The big race on day one of the Winter Carnival at Newbury this Friday is the 3m Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle (15:00), and British champion stayer Paisley Park cannot be opposed.
Emma Lavelle’s stable star swept all-comers aside in this division last season, improving by more than two stone in ratings throughout the campaign with five consecutive wins.
After landing an Aintree handicap on reappearance, Paisley Park took the step up into Grade 3 company in his stride at Haydock.
He came with a strong late run under Aidan Coleman to lead close home and beat Scottish raider Shades Of Midnight by half-a-length.
This son of Oscar followed-up with a maiden success at the highest level. He confirmed the form of his victory over West Approach in the JLT Long Walk at Ascot by completing a four-timer in the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham.
Paisley Park was thus sent off favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle itself on a fairytale day for inspirational owner Andrew Gemmell.
Although not fluent over the last at the Festival, he responded for pressure and drew away up the hill to beat Sam Spinner by 2 3/4 lengths.
That is strong form as 10 horses finishing in-behind Paisley Park have won since. While many of those have come in chases, it sets a clear and obvious standard in the context of the Long Distance Hurdle.
As Paisley Park is still lightly-raced for his age and the youngest in the line-up as a seven-year-old, there is still more scope for progress.
He looks rock solid at 4/6 with Unibet for victory on the road to another campaign that promises dominance of stayers’ races.
Dual Long Distance Hurdle hero Unowhatimeanharry the forecast choice
This event has gone to Unowhatimeanharry in two of the last three seasons.
Trained by Harry Fry for leading owner JP McManus, he is one of two popular veterans lining up in this Long Distance Hurdle renewal.
The 11-year-old son of Irish Derby winner Sir Harry Lewis scored on two of his starts last term.
He came on for a reappearance run at Aintree by landing this for the second time when stable companion Momella fell and Sam Spinner unseated.
Unowhatimeanharry kept his feet, however, and did nothing wrong in winning to enhance his course record to three wins and a second from four starts at Newbury.
He then fell in the Long Walk and finished down the field at the Cheltenham Festival and at Aintree.
Retirement may well have been looming for Unowhatimeanharry, but he bounced back with Grade 1 glory in the Champion Stayers Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.
He found plenty for pressure despite his advancing years and beat Bacardys – a winner since – by three lengths.
Unowhatimeanharry was far from disgraced on his return to action when eased in grade for the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby earlier this month.
He was penalised for his success in Ireland and had to give 6lb to the re-opposing The Worlds End.
As the pair now meet off level weights – that’s 6lb better terms for Unowhatimeanharry – he has every chance of reversing the form.
There’s only five lengths to find and the way he came on for a run last term suggests that this galloping track suits him best.
With the Fry stable in decent nick like Lavelle’s yard, Unowhatimeanharry looks the obvious forecast choice at 7/1 with BetVictor.
Giving away mileage and age to Paisley Park is likely to hamper any hat-trick bid in this race, however.
Reasons to take on remainder
The Worlds End did best Unowhatimeanharry at Wetherby for trainer Tom George, but is now 6lb worse off. That leaves the eight-year-old with plenty to do to confirm form.
He hasn’t been the most consistent of horses over hurdles or fences, but The Worlds End is rated 4lb better in this sphere. This Stowaway gelding did land a Grade 1 novice event at Aintree in 2017, though.
Owned by the McNeill family, The Worlds End hasn’t put a sequence of wins together in almost three years. That’s a concern and he lacks course experience.
Beer Goggles caused an upset in the Long Distance Hurdle two years ago, but has hardly been seen since.
Trained then by the late Richard Woollacott, the eight-year-old made all in game fashion to defy odds of 40/1 and deny Unowhatimeanharry.
However, Beer Goggles has had just one subsequent outing in the 2018 Cleeve Hurdle on bottomless ground when fifth to mudlark Agrapart. That leaves him with a racecourse absence of 671 days to overcome.
As Beer Goggles has also changed stables and makes a belated debut for current handler Nicky Martin, it’s very hard to fancy him after that lengthy lay-off.
The Long Distance Hurdle field is completed by 2015 winner Thistlecrack. Colin Tizzard’s 11-year-old actually comes out 4lb ahead of Paisley Park on adjusted ratings here.
It’s fair to say he’s not the force of old, however. Thistlecrack needed the run in Haydock’s Betfair Chase 12 months ago, before chasing home Clan Des Obeaux in a bid to regain the King George at Kempton.
He’s vulnerable to horses with similar lightly-raced profiles like Paisley Park. Thistlecrack has been a brilliant servant to owners John and Heather Snook, but odds of 11/2 with William Hill don’t appeal.