No other Cheltenham Festival race does repeat winners like the Stayers’ Hurdle, formerly the World Hurdle, and sponsored by Paddy Power for the first time in 2020.
Crimson Embers in 1982 and 1986, Galmoy in 1987 and 1988, and Baracouda in 2002 and 2003, all doubled up. Inglis Drever trebled up in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and, of course, the legendary Big Buck’s won four consecutive editions from 2009 to 2012 inclusive.
The spoils have been shared around since the last-named, but last year’s winner PAISLEY PARK is, at the time of writing, poised and ready to go in defence of his title, and is at a short price at that.
I have opposed Paisley Park a few times of late, and been taught a lesson each time. The gelding who seemed to need an end-to-end gallop, even at long distances, to bring the best out in him has now won his last seven, including a couple this season that were anything but strongly-run.
His Newbury defeat of Thistlecrack, conceding that declining star 6 lb, came with a finishing speed of 109.8% (that is, he finished nearly 10% quicker than his average race speed), while his Cleeve Hurdle win at Cheltenham last time weighs in at an even speedier 112.8%.
It is possible to crab the form of the latter, mostly due to the proximity of Lisnagar Oscar and Kilbricken Storm, but the sectionals show that Paisley Park did well and is probably as good as he was when winning the same race by 12 lengths and the Stayers’ Hurdle by two and three quarter lengths in 2019.
Paisley Park is no one-dimensional stamina glutton any longer, if he ever was, and he has developed the champion’s gift of taking whatever is thrown at him and still prevailing.
What he has not achieved, however, is to beat a really good rival at the peak of their form. Depending on how the cards are played, he may have to do just that in March if BENIE DES DIEUX runs in this rather than in the easier option of the Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day. She has also been mooted for the Champion Hurdle by owner Rich Ricci but would need to be supplemented.
The Willie Mullins-trained mare could not have been much more impressive than when beating the 2018 Stayers’ winner Penhill by 21 lengths in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park recently, but Penhill is not the horse he was, and none of the others really turned up, either. The time was good, however.
For a more solid piece of form from Benie Des Dieux, you need go back only as far as her previous run, in which she downed the star of French jump racing De Bon Coeur by six and a half lengths in the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil in May.
That is worth a 161 rating in my book, and for those who like collateral lines it is interesting to note that Bapaume was nine and a half lengths back in fourth that day having been beaten a length and a half less in the same finishing position by Paisley Park at Cheltenham seven weeks earlier.
While that 161 figure is below Paisley Park’s 165 with me, Benie des Dieux would receive 7 lb from the defending champion if they clashed in the Stayers’, which swings the scales back in her favour. There should be little doubt about the mare’s stamina given that the Auteuil race was over in excess of 25f and on soft ground, though a finishing speed of 107.6% shows that it was not especially well-run.
It is difficult to drum up much enthusiasm for the other contenders for the Stayers’.SUMMERVILLE BOY ran Paisley Park to a length and a quarter in the Cleeve Hurdle last time, but got the run of the race more than that rival and earns a 5 lb smaller upgrade on sectionals as a result (158 figure with me).
CITY ISLAND may revert from fences, but his best hurdling effort by far is his defeat of Champ in an average Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the last Cheltenham Festival, form that is worth about 153 and 150 on ratings respectively.
Perhaps the best outsider is IF THE CAP FITS, though you would not think so from his never-dangerous fifth in the Cleeve the other day. However, that was his first run for nine weeks, he received an unenterprising ride in a messy race, and his ready defeat of Call Me Lord in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November had come in a good time (now on 159 with me).
The ante-post betting has this as something of a two-horse race, with one of those – Benie Des Dieux – not certain to run. Indeed, the discrepancy between the “all in” price and the “non-runner, no bet” price on her suggests it is close to 50/50 that the mare runs in this race rather than in the Mares’ Hurdle (which she won in 2018 and should have won last year), or in neither.
If you have good reason to think the probabilities should be different to that, then feel free to act accordingly. For me, it is just about worth taking a hit on the price in order to have the insurance of money back if Benie Des Dieux does not turn up.
What I am pretty confident about is that she will give the defending champion Paisley Park plenty to think about if she runs on Thursday rather than on Tuesday.