Johnson believes Thyme is right for Stayers’ title

Richard Johnson will always have fond memories of the Stayers’ Hurdle, and he believes Thyme Hill can give him another success in the race that was the source of his first Cheltenham Festival winner 21 years ago.

Having failed to land the Grade One prize since steering Anzum to victory in 1999, the 43-year-old thinks he has found a horse capable of ending that drought following the Philip Hobbs-trained gelding’s victory in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

In race that could have easily have passed for a top-level test, the six-year-old made a triumphant return in claiming the Grade Two by a length and a quarter, leaving Johnson excited about the season ahead.

Johnson said: “Anzum was my first Festival winner and David Nicholson’s last, so it was a big moment for me. That is a long time ago, but there are lots of fond memories and hopefully this horse is heading in the right direction.

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“There was plenty of strength and depth to the race today and I’m sure plenty of people will knock it as it was not the truest-run race, but I don’t think it would have been a positive for my lad either.”

Thyme Hill was squeezed short for room at a crucial time in the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival back in March and Johnson feels the pair have unfinished business together at the meeting.

He added: “He was the one I was really looking forward to at Cheltenham last season, but things just didn’t fall our way.

“I can’t say he would have definitely won, but he didn’t get any luck on the day. I’d like to think that hopefully with what he showed today, he can go back to Cheltenham next year and have a proper go. It was fantastic to start off the season in that way.”

Johnson has been privileged to partner plenty of top-class horses during his career, and he is in little doubt that Thyme Hill possesses all the attributes to be a regular in Grade One company for years to come.

He added: “What I love about him is that he is very straightforward. When you ask him to do something, he wants to please. He is the ideal racehorse in that he gets on with it, stays well, jumps really nicely and he has shown he has a huge amount of ability.

“You ride lots of nice horses, but to have a Grade One horse, they are hard to find and not easy to come by, so when you find one you are very pleased.”

Winning a fifth jump jockeys title may be one battle too many for Johnson this season, but with the likes of last season’s Challow Hurdle winner among his mounts, it has given him a renewed enthusiasm for the campaign.

He added: “The championship is the most important thing you can aim at, but you look forward to having horses like him and Defi Du Seuil.

“When we had the likes of Menorah, Wishfull Thinking and Captain Chris, we were probably a bit spoiled as we had three top-class horses all together.

“It is lovely though to have some very smart horses at Philip’s – like Thyme Hill – and some other nice ones you are hoping will develop further down the line.”

Top stayers in line for Newbury showdown

Lisnagar Oscar and Paisley Park could be set for an early-season face-off in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Friday.

The Rebecca Curtis-trained Lisnagar Oscar was a shock 50-1 winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival back in March and reappeared at Wetherby last month, finishing fourth in a Grade Two heat.

Paisley Park won the 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle for Emma Lavelle, but he was only seventh in his title defence, although it later emerged he had suffered from a defibrillating heart. He will be having his first start since in a race he won last year.

Summerville Boy finished fifth in the Stayers’ and he already has a win under his belt for Tom George this term, while Sam Spinner, a Grade One winner over hurdles three years ago, could revert to the smaller obstacles for Jedd O’Keeffe after being pulled up in the Charlie Hall Chase last month.

The Paul Nicholls-trained McFabulous is another leading contender with ex-Ditcheat inmate Aux Ptits Soins entered by Dan Skelton having been off the track since May 2019.

Albert Bartlett fourth Thyme Hill, Honest Vic, One Night In Milan, Vision Des Flos and Royal Ascot winner Who Dares Wins are the other contenders.