For many, the 2021 Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham is a match between Saturday’s Porsche Long Walk Hurdle one-two Paisley Park and Thyme Hill but I have a feeling the crowd might have gone a bit early on this one.
The festive period is chock-full of big races featuring high-profile names but the race that interests me the most from an ante-post point of view is Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle on Monday.
If ever a horse looked ready to step up from handicap company it was last year’s Pertemps hero Sire Du Berlais and he proved the point by winning a Grade 2 at Navan on seasonal return.
Anyone that has compared last season’s Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle with the Stayers’ Hurdle on the same day will know that Sire Du Berlais ran the final circuit six seconds faster than the winner of the Grade 1 event – that’s in the region of 30 lengths.
Throw in the fact that Sire Du Berlais was carrying topweight in arguably the hottest handicap run anywhere last season and we have a performance of serious merit.
Of course, I get that the Stayers’ Hurdle wasn’t the strongest of renewals but until it is proved otherwise – and that moment could come next week – then I very much believe that Sire Du Berlais is a serious player in the Staying Hurdle division this year.
If Sire can see off high-class rivals like Ronald Pump, who was placed in last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle and who ran a blinder behind Honeysuckle over an inadequate trip at Fairyhouse on return, then we simply have to be looking at a bona fide challenger to Thyme Hill and Paisley Park, especially as we know he excels at Prestbury Park.
Santini No Forlorn Hope in King George
Nicky Henderson gets some stick (mostly on social media – shock) for the way in which he campaigns some of his stable stars. The Seven Barrows trainer has to be given credit for re-routing Santini to the King George as it adds an extra dimension to the race and is sure to shake up the Gold Cup market even more.
A remarkable 12th victory in the race had looked very much on the cards for Paul Nicholls, who saddles last year’s one-two Clan Des Obeaux and Cyrname, but I’m warming to the idea that Santini can throw down a major challenge to the big guns from Ditcheat.
Ironically, it is the run-style of one of the aforementioned Nicholls runners that increases my confidence in last year’s Gold Cup runner-up. Santini isn’t a horse that goes through the gears particularly quickly, even for a staying chaser, and that has led to some even comparing him to a boat, which I think is a bit harsh. However, Santini’s inability to quicken on demand is less of a concern in a well-run race, even around Kempton, which is generally regarded as a speed favouring track.
And it is Cyrname - with his attacking run style - that could actually be the one to set this up for the stronger stayer in Santini who, if within striking distance off the home turn, could well have too much for Cyrname and Clan Des Obeaux.
We know Santini has the requisite class because he has an official rating of 172, which is superior to that of Clan Des Obeaux and although it falls short of the 176 of Cyrname, that lofty rating has been earned over shorter trips at Ascot.
He’ll be a lot sharper for his return at Aintree, which he very nearly won, and he was hardly disgraced when third in a Grade 1 novice event at this track in 2018 where he was only just behind subsequent RSA Chase winner Topofthegame. This could be a masterstroke by Henderson.
Welsh National Could See Few Finishers
The going at Chepstow is currently described as heavy and more rain is forecast in the build-up to Saturday’s showpiece event at the Monmouthshire venue, which means we are entering into worrying territory in terms of the spectacle.
The race is live on ITV and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if viewing figures were up on last year given the situation that we are all in. However, that isn’t necessarily good news.
There is a strong chance that this stamina-sapping slog in the mud becomes an unedifying spectacle and finishers could be few and far between.
Such instances are never good for the sport because you can bet your bottom dollar that someone in the mainstream media will pick up on any hint of a rider continuing to whip a horse that is obviously completely knackered and the sport could well do without more negative publicity.