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Thyme Hill could take direct route to Festival date

Thyme Hill could head straight to the Cheltenham Festival following his second battle of the season with Paisley Park.

Philip Hobbs’ star was reeled in by Paisley Park in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, with Emma Lavelle’s charge reversing his length-and-a-half defeat by Thyme Hill at Newbury the previous month.

While a crack at the Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day has not been totally ruled out, Hobbs feels Thyme Hill may be better suited by arriving at the Festival fresh.

“We have to do the right thing by the horse,” Hobbs told Sky Sports Racing.

“Thyme Hill is not the most robust physically, although a lot better than last season, and I would think he’ll go straight to the Cheltenham Festival – although that is not written in stone.

“The Cleeve Hurdle is a possibility, but we’ll have to see.

“Winning the Stayers’ Hurdle is the objective and getting him there in the best condition will probably mean missing the Cleeve, but that is not written in stone yet.

“He’s very exciting, because up to now he’s been very sound and has a very good attitude. He’s a very good horse and we’re lucky to have him.”

Paisley Park strikes late to regain Long Walk crown

Paisley Park returned to winning ways with a power-packed finish to catch Thyme Hill in the dying strides of the Porsche Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.

Emma Lavelle’s 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle winner looked beaten turning for home as he got caught out of his ground leaving the back straight.

At the head of affairs, Thyme Hill and Roksana were still apparently going powerfully, and Paisley Park looked to need a minor miracle.

On jumping the last Aidan Coleman went into overdrive, but still seemed to have a mountain to climb – with Thyme Hill, who had seen off Roksana, looking sure to collect.

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But Paisley Park (9-4), who is well known for his strong finishes, picked up impressively in the testing conditions to win by a neck.

The result is even more meritorious, considering Paisley Park was found to be suffering from a fibrillating heart when he was beaten at Cheltenham in March.

The eight-year-old is now 7-2 favourite to regain his Cheltenham crown too at the Festival with Betfair.

Lavelle said: “I think I’m more concerned about my heart now than his!

“I can’t wait to get home and watch the race, because it looked a good one, but I had my eyes on him the whole way – wondering if he was going to get there.

“I never thought he was beaten, just because I know what he is like, and then the turbo kicked in – which is quite apt, given the race was sponsored by Porsche this year.

“It looks like his heart problem has cleared up. We’ve had no cause for concerns, and it seems to be functioning well at the minute – it hasn’t frightened him, which was the key thing.

“He’s cheeky because he pricked his ears on crossing the line as if to say ‘I’ve done that now, thanks’ – he’s a special horse.

“We love horses that come back – they are great for racing and really help sell it.

“If he’s fine and well there’s the option of going to the Cleeve if we think we have to. We’ll see closer to the time, before running in March.”

Paisley and Thyme ready for round two in Long Walk cracker

Thyme Hill and Paisley Park engage in what promises to be a fascinating rematch for the Porsche Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.

The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill won three of his four starts in the novice hurdling division last season – his only defeat coming as a close-up fourth in the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival.

The six-year-old made a successful reappearance when seeing off Paisley Park by a length and a half in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle three weeks ago – and four-time champion jockey Richard Johnson hopes he can confirm his superiority this weekend.

Johnson said: “He’s in very good form. Hopefully he can build on his Newbury performance in what is a very good renewal of the race.

“It’s going to take a lot of winning, but obviously I wouldn’t swap Thyme Hill for anything else.

“I was very pleased with him at Newbury. It’s going to be testing conditions on Saturday, and whatever wins the race is going to have to put up a good performance.

“In these races, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park landed this Grade One prize during what was a faultless campaign two seasons ago.

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However, an unbeaten run of seven straight victories came to an abrupt end when he finished only seventh in defence of his Stayers’ Hurdle crown in March, after which he was found to be suffering from a heart problem.

Connections were justifiably thrilled with his Newbury comeback, and he is 3lb better off with Thyme Hill for their second clash.

“He had a lovely blow this (Friday) morning and he’s very fresh. He’s all set for Saturday,” said Lavelle.

“There’s always plenty to be done here, so you can keep focused on that before thinking too much about Saturday. I think the drive to Ascot will be when the nervous excitement will kick in.

