a couple of times in his quest for a win over fences. His first attempt at chasing having been called off, Bacardys turned up in last season's Stayers' and took another tumble, at the last when likely to finish third.
That, though, doesn't tell the whole story - Bacardys shaped at least as well as the first two, travelling strongly down the hill, but stuck behind horses on the inside and left poorly positioned in relation to the first two, having to be switched, going to the last. His latest spell over fences ended with a fall at Leopardstown at Christmas, so well being is a slight doubt, but he still holds a Stayers' entry after the latest forfeit stage.
Faugheen the popular choice
Bacardys' stable companion Faugheen (pictured below) would be a popular winner of the Stayers' - and has been backed by Betfair colleague Tony Calvin. The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner looked booked for retirement after his tame defeat in last season's Champion, but he bounced back to form at Punchestown, tried at three miles for the first time in five years, where he beat Penhill comprehensively.
Penhill wasn't in the same form as at Cheltenham, but the performance still suggested Faugheen retained nearly all his old ability. Whether he does a year on, at the age of 11, is an unknown. He was done for speed at two miles when beaten at 2/5 on his reappearance and fell two out when chasing Apple's Jade in the three-mile Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown.
There are other imponderables, such as Samcro - apparently a possible runner - or even a supplemented Presenting Percy, if his return to chasing goes pear shaped at the weekend. However, as it stands, Bacardys is the one that makes most appeal at current odds.