The 2017 renewal of the Stayer’s Hurdle (reverting to its previous name after a spell as the World Hurdle) looked like it was going to be a wide open affair after the defection to Chasing of last year’s runaway winner Thistlecrack, now favourite for the Gold Cup. That hasn’t quite materialised as last year’s Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry seems to have taken up the mantle left by Thistlecrack.
Unbeaten since joining Harry Fry, it really has been a change of fortune for Unowhatimeanharry who had only won once in his career prior to joining Fry. That one win came on his career debut but then failed to add to that in 12 subsequent runs for Helen Nelmes. Since joining Harry Fry though he has not looked back and has amassed 8 victories from 8 appearances, including when winning at last year’s Festival in the Albert Bartlett.
In the aftermath of that victory he was purchased by JP McManus with the intention of staying over Hurdles. This season he has taken in all the big stayer’s races; the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and more recently the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, winning them all with consummate ease. The improvement Unowhatimeanharry has shown is nothing short of incredible and although now a 9yo there could easily be more to come from race favourite.
If we look in behind Unowhatimeanharry it really is a guess who of who will be opposing the favourite. Former Champion Hurdle winner Jezki, also owned by JP McManus, is next in the market. Bookmakers have shortened his odds to 8/1, which you can use your free bets for Cheltenham on when joining a new bookie. He returned from a long absence recently to score impressively over 2 miles at Navan. The last time he was seen previous was in 2015 when beating the legendary Hurricane Fly over 3 miles at the Punchestown Festival.
That win seemed to suggest that he would be potentially a very good Stayer for the future only for his career to be put on hold by injury. After his reappearance win we know that he has retained his ability and if he picks up from where he left on his only try at the 3m trip then he will surely be a strong contender for the Stayer’s Hurdle. Other Irish possibles are the Willie Mullin trained pair Shaneshill and Clondaw Warrior.
Both have different profiles as such, with Shaneshill already having two Cheltenham Festival runner up places against his name whereas the 2 year older Clondaw Warrior is yet to race at the Festival having been aimed at the more lucrative staying races on the flat. The pair hold fair place chances if they do run, with Shaneshill the shorter price out of the two.
They met recently at Gowran Park in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle, where Shaneshill battled on for victory with the more favoured Clondaw Warrior only managing to
finish 3rd. Splitting the pair that day was Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon who also holds solid place claims. A good 5th in the 2015 Neptune Novices Hurdle the son of Presenting really came of age last year with two Grade 2 victories amongst other good performances.
He came over to Newbury for the Long Distance Hurdle and was in the process of running a huge race behind Unowhatimeanharry when taking a nasty tumble 3 out. Snow Falcon has bounced back well since that effort with two solid efforts and he is another who on his day should be involved at the business end of Stayer’s Hurdle.
Out of the British contenders Ballyoptic seems to hold the most solid claims on this seasons form. Trained by Nigel Twiston Davies, Ballyoptic landed on our radar when beating Bellshill in a close finish in last season’s Sefton Novices Hurdle at Aintree. Although it wasn’t a complete shock, going off 9/1 on the day, it was a huge career best from Ballyoptic.
On his seasonal debut he won a very good Handicap at Chepstown over 2m3f, beating some very nice horses. That marked him out as one to watch and he duly went off a strong favourite back over 3m at Wetherby for the bet365 Hurdle. He took a horrible fall that day when making hard work of winning the race and that was no guarantee. Ballyoptic then showed up at Newbury for the Long Distance Hurdle, going off a 5/2f. Again he disappointed slightly when finishing a well beat 2nd behind Unowhwatimeanharry and he would have only been 3rd if Snow Falcon hadn’t have fell 3 out.
Another fall and a 4th place finish in the Cleeve Hurdle have followed since then which tempers enthusiasm for the big race in March but the return to better spring ground could easily help bring him back in the picture. Others with a chance include 2015 Winner Cole Harden who has disappointed Novice Chasing this year but bounced right back to form when finishing an excellent 2nd back over Hurdles in the Cleeve Hurdle. If he can reproduce that run on the predicted better ground then he will make it a tough race from the front just like he did 2 years ago.
Lil Rockerfeller has been outstanding for connections in the past 12 months, running some huge races with his never say die attitude. Whether he has the class to mix it with the best in the 3m division still remains to be seen but he will without doubt give everything he’s got when push comes to shove. One final one worth a mention is the classy Mare Vroum Vroum Mag.
Chances are she won’t turn up for the race as she has other, easier, options at the Festival. If she were to show up then surely she would be right up there at the head of the market. Vroum Vroum Mag has had real mix and match career so far with Willie Mullins, going between jumping fences and hurdles. Over Christmas she ran
over a full 3 miles for the first time in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown, defeating the above mentioned Clondaw Warrior.
With only one defeat to her name while trained by Mullins you’d have to think which ever route she takes in March she will figure prominently. Winner of the Mares Hurdle last year she has proved she handles the track and we know the distance isn’t an issue so if turning up she could give Unowhatimeanharry a real race, especially in receipt of her 7lb sex allowance.
To finalise, this race revolves around Unowhatimeanharry who seems to have the race at his mercy. He has a lot of form lines with the opposition who have it all to do if they are overturn previous form with the favourite. The two most likely to challenge him are Irish raiders Jezki and Vroum Vroum Mag if they turn up. That though is up in the air as both have other Festival engagements. It looks likely that we could see what would be a fairy-tale result, with Unowhatimeanharry going from a 123 rated handicapper to the best Staying Hurdler around in less than 18 months.