“It’s very exciting to have horses able to run in these kind of races – and from Paisley’s point of view, it’s just lovely to see him back on the track after what happened at Cheltenham.”

Paisley Park bids to bounce back to winning ways
Paisley Park bids to bounce back to winning ways (David Davies/PA)

Paisley Park was declared a non-runner on the morning of last year’s Long Walk Hurdle because of the ultra-testing conditions.

Soft ground will again be to the fore, but Lavelle is not making any pre-race excuses, adding: “You just want everyone to have a clear run, and the best horse wins.

“You never want to run on extremes of going, but the ground is what the ground is.

“He’s handled soft ground before. I’m glad we’ve got a run under our belt before running on this ground, but I think he has every right to handle it as well as anything else, anyway.”

Main Fact bids to stretch his remarkable winning streak to double figures for trainer David Pipe.

The seven-year-old appeared to relish the step up to three miles when making it nine on the bounce in the Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock – and now aims to complete his fairytale rise with a top-level success under conditional Fergus Gillard .

Pipe said: “He’s been fantastic. We have to improve again, and obviously the first two in the betting (Thyme Hill and Paisley Park) are the ones to beat, but at least we’ll have our favoured ground. Maybe he’ll handle the ground better than the top two.

“He keeps beating what’s put in front of him. It will be tough for him on Saturday, but he’s definitely earned his place and we’ll give it our best shot.

“If he can finish in the first three, it will be another fantastic run.”

Roksana bids to beat the boys
Roksana bids to beat the boys (Nigel French/PA)

The only mare in the field is Dan Skelton’s Roksana, who was thoroughly impressive on her return to action at Wetherby in October and has purposely been kept fresh for this race since.

Skelton said: “Obviously the boys have got to give us 7lb. She had a great run at Wetherby last time, and this has been the target since.

“I’m very happy with how she looks and she handles soft ground. It’s the first time we’ve gone to this level, and we’re excited and ready to go.”

It is five years since Thistlecrack trounced his Long Walk rivals for Colin Tizzard and Tom Scudamore and he was due to bid again but unfortunately he was withdrawn on the morning of the race due to lameness.

Paisley Park and Thyme Hill to clash in Long Walk

Paisley Park and Thyme Hill have been declared among a field of 10 in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot – for round two of what could become a compelling rivalry.

Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park was the pre-eminent force in the staying hurdle division for two seasons until the Cheltenham Festival in March when he could finish only seventh and was subsequently found to have a fibrillating heart.

With that problem solved, he made his reappearance at Newbury where he looked back to his normal self but could not quite reel in Philip Hobbs’ Thyme Hill, who was having his first run out of novice company.

The younger Thyme Hill was in receipt of 3lb at Newbury, and won by a length and a half, so their second clash on Saturday is eagerly anticipated.

Lavelle told Sky Sports Racing: “I was thrilled to bits with him at Newbury – it was great to get him back and see him finish with his usual tenacity.

“Although the race was funnily run, it was probably ideal because it meant he didn’t have a hard race at that stage of the season – and it gave us our confidence back.

“At Cheltenham, at the point you expected him to do his thing, he wasn’t able – (so) it was to his credit he wasn’t beaten that far.

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“You could see when he got back to the stable his heart wasn’t beating in rhythm. It’s not uncommon, and they reckon good horses do it more than others because they tend to have bigger hearts.”

Paisley Park soon began to demonstrate he was back in full health, and trainer Lavelle added: “The situation rectified itself – which was good. If you have to intervene, it is more concerning.

“There clearly is a chance it can happen again, but I think it is less likely to happen again than likely – it didn’t happen again to Denman or Sprinter Sacre, so hopefully he can follow in their footsteps.

“If the Long Walk was last Saturday he’d have been ready to go. He’s definitely come forward from Newbury, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Paisley Park won the Long Walk in 2018 but was an 11th-hour withdrawal last year on the morning of the race because of very testing ground.

In his absence, The Worlds End took full advantage – and he is back to defend his crown, having left Tom George and now with Olly Murphy.

Stratford trainer Murphy said of his new charge: “He’s in good nick – he’s obviously not getting any younger, and I think this year’s renewal is probably as competitive as when we last saw Big Buck’s.

