Paisley Park is the favourite to win the Stayers Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March but first he will be tested at the same course this Saturday, says Kevin Blake...
"While Paisley Park's season undoubtedly revolves around the Stayers' Hurdle, the Cleeve Hurdle could well prove to be a significant battleground in his campaign. He can't afford to be too far off his top game."
This time last year, Paisley Park was on the upgrade. He had won the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, but the workmanlike style of that victory was summed up by the fact that he was still available at 12/1 for the Stayers' Hurdle in the weeks after it. That all changed when he ran out the highly-impressive winner of the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, with him being cut into short-priced favouritism for the Stayers' Hurdle prior to going on to get the job done on a never-to-be-forgotten day at the Festival.
Fast forward a year and Paisley Park is set to return to the Cleeve Hurdle as the odds-on favourite. Now well-established as the leader of the division, he is the one setting the bar for his rivals to come up to and there seems to be a widespread feeling that he has all the potential to dominate the division for many years to come.
Paisley Park hasn't achieved greatness yet
It is easy to see why, as Paisley Park closely resembles what one would expect to arrive at your door after ordering a custom-built Stayers' Hurdle horse. A highly-efficient performer in every regard, he often seems a shade behind the bridle and his jumping is low risk and consistent. There is no waste with him.
However, while it is easy to make comparisons between Paisley Park and Big Buck's in terms of their racing characters, Paisley Park hasn't yet reached the level of the great stayers of recent decades such as Big Buck's or Baracouda. There is still work to be done on that front and this Saturday might play a more significant role in that quest that one might expect.
If The Cap Fits is main rival
Barring something unexpected springs from the pack on Saturday or in the weeks ahead, the leading danger to Paisley Park in what is a thin division looks to be If The Cap Fits. The eight-year-old has taken his form to a new level since cheekpieces have been applied in his last two starts.
Even more significantly, he is very unexposed over three miles, with his first and only try at that sort of distance having yielded a gutsy victory in the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree in April. He looked to achieve even more when giving 6lb and an authoritative beating to Call Me Lord back over two-miles three-furlongs in the Ascot Hurdle on his seasonal reappearance in November.
That performance has resulted in his official rating rising to 166, just 3lb behind Paisley Park. While he hasn't ever run at Cheltenham, there isn't anything of note in his form to suggest the track will be an issue. Make no mistake, he is a very serious contender in the staying hurdle division.
Paisley Park might well have another serious rival to worry about on Saturday in Summerville Boy. The winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 2018, he didn't take all that well to fences earlier this season and made a winning return to hurdling in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham earlier month. While he has to improve to trouble the main protagonists, this longer trip has the potential to suit him and he shouldn't be ruled out.
While Paisley Park's season undoubtedly revolves around the Stayers' Hurdle, the Cleeve Hurdle could well prove to be a significant battleground in his campaign. He can't afford to be too far off his top game. While he travelled encouragingly smoothly by his standards when making a winning return in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, the level of form he showed in giving Thistlecrack 6lb and a snug beating was below his best. He is likely to need to show more to win the Cleeve Hurdle.
With him having missed an intended engagement in the Long Walk Hurdle since then, one can't help but wonder if Emma Lavelle has left something to work on with Paisley Park with a view to peaking him for March. If that is the case, this might not be as straightforward an assignment as his connections would hope given the strength of the opposition.
All told, if Paisley Park can readily see off his rivals on Saturday over what is the same course and distance as the Stayers' Hurdle, the scope for that form being reversed in March will be limited. Such a performance would likely see Paisley Park cut into odds-on favouritism for March, making him the only horse to be trading at odds-on for a race at this year's Festival. This is notable in itself as there hasn't been a Cheltenham Festival without an odds-on favourite since 2007 and as recently as 2018 there were six of them at the four day meeting.
On the other hand, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Paisley Park gets a big fright on Saturday. If The Cap Fits is a very serious rival for him and Saturday could be the right day to side with Harry Fry's charge at a general price of 3/1.