Not So Sleepy (Tom OBrien) takes the last before going on to win The Betfair Exchange Trophy. Photo Hugh Routledge / Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: of Hollie, Paisley and Sleepy

So Hollie Doyle finished third in the new-look BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2020 showing that technology can mix with the old-style modesty and courtesy which Ms Doyle, Jordan Henderson and Stuart Broad showed by bothering to turn up on a Sunday night in Manchester, writes Tony Stafford.

Henderson, the genuinely-likeable captain of Liverpool FC, team of the year and whose manager Jurgen Klopp was coach of the year, finished second and favourite Lewis Hamilton won for the second time having been successful six years ago. Standing next to a Christmas tree – “I didn’t decorate it!” he said, Hamilton was presumably at home in Monte Carlo rather than Stevenage. Ronnie O’Sullivan and Tyson Fury didn’t show up either.

Seven world driving championships in overwhelmingly the best car proved too high a hill to climb even for Liverpool’s first winning captain in the life of the Premier League and an unassuming 24-year-old who rode her first Group winners in her eighth year as a jockey only this summer.

It had been quantity rather than quality until her recruitment by Tony Nerses to ride for his boss Imad Al Sagar and it was her win on Sagar’s Extra Elusive in the Group 3 Winter Hill Stakes, the fourth of a record five winners on a single day for her as recently as August 29 at Windsor that propelled her into the public perception.

It was a nice, albeit forlorn, idea to think she could supplant the well-established front-runners for the SPOTY award. At least the belated campaign put a few quid in the bookmakers’ coffers and a nice boost for British Telecom, although I’m sure the BBC will take a chunk of the phone receipts to help pay their quartet of highly remunerated presenters.

What Hollie will need now to be competitive in this rarefied arena is a step up, a job like stable jockey to John Gosden – move over Frankie, your time is up, maybe? Then she can ride steering jobs in Group races around the big tracks and leave the travelling to the gaffs to stack up the numbers to her fiancé, Mr Marquand! Alternatively, in true “promising debut, should win next time” racing tradition, she could even win it, as long as she gets her first championship in the meantime.

While all the talk around racing circles concerned the possible win against the odds of Hollie and the implications of Tier 4 for those of us in the now most contagious part of the country, Ascot provided two wonderful examples of talented hurdlers coming back from adversity.

The new normal won’t make much difference to me, for although I did make it to Newmarket on Thursday morning and actually saw a couple of horses, since March I’ve pretty much stayed at home. Others around where we live are not so compliant.

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Later on Thursday evening, police cars swarmed past our block as they sought out the actual venue where hundreds of people, reckoned to be mainly in the 20-30 age bracket, were having an illicit drinking party. Helicopters were right overhead for at least an hour. Wasn’t us, guv’nor!

The Paisley Park story and its connection to his owner Andrew Gemmill was one of the strongest themes of the 2018-9 jumps season. The Emma Lavelle-trained hurdler went unbeaten through a five-race campaign triumphing emphatically in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, all the time accompanied by pictures of his enthusiastic owner who, as is well documented, has been blind from birth.

As a result, when at the track he relies on race commentaries and insights from his friends as to how his horses are going. It must have been a dreadful shock at Cheltenham this March when, with a second consecutive championship and another unblemished season in the offing, he first realised something unusual was happening. Where normally he would hear, “Paisley Park is starting to improve”, instead his star made no impression between the last two flights and finished a very tired seventh.

Initially all the stable representative could tell the stewards, understandably like the owner and many thousands of his supporters around the country wanting an explanation of what did go wrong, was he had lost two shoes during the run; but, soon after, a heart issue was discovered.

While such a finding might be alarming, it would at least be enough to explain what happened and probably why. Emma Lavelle went back to the beginning with Paisley Park after the shock had been accepted and, to her and her staff’s credit, she had him ready for the Grade 2 Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, the race in which he began his previous campaign.

Whereas 2019 brought a five-length win over Thistlecrack, new contenders lined up, understandably sensing a chink in the previously impenetrable armour, making it double the field size of the previous renewal. As well as Lisnagar Oscar, the horse that now it seems may have “borrowed” rather than taken his crown, there were a number of regulars on the staying circuit but, more tellingly, two of the new generation at the top level in McFabulous, who started favourite and Thyme Hill.