“(But) hopefully a change in yards will just spark a little bit of a revival.

“Obviously, Tom did a fantastic job with this lad – he won a couple of Grade Ones with him.

“We’re jumping in at the deep end to go and defend his crown, but he’s in good form.

“He’s been away for a gallop on grass, so (lack of) fitness certainly won’t be getting him beaten.

“But I’d say if he finished in the first four, he’ll have run a cracker.”

Way back in 2015 Thistlecrack won the Long Walk Hurdle
Way back in 2015 Thistlecrack won the Long Walk Hurdle (PA Wire)

There is another previous winner of the race returning too, in Colin Tizzard’s veteran Thistlecrack – who was at his imperious best when cruising through the 2015 renewal on the bridle.

David Pipe’s incredible Main Fact is bidding for a 10th successive win, with three having come on the Flat. He arrives after extending his sequence in a Haydock handicap which both Sam Spinner and Paisley Park also won before taking this in previous years.

Dan Skelton’s mare Roksana will have her supporters following an impressive win at Wetherby, while Ronan McNally sends over The Jam Man from Northern Ireland.

However, Gordon Elliott has decided against sending dual Pertemps Final winner Sire Du Berlais.

Portrush Ted, Third Wind and Younevercall complete the field.

Thyme Hill ready for Long Walk

Philip Hobbs has confirmed Thyme Hill is on course for this weekend’s Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.

The six-year-old showed his well-being over five furlongs on the woodchip gallop at Hobbs’ Minehead yard on Tuesday as he fine-tuned preparations for Saturday’s Grade One.

Thyme Hill staked a big claim for honours in the staying division when winning the Long Distance Hurdle on his seasonal debut at Newbury last month, with runner-up Paisley Park set to renew rivalry at Ascot.

“Thyme Hill had his last proper gallop before the race this morning, and he went particularly well,” Hobbs told Nick Luck’s podcast.

“We’re very happy with him and intend to run.

“Everything has gone particularly well since Newbury. He’s been very healthy, very well – and most importantly he worked well this morning.

“Richard Johnson schools him on Thursday morning – and all being all right, we’ll be there on Saturday.

“I don’t see any reason that the testing track and the very soft ground should be a problem.”

Hobbs also provided a positive update on Defi De Seuil, who was pulled up before the final fence when beaten in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham last month.

“He’s had plenty of tests since he ran. Nothing has come to light – he seems in good form, so I imagine we’ll be aiming towards the Clarence House,” he said.

Defi Du Seuil put in an exemplary performance to land last season’s edition of the Grade One chase at Ascot in January.

Thistlecrack poised to return in Long Walk Hurdle

Thistlecrack is likely to try to bridge a five-year gap and win the Porsche Long Walk Hurdle for a second time at Ascot on Saturday.

It was back in 2015 when Colin Tizzard’s highly-talented performer took the Group One staying prize, denying Reve De Sivola a fourth consecutive win in the race.

Thistlecrack went on to land the World Hurdle that season before switching to chasing and winning the King George at Kempton at Christmas 2016.

He has had his problems since then and his last race came over the smaller obstacles in the 2019 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury. where he was only beaten a length by Paisley Park.

That was a year ago and Tizzard reports the 12-year-old to be in rude health and ready to return the fray.

“He had a racecourse gallop last week. He’s in cracking form so, as long as all goes right this week, we’ll have a go,” said the Dorset handler.

“He didn’t start racing until he was seven so he’s not an old man in that respect. We’ll give him a run and see where we are.

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“He’s had an away day and he’s done a lot of work. Hopefully by the end of the week we’ll get all the green lights and we can go.”

Paisley Park is also among a list of 14 confirmed for the Long Walk at the five-day stage.

Emma Lavelle’s class performer took this Grade One prize in 2018 on the way to winning the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham the following March.

Disappointing in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle, Paisley Park made an encouraging comeback when second to Thyme Hill in this year’s Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury last month.

Thyme Hill got the better of Paisley Park at Newbury last month
Thyme Hill got the better of Paisley Park at Newbury last month (Nigel French/PA)

The Philip Hobbs-trained six-year-old is among his potential opposition along with a three previous winner of this race, The Worlds End (2019). He took advantage of Paisley Park’s late withdrawal due to the heavy ground.

