Sunbets Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1)
The SunBets Stayers’ Hurdle is held over three miles on the third day of the Cheltenham Festival meeting. This Grade 1 sees horses aged four years and over tackle 12 hurdles for their share of a £275,000 purse.
The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Ballyoptic is our tip for the Stayers’ Hurdle, having won four of his eight hurdle races. Those victories include the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle – won by Thistlecrack in 2015 – where he rallied well and showed plenty of grit to hold off Bellshill (winner of the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle on his next start, a three mile hurdle at Punchestown). Those two pulled well clear of the rest of the field, suggesting he had a promising graduation season ahead. However, he has been unlucky, with two falls late in races preventing him from putting together a good sequence of results.
The first of those came at Wetherby in the West Yorkshire Hurdle. Sent off 6/4 favourite in a good field, he was closing in on the leaders impressively when stumbling and falling at the last. That seemed to dent his confidence and his jumping was shaky when beaten at Newbury next time out. However, he looked to have bounced back in the Long Walk Hurdle when running a big race. His back legs slipped when landing after the last when still in with a chance, which would have seen him go close at least, despite the unfavourable conditions.
His form so far suggests that he is a spring ground horse and the way he travelled into the Cleeve Hurdle and then failed to get up the hill suggests that that is the case. He clearly has plenty of stamina and is well worth another try at Cheltenham on better ground, especially with his last run being his first at the Prestbury Park course. While Unowhatimeanharry is clearly a very classy horse and is the one to beat – he is now undefeated in his last eight, including three wins at Cheltenham, two in Graded races – he is very short in the market and Ballyoptic offers far more value at the price available. He showed in the Long Walk Hurdle that he can compete with the J P McManus horse and we hope that he can spring a big price surprise in March.
The World Hurdle (Stayers’ Hurdle) betting trends are as follows, based on the previous 10 races:
- All 10 winners had previous experience around the Cheltenham track, with 8 of them having Festival experience
- All 10 winners were Gradedw, 8 of them having already won a Grade 1
- 9 had either 2 or 3 runs before Cheltenham Festival that season
- 9 placed on their last start before the World Hurdle, with 8 winning
- 7 of the 10 were previous course winners
- 4 of the 7 first time winners had never tried 3 miles around Cheltenham before
- Only 4 of the 10 had previously placed in a race at Cheltenham Festival
- Only 1 Irish trained horse has won in the last 10 years (Solwhit in 2013)
Bearing in mind that Big Bucks won this race four years in a row, it is no surprise that his trainer Paul Nicholls is the leading trainer in the last ten years, although he has had no other winners. Howard Johnson is the other repeat winner, with Inglis Drever winning this race in 2007 and 2008. Ruby Walsh rode Big Bucks to all four successes, and is the leading all time jockey in the World Hurdle.
Trend Analysis: The trends do not throw up too many surprises as expected, although the lack of Irish trained horses is interesting. It could either be due to a lack of Irish three mile hurdle trial races or just a lack of good three milers being trained in Ireland recently. The strongest Irish challengers in the past couple of years were Annie Power and Alpha Des Obeaux, both whom finished second.
The World Hurdle has become one of the most eagerly anticipated and fiercely contested races at the Cheltenham festival. Some of the best jumpers in the country will converge at Prestbury Park in the showpiece event on Ladies day to prove that they are capable of taking home one of the biggest prize pots of the season.
Last year’s renewal was won by the sublime Thistlecrack, trained by Colin Tizzard and ridden by Tom Scudamore who could not wipe the smile from his face. To beat a classy horse like Alpha Des Obeaux in the manner that he did was simply breathtaking. The official winning margin was seven lengths, but it could have been two furlongs if he really wanted it – it was that easy. This race would be at his mercy if he stayed over hurdles, but the owners were keen to go over fences this season. His most likely target at the moment is the Gold Cup which is a shame for this race, but it certainly does make it a more competitive renewal in 2017.
J P McManus won this race recently with More Of That and, if all goes to plan, it is likely he will have a strong favourite for the 2017 renewal in the form of Unowhatimeanharry. This eight-year-old gelding has thrived since joining Harry Fry, winning each and every start since 15th November 2015, going from a mark of 123 to 165. He boasts an unbeaten record at Cheltenham from three runs at the track which include a Grade 1 victory in the Albert Bartlett at the festival in 2016. Victories in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot have since followed. If he carries on improving he looks the most likely winner of the 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle.
Trying to figure out where the Willie Mullins stars will go in March is a real quagmire, but if “The Machine” Faugheen turns up, Unowhatimeanharry ante post backers will be extremely worried. Rich Ricci’s star is best known for his exploits over two miles – which include a Champion Hurdle victory – but he stays three miles every bit as well. People forget that he was a wide margin winner of the Neptune in 2014 and that he was also an easy winner of a three mile Grade 3 at Limerick on heavy ground in the past. He has not been seen since hacking up in the Irish Champion Hurdle back in January, beating Arctic Fire by 15 lengths. If Annie Power does go for the Champion Hurdle to defend her crown again this season, this race looks tailor made for Faugheen.
