Champ has top billing in Cleeve Hurdle challenge

Champ heads a small but competitive field of five for the Welsh Marches Stallions At Chapel Stud Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The 10-year-old reverted to hurdles at Ascot in December, landing the Grade One Long Walk by a length and a quarter under Jonjo O’Neill Jr.

Prior to that Champ was a winner at the top level over fences also, taking the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival before returning to the same meeting the following year when pulled up in the Gold Cup.

The Ascot victory inspired another outing over hurdles at Cheltenham with O’Neill, who enjoyed his first Grade One victory in the Long Walk, retaining the ride.

Champ and Jonjo O'Neill Jr after their Long Walk success
Champ and Jonjo O’Neill Jr after their Long Walk success (Nigel French/PA)

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup are on the table come the Festival in March, and Nicky Henderson will be a step closer to a decision after Saturday.

“Everything has gone well since Ascot. I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

“Here we go again – this will tell us where we all are. Where we go, I don’t know.

“It is not a big field, but they are select and he has got to go and do it again.”

Paul Nicholls is represented in the race by McFabulous, who returns to Prestbury Park after finishing second in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day – a race he was the winner of last season.

The Cleeve represents a step up in trip for the eight-year-old, who was largely been campaigned over lesser distances to date.

“He ran a tidy enough race in the Relkeel. He stayed on strongly and he wants three miles now,” said Nicholls.

“I was pleased to see that he jumped and travelled well on his comeback.

“He didn’t have the greatest run down to the last, but he flew up the hill and he quite obviously needs a bit further.

“They don’t normally need a run but we had been rushing him because he had a problem, so the run would have brought him on.”

McFabulous winning the 2021 Rekeel Hurdle
McFabulous (right) winning the 2021 Rekeel Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Dry conditions and subsequent good ground has tempted Nicholls to run McFabulous in the Cleeve, with a graduation to chasing postponed after a setback last year delayed his start to the season.

“The big thing about this weekend is that I probably wouldn’t run him in the Cleeve, but it is a dry forecast and that ground will suit him,” he said.

“He had a setback early in the season which held me back a bit, but hopefully he will give a good account of himself.

“We thought it is a bit late to go chasing so let’s go down this route and it will tell us where we go afterwards.

“All in all, I’d like to think we have got a nice chance. He could be a nice each-way price for the Stayers’ Hurdle, but let’s see how he runs on Saturday.”

Emma Lavelle's Paisley Park
Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park (Julian Herbert/PA)

Paisley Park currently holds the Cleeve Hurdle title and returns to the race to bid for a record-equalling treble, something only previously achieved by Venetia Williams’ Lady Rebecca.

Lavelle’s gelding won the contest in both 2019 and 2020, but his shot at a third victory last season was scuppered when the whole Cheltenham Trials Day card was lost due to waterlogging.

By contrast this January has been notably dry and the going is likely to be good as a result, conditions not favoured by Paisley Park as much of his best form has been on softer going.

“He’s been brilliant, he’s doing everything we want him to be doing and he seems in really good order,” she said.

“I suppose my biggest disappointment is the lack of rain, but that’s the bit that’s out of my control.

“It just makes his life a little bit easier when the ground is a bit softer but I couldn’t be happier with how he is.

“His last run was definitely a big step back in the right direction, he galloped all the way to the line.

“He loves Cheltenham and this race has been good to us, obviously he’s going to have to turn the form around with Champ, there are five runners but it’s going to be a competitive race – it always is.”

Lisnagar Oscar on his way to glory in the Stayers' Hurdle
Lisnagar Oscar on his way to glory in the Stayers’ Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)

Also involved is Rebecca Curtis’ 2020 Stayers’ Hurdle hero Lisnagar Oscar, who was pulled up in the Long Walk on his last outing but has produced much of his best form around Prestbury Park.

Completing the field of five is Fergal O’Brien’s Dandy Mag, a former chaser who made his debut for the trainer when pulling up at Wincanton on Boxing Day after switching from Willie Mullins’ yard.

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