McFabulous proved unable to beat Paisley Park, but the latter in turn was unable to match the speed between the last two jumps by Philip Hobbs’ Thyme Hill. One of the best novices of his generation he was unluckily beaten out of the frame in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle a year after his close third to Envoi Allen (still unbeaten and frankly untroubled) in the Festival Bumper of 2019.

Thyme Hill was getting 3lb from the old champion at Newbury and made the most of it, winning by a length and a half but Paisley Park was staying on very well at the finish. When they renewed rivalry on Saturday in the Long Walk Hurdle, a race Paisley Park won two years ago, this Grade 1 was a level-weight affair. Understandably, Thyme Hill, better off, and very much the progressive animal, was favourite to maintain his edge.

If Andrew had been nervous at any stage in the 2020 Stayers’ Hurdle, I’d hate to have been the one to tell him, apart from commentator Simon Holt, what his chances were. Until they were well into the straight Holt didn’t have the best of news to report.

After suffering some interference on the bend, he was in an unpromising sixth place coming to two out as Aidan Coleman guided him to the wide outside. By now Thyme Hill was going up to challenge Younevercall and Roksana. Holt said: Paisley Park is under pressure, who is responding, in sixth. At the last he said, “Only three lengths back is Paisley Park, still staying”, and then after the last, “Paisley Park is storming home and he’s got him. He’s pulled it out of the fire!” Thirty or more seconds of agony turned to ecstasy for the owner.

And that’s exactly what it was, a champion showing all his best abilities when everything seemed to be against him, not least his first experience of truly heavy going. After this the regaining of his Cheltenham Festival title must be a strong possibility.

The second back from – if not the dead, then certainly from adversity – was provided by Not So Sleepy, who also made a return win on the track; but, whereas Paisley Park’s first Long Walk was two years ago, Not So Sleepy had been the wide-margin winner of the concluding Betfair Exchange Trophy only last December.

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Previously, Not So Sleepy had finished a creditable fourth in the Cesarewitch behind the Willie Mullins-trained Stratum and then won off what at the time looked a gift jumping mark of 122 at the November meeting on the Royal course. A 5lb rise never appeared enough to stop him on his return for the Betfair Handicap Hurdle and he duly romped home by nine lengths as the 9-2 favourite.

Trainer Hughie Morrison, who has managed the one-time Dee Stakes (more than once a precursor to Derby success) winner through seven full campaigns and 49 races, aimed higher after that. The Betfair Hurdle itself at Newbury in February was the plan despite a further, this-time restrictive, hike of 17lb.

Several false starts meant a farcical melee on the outside where Tom O’Brien lined him up in that handicap and, thereafter, he was never in contention. Morrison then took him to the Champion Hurdle and again false starts and interference at the gate precluded against his showing his merits.

So to post-lockdown and a Flat return at Pontefract in late September where he was a ridiculously-easy winner of a two-mile handicap off 94. The 4lb rise which followed in this year’s Cesarewitch could not prevent a repeat fourth place, this time to another Mullins ‘job’, Great White Shark, a six-year-old mare lined up for the purpose and a ridiculously-easy winner under Jason Watson.

Graham Lee set off at the front of the 34-strong line-up and Not So Sleepy did nothing to suggest his powers had declined. Less positive were my feelings after his abortive challenge for the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle last month when he jinked and jettisoned Paddy Brennan at the first flight of the race won so impressively by Epatante.

Lastly to Ascot at the weekend, off 2lb lower than in the “real” Betfair in February and, inexplicably with hindsight, Not So Sleepy was allowed to start at 20-1. I, like many others, was fooled by the trio of hurdles mishaps and temporarily forgetful of his Ascot hurdles and solid Flat form. Fortunately, some less short-sighted members and a few pals reading the From The Stables newsletter I edit every day, kept the faith and profited accordingly.

‘Twas ever thus, don’t do as I do, do as I say, or vice versa!

- TS

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