The Howden Long Walk Hurdle market was thrown into disarray on Friday morning with the news that ante-post favourite Buzz will miss the race through injury.
Buzz – winner of the Cesarewitch and a leading fancy for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival – suffered a suspected fractured pelvis on Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows gallops during morning exercise ahead of his Ascot run.
The field is now reduced to eight, which includes last year’s first two – Paisley Park and Thyme Hill – while Thomas Darby and Ronald Pump seek their first top-level success.
While Henderson is naturally distraught that last month’s Coral Ascot Hurdle winner will now be sidelined, he is still doubly represented with On The Blind Side and Champ.
Champ reverts to the smaller obstacles on his first competitive appearance since being pulled up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup nine months ago.
Henderson admitted: “He has had his issues, particularly his jumping, really. But his jumping was suffering because he had a bad back. He has had back surgery and we are very happy where he is with his work.
“We just felt that with his jumping in particular, bearing in mind that if he goes over fences, he has to go left-handed – not left-handed over hurdles – this was a good spot, especially since I can’t find a left-handed chase that suits him.
“So, our main objective, while he has got to try to win the Long Walk Hurdle, if he does run well, we might just say, ‘hang on a minute, are we not better off looking at the Stayers’ Hurdle rather than the Gold Cup?’
“The intention will be to go back chasing, but you never know.
“Above all, I am trying to boost his confidence and get him to enjoy himself – which he will do, I hope, over hurdles. It is going to be a very tough race.”
Henderson’s second string is On the Blind Side, who was runner-up to Thomas Darby on his seasonal debut in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury last month.
“On The Blind Side can’t go anywhere else,” added Henderson.
“He is so consistent, game and genuine that he has to run in these races. He will never lie down.”
Thyme Hill has won five of his eight starts over hurdles for Philip Hobbs and was runner-up in this race last season after a thrilling duel with Paisley Park.
However, having signed off last season with victory in the Grade One Liverpool Hurdle, the seven-year-old needs to bounce back from a disappointing seasonal bow in France last month, when beaten 41 at Auteuil.
Hobbs said: “He seems in very good form.
“I hope we haven’t left our season behind in France, as when he ran over there the ground was bad and we put it down to that more than anything else.
“We don’t know how much it has taken out of him until we run him.”
Ronald Pump represents Ireland. Michael Smith’s stable star found only the brilliant mare Honeysuckle too good, when finishing second in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse for the second successive year to her, on his reappearance.
Smith said: “We’d love to win a Grade One with him somewhere. He has been really consistent throughout his career and he seems to have come out of Fairyhouse really well.
“If he can reproduce that effort on Saturday, he would have a good chance.”
Ronald Pump bids to avenge his 2020 Stayers’ Hurdle defeat by Lisnagar Oscar, who re-opposes, along with last season’s Rendlesham Hurdle winner, the Hughie Morrison-trained Third Wind.
The Emma Lavelle-trained Paisley Park will be bidding for a third Long Walk success after triumphing in 2018 and landing the prize again last year.
The nine-year-old’s owner, Andrew Gemmell, remains keen to have another crack at the Stayers’ Hurdle, which he won in 2018, despite having the option of going chasing.
Gemmell said: “It is going to be tough with Thyme Hill in there, but it is what it is – it is big race and we have won two of the last three, so we are hoping for three out of four.
“There is a bigger field than there was at Newbury and hopefully a stronger pace – and that is important. That will definitely suit us.
“At the moment, I would have to say that the Stayers’ Hurdle will be the plan of attack. Ascot on Saturday, then the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Stayers’ Hurdle is the most likely route forward.”
With regular partner Aidan Coleman ruled out through suspension, Tom Bellamy comes in for the ride.
Gemmell added: “While the timing of Aidan’s suspension is not ideal, Tom has been riding well and he has had plenty of conversations with him. It is a great opportunity for him.”
Long Distance Hurdle winner Thomas Darby is out to give trainer Olly Murphy his second Grade One success.
The in-form Wilmcote trainer said: “He’s in good form. It looks a very competitive race but I’m looking forward to running him.
“Fingers crossed he’ll back his Newbury run up. He’ll have an each-way chance.”