David Cleary offers an alternative to odds-on Paisley Park for the Stayers' Hurdle in his latest antepost preview...
"It is that [Ballymore] form that makes City Island a standout at the prices for the Stayers'. After travelling strongly under a patient ride (mostly jumping fluently), City Island and the favourite Champ kicked away from the others...[and] City Island proved the stronger up the stiff run-in and drew away to win by two lengths. That was Champ's only defeat in six starts last season and he should also be unbeaten in three over fences this time round."
City Island worth a punt
Reigning champion Paisley Park is about the shortest priced runner of the Festival at the time of writing, one of only two currently trading at odds on over the whole four days.
It's hard to see which among the established staying hurdlers might dethrone him and he will clearly be tough to beat if he runs his race, but there is a wild card among the 29 still engaged in the Stayers' Hurdle, City Island, who looks well worth considering at current odds.
So far as City Island is concerned, it's fair to say that the Stayers' wasn't Plan A in the autumn. He embarked on a chasing career, but soon encountered choppy waters and was put on hold after he could finish only a remote second at Punchestown in January. Interestingly, though, after his win in last season's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, the Stayers' Hurdle was said to be the likely plan for 2019/20.
It is that piece of form that makes City Island a standout at the prices for the race. After travelling strongly under a patient ride (mostly jumping fluently), he and the favourite Champ kicked away from the others in contention two out. There was little between the pair over the final flight, but City Island proved the stronger up the stiff run-in and drew away to win by two lengths. That was Champ's only defeat in six starts last season and he should also be unbeaten in three over fences this time round.
The Ballymore form has depth to it, beyond the runner-up, who is now favourite for the RSA Chase. The fourth Brewin'Upastorm was runner-up in a Grade 1 at Aintree and has won both starts over fences this season. The fifth Sams Profile was narrowly beaten in a Grade 1 at Punchestown on his only start since. City Island was not in the same form as at Cheltenham, but he was an inexperienced hurdler who would surely have been primed for a race sponsored by his owners, best judged on that rather than his later effort.
Clearly, a better profile this winter would be preferred, but his just not taking to fences seems reason enough to excuse City Island's two runs this season. As for stepping up to three miles, there is plenty of encouragement from his pedigree and the way he saw out the trip over two miles five furlongs in the Ballymore.
Clearly the right favourite
The case for Paisley Park is an easy one to take, hence his price. He has won his last seven starts, making his breakthrough at graded level when storming away with the 2019 Cleeve Hurdle and following up as favourite in this race six weeks later. Eighteen ran in last season's edition; the next four home have all gone chasing, which leaves Bacardys the chief candidate from those behind Paisley Park twelve months ago.
On his first two efforts this winter, Bacardys would have place prospects, but he flopped when joint favourite for the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. His trainer Willie Mullins blamed himself for running too quickly after his previous outing and has given the horse a break since.
Mullins also has Benie des Dieux, who is an intended runner in the Mares' Hurdle, and the 2018 winner Penhill entered in the Stayers'. Penhill missed last season and hasn't shown the same form in four outings this season, though he was more like his old self when runner-up in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan earlier in February.
Apple's Jade a contender if taking her chance
Gordon Elliott may be represented by Apple's Jade, who should be kept onside if she makes the trip. Her record at three miles includes three wins in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown, including the most recent one, and a narrow defeat in the Liverpool Hurdle. However, Apple's Jade ran no sort of race at Gowran in January and seems not to have been pleasing her trainer since. She has won and run well at previous Cheltenham Festivals, but she also flopped when favourite for the Champion Hurdle last season, so clearly a poor run is again a possibility, even if she does show.
Of the British-trained opposition to Paisley Park, Summerville Boy, a former winner of the Supreme and back on his game this season, is likely to run a race, though he was beaten decisively enough by Paisley Park in the Cleeve and would surely need to step up again to turn the tables.
Emitom had been well behind Summerville Boy on his return over two and a half miles, but earned his ticket to the Stayers' when winning over three on bad ground at Haydock last weekend. That form wouldn't be good enough, so Emitom needs to improve again, though that is on the cards, given it was just his second run out of novice company. On his final start last season, he'd run well when second to Champ in the Sefton at Aintree, form that is inferior to that shown by City Island the month before. Champ is still in the Stayers', though he is set for the RSA Chase instead.
A late switch for Champ or Benie des Dieux is possible, so long as they still hold an entry, of course, but, as things stand, Paisley Park is the one to beat for the Stayers' Hurdle. However, the market makes that obvious. The unexposed City Island might just be the one to cause an upset.
Back City Island at [20.0] or bigger for the Stayers' Hurdle