One of the least glamourous races of the week, certainly of the Grade One’s anyway, The Stayers’ Hurdle (nee World Hurdle) doesn’t offer Festival fans a great deal to get excited about, providing neither the pace and precision of The Champion Hurdle nor the jumping of the championship chases. It might be a bit harsh to say that and it could be a case of us being spoilt for choice during Festival week, but I’d be surprised if the race was the favourite of many.
Having just sold the prospect of The Stayers’ Hurdle so well and despite the supposed lack of glamour, we have had some famous winners worth mentioning. We can only really begin with Big Buck’s, a four time winner whose record is unlikely to ever be surpassed, he was untouchable in the division over a four year period and looking back the most surprising thing is he never went off shorter than 5/6F in any of his victories. We’ve also seen other serial winners this century, with Inglis Drever bagging a then record breaking treble and Baracouda securing a double for France. Last year’s renewal went to Thistlecrack, who of course won’t be back to defend the title but added a touch of class to the rollcall of winners.
I’m not sure if there is a particular profile of winners to help with selecting the winner, other than having the ability to stay and maybe having a little bit of class to quicken or sustain a pace at the business end of such a race.
The current favourite for the race is one of the most worthy favourites of the Festival, perhaps only behind Douvan. Having put together a phenomenal sequence of wins (eight and counting), including in last year’s Albert Bartlett, Unowhatimeanharry is by far and away the form pick in the field, with the worst piece of form he has shown this season still better than the best form shown by anything else (on ratings). It may be due to the profile of the race or the less than glamourous journey he has taken to the top, but I cannot understand why Unowhatimeanharry is not odds-on. He has won every race this year without much trouble, still looks to be improving and should handle the trip and ground fine. I can’t help but feel that if he was trained by Mullins he would be long odds-on.
With the current favourite in the ownership of JP McManus, having already accounted for one other JP contender shifting targets, and the uncertainty surrounding the Champion Hurdle, it is not an absolute certainty that the current second favourite will even line-up, although I feel it is more likely to than not. Jezki, a previous Champion Hurdle winner who spent the best part of two years off the track with injury, clearly has a bit more class than the usual Stayers’ Hurdle contender but question marks have to remain around how much ability remains after so long off the track, even if he is unbelievably still only nine years old and returned first time out with comfortable victory. After winning over three miles in 2015, beating Hurricane Fly in the process, this seems to have been the long-held target but you can see the logic in targeting a previous winner at the Champion Hurdle, particularly one that looks a little weak. The Stayers’ Hurdle does look the more likely, and suitable, target to me though, as I feel he may get done for a little bit of pace over two miles at this stage of his career, whereas he has both the stamina and that little bit of pace and class to really trouble the usual Stayers’ Hurdle plodders. If he lines up here, he’s a real contender.
Willie Mullins doesn’t have a great record in this race, more due to not having the type of horse to aim at it than anything else, with Annie Power going closest when finishing second and maybe not quite seeing out the trip. He has a few quoted in the betting, but the main contender looks to be Shaneshill; a consistent sort who has finished runner-up in all three of his Festival appearances – Champion Bumper, Supreme Novices Hurdle and the RSA. That sequence of second place finishes really sums up this horse, who is incredibly consistent and always to run to merit but always seems to find one too good to actually win the big prizes. He most recently won a Grade Two at Gowran Park over three miles on soft going, so clearly has the ability to stay and win on his day, but I’d question if he just lacked that little something to win this.
There are other Mullins’ contenders entered or quoted in the betting, but I won’t touch upon these too much. Clondaw Warrior is a really consistent sort who has performed with credit in both codes but wouldn’t be good enough to win this, whilst Footpad is an interesting entry as a five-year-old but would be a surprise winner as such and only has form over much shorter. Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag also feature prominently but I’d be very surprised if either lined-up.
We will have a previous winner in the line-up in the form of Cole Harden, who won at 14/1 in 2015. I’m not convinced of the quality of the field he beat to win that year and his form dropped off since, with an unsuccessful chase campaign quickly abandoned after one run this year. However, he has since had a wind-op and looked to return to some kind of form last time out when second in the Cleeve Hurdle, whilst the likely return to good ground should also eke out some further improvement. With that in mind, he could represent some each way value as a former winner, but I doubt he’d be good enough to regain his title.
From the same stable One Track Mind won a Grade One in Ireland last year, however, that form looks quite poor for the level in my eyes and he had a very disappointing stint chasing this year, so I’d doubt if he was good enough to come anywhere close to winning.
Ballyoptic won at the Aintree meeting last year as a novice and returned this year to win a handicap at Chepstow quite impressively. However, since then he has been a faller twice, when seeming to slip after the hurdle rather than fall, and been behind Unowhatimeanharry three times, once when a faller. He could improve for better ground, although there’s no real evidence to support that, but he has failed to get anywhere closer than six lengths of the favourite, so I can’t see why he would do any better now. His stablemate The New One would be the really interesting one if lining-up, but that’s unlikely to happen.
A winner at Cheltenham earlier in the season when sticking on gamely at the finish and a previous winner of the Betfair Hurdle, Agrapart clearly has a little bit of class and there is still room for improvement. However, all of his form has come on soft and he looks a real mud lover, so I couldn’t back him with the likelihood of better ground at the Festival.
Paul Nicholls farmed this race for years with Big Buck’s but looks unlikely to secure another title this year, with Zarkandar his main entry. A winner of the Triumph back in 2011, he has run well in this race before without ever really threatening to win and I fail to see how this year will be any different, despite winning last time out. Old Guard is also entered but he might be a better bet for a handicap at the Festival with his mark dropping to a more competitive level.
Snow Falcon looked one to keep an eye on for the season when falling while still travelling well first time out, in the race bagged by Unowhatimeanharry, but his two runs since have suggested he may just be short of the quality required.
Any other entries at this point aren’t really worth mentioning as they either won’t be good enough to contend or have much more obvious targets.
Unowhatimeanharry should win. He has been brilliant in what he has shown so far and if he runs to form, surely he wins. If he was in a more glamourous division or trained by a bigger name he’d surely be long odds-on at this point. The only potential spanner in the works could be Jezki, who would be a very classy addition to the race and on-form would surely be too good for the majority. He would definitely be worth backing at the right price and the current best of 10/1 is more than fair, however, with his injury record and the potential for the dreaded bounce factor he’s one I’m going to leave to backing until the day.
Of the remainder, I still think there’s a bit of each way value available in Shaneshill. He is available at a best price of 11/1 (¼ of the odds for each way), so would return profit if running into a place as expected, whilst he would certainly be best of the rest if the above two fail to run to expectations.
Unowhatimeanharry – Win @ 11/8– (Betfair)
Shaneshill – e/w @ 11/1 (Stan James – ¼ odds)