Dan Skelton has targeted this race for Roksana since her victory in the bet365 Hurdle at Wetherby.

“I was delighted with her at Wetherby,” said the Alcester handler.

“She went back to her owners for a little while just to recharge her batteries really so she could come back the best she could be.

“I’m really happy with her and she looks fantastic. The lad who rides her out every day says she feels as good as she could.

“We are going to take on the front two from Newbury which is the next level. They have got to give seven pounds to her and over three miles in what is likely to be soft ground that will be telling.

“I never had any intention of going to Newbury. The plan was always to go to Wetherby then to Ascot. It is going to be a good race.”

Gordon Elliott’s Sire Du Berlais and the Ronan McNally-trained The Jam Man are the two Irish-trained possibles, while David Pipe could take the plunge with the prolific Main Fact, winner of his last nine races.

Completing the list are Lil Rockerfeller, Portrush Ted, Third Wind, Thomas Darby and Younevercall.

Kildisart also holds an entry in the Ascot Silver Cup Handicap Chase on the same card.

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.”

Thyme Hill takes Long Distance prize

Thyme Hill laid a marker down for the new season when holding off Paisley Park in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Trained by Philip Hobbs, Thyme Hill was a Grade One winner as a novice last term and was a slightly unlucky loser when meeting trouble in running in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March.

None of the 10 contenders at Newbury looked keen to make the running, with the field hanging back as the tapes went up.

Eventually Honest Vic was ridden into an early lead and he held the advantage until Vision Des Flos went from last to first under Robbie Power as the field embarked on the second circuit.

When he was reeled in as they entered the straight, there were plenty in with chances as Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar, McFabulous, Summerville Boy and the first two home were all still travelling well.

But they dropped away one by one, with McFabulous the last off the bridle but appearing to not quite get home as Thyme Hill and Paisley Park fought out a thrilling finish.

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Richard Johnson pushed Thyme Hill (7-2) a length and a half clear of Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park at line, with the runner-up conceding 3lb and putting his Cheltenham disappointment behind him with a fine effort.

Thyme Hill is now as low as 6-1 with Betfair for the Stayer’s Hurdle, with Paisley Park a 5-1 chance.

Hobbs said: “They were making a lot about the race before, but we are obviously delighted with him. He was a bit geed up beforehand and I was a bit concerned about that as he is normally on his toes, but not too much. In the race he settled and jumped well. I was very happy with him.

“I would very much hope he could progress as that is only his fifth hurdle race and he is only six. There is still room for improvement. He would have been pretty fit today, but that run would put him right as well.

“He is not the hardest to get fit, but at the same time he must come on for the run a bit. He schooled over fences when the season finished and he schooled particularly well, but you just have to think he was hopefully going to be good enough to run in this department.

“If he flopped today, it would have been a disaster as it would have been too late to go novice chasing, but thankfully we were OK.

“I was (confident three miles would be his trip) after Cheltenham, as he stayed on very well in the Albert Bartlett. He was unlucky and got squeezed out a bit, so he was unfortunate there.

“The Long Walk is a strong possibility and the Cleeve is a possibility as well. I would have thought it is likely he would only have one run before Cheltenham.

“He is not the sort of horse that holds condition well, but he has got better as he has got older, so hopefully we can have a busier season, but there aren’t that many options for him. There is the Long Walk, Cleeve, Cheltenham and then hopefully he can go to Aintree and Punchestown afterwards.

“He is definitely the best horse I’ve had in this division as I’ve never had a horse that was even likely for the Stayers’ Hurdle.”

Paisley Park was found to be suffering a heart problem following his Festival defeat in March, but jockey Aidan Coleman was thrilled with his performance on his return to action.

He said: “Fair play to the winner, as he is the new kid on the block. But from where we left off from Cheltenham in March, we have come an awful long way, bearing in mind he couldn’t raise a gallop for obvious reasons and we all know why.

“He has gone around today, travelled with loads of enthusiasm and jumped well. It turned into a sprint, but it was the same for all of them, so we are not making any excuses on that front.

“It was fantastic to see him gallop all the way to the line and just take a massive step forward from his last run. Without winning, I couldn’t be happier.”