Continuing his series of Cheltenham antepost previews, David Cleary turns his attention to the leading staying hurdlers, and selects a top chaser to beat them...
"In terms of ability, Kemboy is the clear pick of the Stayers' Hurdle entries. Whether he can show that back over timber, particularly after such a gap, explains why he's a double-figure price, rather than favourite."
That Paisley Park and Thyme Hill dominate the market for the Stayers' Hurdle is really no surprise: the once-and-perhaps-future champ against the pretender to the crown, a classic sporting tale. The pair have met twice this season and the honours are all square. Thyme Hill was perhaps the sharper when he beat Paisley Park at Newbury and was receiving weight from that rival. Paisley Park turned the tables in the Long Walk at Ascot before Christmas, producing his trademark strong finish to prevail late on in a race that could have gone either way.
Paisley Park would have run in the Cleeve Hurdle, had the Cheltenham Trials meeting not been lost to the weather; as it is, both will go to the Festival without a run since Christmas. A win in the Cleeve was Paisley Park's prep before both his previous runs in the Stayers', which resulted in a win in 2019 and an off-colour seventh in 2020.
Thyme Hill, a shade unfortunate in finishing fourth to Monkfish in last season's Albert Bartlett, is two years younger than Paisley Park and a slightly different ride at Ascot might have swung the result. They are the right favourites, but picking between the pair is hard and they take out a big chunk of the market.
Roksana: A place candidate at best?
Of the other British-trained contenders, last year's shock winner Lisnagar Oscar failed to repeat that form in two runs in the autumn - a long way behind Thyme Hill at Newbury - and has since had a wind op. He was due to run in a Pertemps qualifier at Exeter last weekend, but missed that and has been entered at Haydock this coming weekend. There are clearly major doubts about him. Roksana seems sure to run well, though she has a couple of lengths to make on Paisley Park and Thyme Hill from Ascot and may well need to be better than ever to win.
The French Champion Hurdle winner Paul's Saga has been one of the ante-post punts of the season, so the shrewdies that are on would have been hoping for a lot better than she showed on her British debut at Warwick on Monday. Her French form makes her a serious player and perhaps proper winter ground off a break wasn't ideal. Although Paul's Saga won on her hurdling debut after nearly a year off, her overall record suggests she comes on from a run after a break. She may yet be one to have on side.
Sire du Berlais: Pick of the Irish?
However, the main threat to the market leaders is likely to come from Ireland. As with the British, a lot of the form lines intertwine, specifically in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. There, Flooring Porter beat The Storyteller, Sire du Berlais and Fury Road, the quartet finishing in reverse market order.
Flooring Porter won convincingly on his first try at graded company and has been a rapid improver this season, though he rather got loose on the lead and won't be so likely to be gifted such an advantage in the Stayers'.
Fury Road was a well-backed favourite and didn't have any obvious excuses, though he's arguably the least exposed on the quartet and his run in the Albert Bartlett last season - when just in front of Thyme Hill - makes him still of interest.
Sire du Berlais, winner of the Pertemps Final in the last two seasons, is the shortest priced of these four for Cheltenham. He is closely matched on form with both last season's Stayers' runner-up Ronald Pump and The Storyteller, runner-up to him in last season's Pertemps. He looks no better than where he should be in the betting.
The concern with The Storyteller, more attractively priced, is that this is a prep run for a tilt at the Grand National. He's the only one of the Christmas Hurdle principals to have run since, having finished second to Kemboy back over fences in the Irish Gold Cup earlier this month.
Kemboy: Tempting despite lack of hurdling experience?
Kemboy himself is a fascinating contender for the Stayers', despite his hurdling career being restricted to four runs in 2016/17. He showed useful form then, but has gone on to much greater things over fences subsequently. In terms of ability, Kemboy is the clear pick of the Stayers' Hurdle entries. Whether he can show that back over timber, particularly after such a gap, explains why he's a double-figure price, rather than favourite.
Kemboy has had jumping issues in the last two runnings of the Gold Cup and his trainer Willie Mullins lacks a strong candidate for this race - particularly after Benie des Dieux was ruled out of the Festival earlier in the week. There is an obvious concern about the switch in discipline, but with only two hurdles in the last seven furlongs, this is less likely to be a race that turns on slick hurdling. Weighing up all the options, backing Kemboy looks the best at the prices, available at 12/1 NRNB with Betfair Sportsbook