The Irish have a poor record in this race and it is amazing that Willie Mullins has never won it, but he has another option in the form of Nichols Canyon, owned by Graham Wylie. Often referred to as “The New One of Ireland” due to the fact that nobody knows what his perfect trip is, he was a 12 length winner of the Morgiana Hurdle in November over two miles. This multiple Grade 1 winner is a classy horse, of that there is no doubt, but he has never looked a proper staying type that would win a race of this nature. This was evident in the Neptune Hurdle in 2015 where he finished a one paced third behind Windsor Park. He does not have the speed to win a Champion Hurdle (albeit he ran a great race in last year’s renewal when third to Annie Power) so connections might just have a go at this.
Sticking to the Willie Mullins theme, Rich Ricci’s wonder-mare Vroum Vroum Mag also has an entry for the Stayers’ Hurdle. The seven-year-old racked up a stunning ten wins in a row before ending that amazing run at Fairyhouse in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at the start of December, beat a short head by the gutsy Apple’s Jade. That was her first run since April 2016, so it was still a cracking effort and there is no doubt that Willie will have her in tip top condition for the Festival. She can do it over fences and over hurdles, over two miles and over three miles; she is as versatile as they come. She won the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle in 2016 – a race she could go for again – but she could also go for the Ryanair Chase or this race, nobody knows her target yet.
Jessica Harrington’s Jezki made his Christmas Hurdle comeback in December at Leopardstown after nearly 20 months off the track. The former Champion Hurdle winner was on the sidelines with a leg injury and it has been a long, painful process to get him back on the racecourse. He finished his 2014/15 campaign in brilliant form, winning the Aintree Hurdle by 13 lengths and then went on to follow up in the World Series Hurdle at Punchestown over three miles, beating Hurricane Fly into second. He stays three miles and, as he gets older, will certainly need it. The only question that needs to be answered is what sort of shape he is in after his long lay-off. If he still possesses all of that ability, he could be a strong World Hurdle contender come March.
Rich Ricci has a huge decision on his hands if all of his stars are fit and well when the festival commences. Does he run Annie Power or Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle? Both previous winners of the race, Faugheen was always seen as their Champion Hurdle horse. However, things have changed over the past 12 months due to Faugheen’s injury and the fact that Annie won the race in such convincing fashion last season. Many feel she deserves the chance to defend her title and many also feel that she should run against Faugheen in the Day 1 showpiece. The most likely scenario is that one will go for the Champion Hurdle and the other will run in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Annie Power was second in this race in 2014, just finding the thorough stayer More Of That too good on the day. People were quick to say that she did not stay the three miles, but she certainly did, well clear of proven stayers like At Fishers Cross, Zarkandar, Big Buck’s, Rule The World and Reve De Sivola. If she takes her place in this field in March, she will have a huge chance in receipt of the seven pounds mares’ allowance.
The Irish may have a woeful record in the World Hurdle, but they have a firm grip on the ante post market. Another potential raider to come across the Irish Sea is Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon. This six-year-old gelding was an extremely impressive winner of the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle over two and a half miles at Navan in November, beating the vastly improved De Plotting Shed and the classy Shaneshill. He was then sent to the UK to run in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury at the end of the month. Turning for home, no horse was travelling as well as him and he came stands side to try to mount his challenge in the hands of Sean Flanagan. Sadly, a silly jumping error cost him dear as he fell a couple out, but the opinion is he would have given Unowhatimeanharry a good race at the very least, and may well have even beaten him (traded at 2.2 in-running at the time of departure). If all is well after that fall, he could be a dark outsider for the World Hurdle this season.
If Unowhatimeanharry gets to this race in good order, J P McManus almost certainly will not run Yanworth in the race. However, if something happens to our current Stayers’ Hurdle favourite, the Alan King charge might just take his chance. Currently, his most likely target is the Champion Hurdle and it is a surprise to many that they have not gone over the larger obstacles with him. He is an extremely classy horse, with his only defeat in his last six runs coming at the hands of Yorkhill in last season’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the festival – a race that will go down as one to forget for Barry Geraghty. He started this campaign off with a gutsy, if not brilliant, win in the Grade 2 Coral Hurdle at Ascot and he cannot be dismissed for any race he ends up running in.
Alpha Des Obeaux was a gallant runner up to Thistlecrack in last year’s renewal and would be a huge player if he turned up in 2017. However, connections have sent him over the larger obstacles this season and he is currently the joint favourite for the National Hunt Chase and also has an entry for the RSA Chase. It looks unlikely that he will run in the Stayers’ Hurdle this season, but plans can change. The Gordon Elliott trained Apple’s Jade, who beat Vroum Vroum Mag recently, also has an entry. However, Gordon was quite adamant that she would go for the Mares’ Hurdle this season.
