Owner Andrew Gemmell admits to a mixture of nerves and excitement as Paisley Park returns to action in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.
The eight-year-old looked set to become the dominant force in the division for years to come after crowning an unbeaten campaign with victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2019 – and he then made a successful start to last season in this Grade Two contest.
Having extended his winning streak to eight in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January, he was all the rage to successfully defend his Stayers’ Hurdle crown in March, but finished a disappointing seventh – after which he was found to be suffering from a heart problem.
While the issue was swiftly rectified, and there has been no evidence of a recurrence since Paisley Park returned from a summer break, Emma Lavelle’s stable star undoubtedly has something to prove on his reappearance.
Gemmell said: “It’s obviously the first time he’s run since the heart problem at Cheltenham – but all seems fine now, and we’re ready to go.
“It’s a very tough race on Friday, but as long as he comes through well, we’ll be happy. It is his first run of the season, so it’s not the be-all and end-all.
“I think he’s pretty fit – Emma and Barry (Fenton, trainer’s husband) are certainly very pleased with him.
“He seems better than ever at the moment, but we won’t really know until Friday.
“Hopefully he’ll run well, and we can then we can go back to Ascot for the Long Walk.”
The horse who made the most of Paisley Park failing to fire in the Stayers’ Hurdle was the shock 50-1 winner Lisnagar Oscar.
The Oscar gelding could finish only fourth on his seasonal debut at Wetherby last month, but trainer Rebecca Curtis hopes he can be more competitive on Friday.
Curtis said: “He’s been really good since Wetherby, and I think he’s come on a bit for the run.
“We’d prefer slightly softer ground, but he does have form on good ground, so I’m not going to rule out running him.
“It looks a very hot race, but he seems in good form. All roads lead back to Cheltenham in March – so as long as he runs nice races along the way, we’ll be happy.”
Paul Nicholls has won the Long Distance Hurdle five times, with the four triumphs of the brilliant Big Buck’s followed by the victory of Celestial Halo. This year, the Ditcheat handler relies on last month’s Persian War Novices’ Hurdle winner McFabulous.
“I think the world of McFabulous, who came good towards the end of last season after we ironed out his jumping. He was very impressive on his seasonal debut at Chepstow early in October, jumping slickly and cruising clear in the closing stages,” Nicholls told Betfair.
“I’ve had this race in mind for him for months. The ground is ideal – and while it is a step up in class, he looks fantastic in his coat and continues to please at home.
“I am really looking forward to running McFabulous, who schooled well on Tuesday morning.”
Summerville Boy was fifth in the Stayers’ Hurdle last season, and trainer Tom George is hoping he can build on a recent Aintree success.
“He put up a good performance to win at Aintree. That was two and a half miles, now he’s going back to three,” said the Cotswolds trainer.
“We think that now he’s got a bit older, he’s become more relaxed, so he should be able to see the three miles out.
“That’s why we’re doing it, because there aren’t as many options at two and a half. This should tell us where we’re going in the spring.”
Sam Spinner was runner-up to Paisley Park at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019 and won his first three starts over fences last season, before injury intervened.
He was disappointingly pulled up on his return in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, prompting trainer Jedd O’Keeffe to switch him back to the smaller obstacles this weekend.
O’Keeffe said: “We haven’t turned away from fences, but we need to restore Sam Spinner’s confidence by going back over hurdles. When you are rated 162, the options are limited.
“Everything is open as to whether he resumes his career over hurdles or goes back over fences. He is in good form at home, working well, and has been schooling over hurdles really well. We just want to see him go there and enjoy himself, and of course do something.
“It’s a while since he took on Paisley Park, but we are hoping the horse hasn’t lost his ability, enthusiasm or confidence.”
The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill – one of last season’s star staying novice hurdlers – makes his first start since finishing a close-up fourth in the Albert Bartlett in what promises to be a fascinating contest.