Last year’s race
- Winner: Penhill
- Jockey: P Townend
- Trainer: W P Mullins
- Owner: Mr Tony Bloom
- Age: 7 Weight: 11st 10lb
- Starting Price: 12/1
- Season Form Figures: Seasonal debut
- Previous Best: 1st - Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1), Cheltenham (March 2017)
Nichols Canyon’s success in 2017 was a much-needed win in the race for the Irish as, despite having won over one-third of the first 24 runnings since the Stayers’ Hurdle was first run at the Festival in 1972, just one win since Dorans Pride took the 1995 running had been an awful and surprising run. As with the Ryanair, it was a case of waiting very patiently for a bus as the next winner followed at the next opportunity as Penhill and Supasundae fought out an all-Irish finish.
I thought that Penhill won it pretty cosily too. It was almost a carbon copy of his Albert Bartlett success in the way that he smoothly made his ground from rear to clear away on the run-in without ever really looking like getting beaten when he was produced to challenge. Most of the best staying hurdlers in history were ridden in this manner. An Irish victory had to come sooner rather than later as they had not been short on runners-up; Alpha Des Obeaux, Annie Power, Limestone Lad, Bannow Bay, Le Coudray, Golden Cross and Voler La Vedette.
Five of the last eight Irish-trained winners prepped in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan in February but it could be that last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner, Penhill on his seasonal debut, will start his campaign at Cheltenham again. Mullins managed this feat successfully on five occasions with Quevega in the Mares' Hurdle so it should not be seen as a negative. Cyborgo also won the Stayers’ Hurdle on his seasonal debut.
Backing the defending title holder, whose record reads 101211114 since 1998 or second-season hurdlers that have won on 14 other occasions during that time period, has been the way to go. Regards second-season hurdlers, they supplied three 1-2s between 1990-1998 but we had to wait for 16 years until for the next occasion when the previous campaign’s novices fought out the finish and, for good measure they recorded a 1-2-3.
Returned at 12/1 last season, Penhill became only the second winner in the last 18 years that failed to start in the first four in the betting following Cole Harden at 14/1. It’s not just the winners that are well fancied either as eight of the last 15 runnings have witnessed the first five in the betting provide the 1-2-3.
Backing the defending title holder, whose record reads 101211114 since 1998 or second-season hurdlers that have won on 14 other occasions during that time period, has been the way to go.
Cole Harden also became the first horse to even place that had tried to make all the running since 1996, let alone win it and, to top it off, he also defied the last-time-out stats having finished unplaced in his prep race whereas nine of the previous ten winners and Penhill last season had won last time out.
The Cleeve Hurdle has been the key recent guide since it was upped from 2m5f to 3m in 2005 so the only real difference between the two races now is that there is a penalty structure in place for the Cleeve as they are also both run on the New Course. Just under 50% of Stayers’ Hurdle winners and runners-up combined (10-24) have prepped in that race in the last 12 years.
Numerically speaking, the best guide in the last 14 years has been the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury won by Unowhatimeanharry, though Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s, who won seven staying hurdle crowns between them, were responsible for the lion’s share. That said, two of the last four Stayers’ Hurdle winners, Cole Harden and Thistlecrack, finished second and first respectively in that Grade 2 race at Newbury. Hard to think that this season’s race will have a major impact this time as the winner was receiving 6lb from his main rivals and he was only tenth in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle. In addition, the last winner to run in the previous season’s Stayers’ Hurdle that failed to occupy one of the top two positions was Derring Rose back in 1981, and he finished third 12 months earlier.
Unowhatimeanharry is now also aged 11 but, more significantly, so is the former Champion Hurdler, Faugheen. The only Stayers’ Hurdle winner to be aged in double figures was Crimson Embers who caused a mini surprise at 12/1 when successful at the age of 11 in 1986, by 15 lengths no less. It was a very different race back then though taking 45 seconds longer to run. The two greatest staying hurdlers that I’ve ever seen were Big Buck’s and Baracouda and both of them could only finish fifth in the Stayers’ Hurdle aged 11. Granted, they had many more miles on the clock as had injury-free careers and most of their races were over 3m whereas Faugheen has had the best part of two years off and campaigned mainly at two miles. At the other end of the age scale, no five-year-old has won the Stayers’ Hurdle since it was introduced into the Festival.
In the past I have highlighted the fact that horses stepping up to 3m for the first time here, and especially those having contested the Champion Hurdle earlier in their career, had a poor record. That came to an end when the previously-unbeaten duo of More Of That and Annie Power emulated two very different horses in the firmly-established pair of Solwhit and Celestial Halo 12 months earlier by dominating the finish. Prior to Solwhit’s victory, the previous time a former runner in the Champion Hurdle won the Stayers’ Hurdle was Nomadic Way in 1992.
Faugheen has proved himself more than once over 3m however, notably when beating Penhill by 13 lengths at Punchestown last spring. Hard to believe that Penhill was at his best that day in having to chase down a sole rival rather than working his way through a field a runners to bring him to the tail of the leader and David Mullins was allowed a free 10 lengths’ head start on Faugheen over his main rival as the tapes rose and immediately set a good gallop making all. It’s usually not wise to trust end-of-season Punchestown form anyway but especially when races are run like this.
Just in case Apple’s Jade is sent to the Stayers’ Hurdle we should also consider the record of mares and, as only relatively few have run in the race, I’d say that they have over-performed in general. Annie Power became the fourth mare since 1996 to fill the runner-up berth in 2014 following Naevog, Mysilv and Voler La Vedette. The two successful mares were Rose Ravine (1985) and Shuil Ar Aghaidh (1993).
At a glance summary
- Last season’s winner
- Second-season hurdler
- Ran in the Cleeve Hurdle or Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury
- Won last time out
- Confirmed hold-up horses
- & aged 10+
- Outside of the first four in the betting
- Unplaced in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle
- Failed to register a top-two place last time out
- Front runners