There have only been ten different winners of the World Hurdle in the last 15 years, with Barracuda picking up back-to-back wins (2002, 2003) before Inglis Driver grabbed the title in 2005, 2007 and 2008 for the Howard Johnson team.
Perhaps the most recognisable name from the list of former winners is that of Big Buck’s. The Paul Nicholls star finished first past the post on consecutive occasions from 2009 to 2012.
Big Buck’s was a 6/1 chance when lining up for the World Hurdle for the first time, having secured the Cleeve Hurdle in his previous run. Jockey Ruby Walsh settled his ride in mid-division for much of the race, still in tenth position from the third from home. Big Buck’s responded well to being bustled along coming down the hill and stayed on powerfully late, recovering from a dodgy final jump to relegate Nicky Henderson’s Punchestowns into second.
The French-bred horse went off the 5/6 favourite when making his reappearance in 2010, once again making himself comfortable mid-pack. The weakening of many of the early front-runners allowed Big Buck’s to sit in fourth coming down the hill, moving from the outside to come between long time leaders Time For Rupert and War Of Attrition. Whilst he made a similar mistake at the last, he put three lengths between himself and runner-up Time For Rupert.
Big Buck’s took a more prominent position in 2011, the race lacking pace. He raced on the inside of long-time leader Cross Kennon at the second last before switching outside after an inferior jump. Cross Kennon was headed well before the last and Big Buck’s managed to hang on ahead of the improving Grand Crus who could not quite make up the one-and-three-quarter length gap.
The horse would contest the race twice more, winning in 2012 before finishing fifth in the 2014 renewal after a season out. This 2012 renewal began with Big Buck’s being positioned handily behind the leading pair of Cross Kennon and Five Dream. Making the turn towards the third-last, Big Buck’s followed the leader Mourad, a superior jump putting Buck’s on terms before leading at the penultimate obstacle. Under pressure from mare Voler La Vedette, Big Buck’s wandered, though straightened up over the last and held off his nearest rival.
Solwhit was held up by Paul Carberry throughout the 2013 renewal, Bog Warrior and Reve de Sivola putting clear water between themselves and the rest of the field for the first circuit. These leaders came back to the pack and Solwhit pounced when handy at the third last. The charge of Carberry and Charles Byrnes gained momentum by putting in a better jump at the last going two-and-a-half clear of Celestial Halo in second to be the first Irish trained winner since Michael Hourigan’s Dorans Pride way back in 1995.
In 2014, More Of That got the better of the unbeaten Annie Power for Jonjo O’Neill and Barry Geraghty, finishing a length and a half clear of Willie Mullins’s star mare. The two were inseparable throughout, held up when keen at the back of the field. It was the former, also unbeaten at the time, who showed his hand first, cutting through the pack on the descent. Annie Power joined him just before the last, a length clear of nearest rival At Fishers Cross, but laboured and was unable to catch her fellow six-year-old before the line.
2015 saw Cole Harden take a big step forward from his mark of 158 to beat Paul Nicholls’s Saphir Du Rheu into second place by over three lengths. He made all and found extra toe all the way up the hill to hold on at a big price of 14/1 for Warren Greatrex. It was jockey Gavin Sheehan’s first Grade 1 winner and one we are sure he will remember for the rest of his life, with Cole Harden dominating from the front and battling out, helped by a lack of out-and-out stayers in the field behind him. Many were burnt off by the fast pace, while the runner-up struggled with his jumping, as did Zarkander back in third.
It could be argued that we saw the best World Hurdle display ever in 2016 when Thistlecrack made the hair stand up on the back of our necks, beating Alpha Des Obeaux by seven lengths. Tom Scudamore was pulling double on the bridle throughout and moved upside the Mouse Morris trained horse approaching the second last hurdle. Tom pushed the button and Thistlecrack took off up the hill as if it were not there. Sadly, it looks like he will not be back to defend his crown, but he has left some very fond memories for the racing world to look back on.
There are 47 runners at the initial entry stage for the Sun Beat Stayers’ Hurdle:
- Born Survivor
- Camping Ground
- Clondaw Warrior
- Cole Harden
- De Plotting Shed
- Henri Parry Morgan
- Ivanovich Gorbatov
- Lil Rockerfeller
- Mister Miyagi
- More Of That
- Nichols Canyon
- Old Guard
- One Track Mind
- Ordo Ab Chao
- Ptit Zig
- Reve De Sivola
- Shantou Bob
- Shantou Village
- Snow Falcon
- Taquin Du Seuil
- The New One
- The Romford Pele
- Three Musketeers
- Un Temps Pour Tout
- West Approach
- Wicklow Brave
- Annie Power
- Apple’s Jade
- Vroum Vroum Mag