Thyme Hill denies Roksana in thrilling Stayers Hurdle

Thyme Hill made up for missing Cheltenham with a gutsy victory in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.

A minor injury ruled the seven-year-old out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival, but he was brought back to fitness in time by his trainer Philip Hobbs.

There was also a change of jockey, with Tom O’Brien getting his chance after Richard Johnson’s recent retirement, having last ridden Thyme Hill to victory on his debut in a bumper at Worcester in October 2018.

O’Brien rode a copybook race, sitting in the main pack as Vinndication and Emitom set up a big early lead. The former was well clear at one stage, but he could not keep up the gallop.

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The race changed complexion in the straight and it soon became a duel between Roksana and Thyme Hill.

The former held a narrow lead, but she was worn down in the closing stages by a determined Thyme Hill (5-2 favourite), who got the verdict by a neck. Thomas Darby was third, four and a quarter lengths away.

Paisley Park was a big disappointment, Emma Lavelle’s nine-year-old being pulled up before the third-last flight without posing a threat.

Thyme Hill (left) does battle with Roksana (blue cap, right)
Thyme Hill (left) does battle with Roksana (blue cap, right) (Tim Goode/PA)

Hobbs said: “I should think he’s finished for the season, but the entries closed this week for the stayers’ hurdle in Punchestown. We didn’t enter. It was 1200 euros. We thought why waste that when it’s likely he’s not going to run.

“If he is going to go anywhere he’ll go for the Champion Hurdle in Auteuil at the end of May, which is worth more money anyway.

“Whether he stays over hurdles or goes chasing next season was going to be decided on what happened today so we now need to discuss it. He’s schooled over fences and jumps very well. He’s not the biggest horse in the world, but he will definitely jump fences, although while he looks the best in this league he might stay over hurdles.”

He added: “It’s great for Tom to kick-off with a Grade One win. In some ways it would have been nice for Richard to win on him, but it left the door open for Tom which is great. I’m not sure how long he’s been with us – rather like Richard, it’s been such a long time.”

O’Brien said: “I’m delighted he’s won for everyone. If anyone was doubting me, to get a Grade One win is spot on. The horse missed Cheltenham so to get it all right today is great.

“He’s a very uncomplicated horse. Richard has been in close contact about all the horses, but when I watched all his replays this morning I wondered if I needed to ring about this lad, he’s so straightforward and push-button. I did ring, and Richard just said he’s uncomplicated, try get a lead to the last and Harry (Skelton) came through on my inside and we had a good battle.

“I’ll never fill Richard’s boots, all I can do is pull up my own. I’ve been in the same position for so long but this is new now, I’m on a different calibre of horse.”

Thyme Hill and Paisley Park set for round three

Thyme Hill and Paisley Park belatedly lock horns for a third time in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree on Saturday.

The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill was clear-cut winner when the pair first met in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, before Emma Lavelle’s stable star turned the tables in an epic Long Walk at Ascot the following month.

The eagerly-awaited trilogy at the Cheltenham Festival was temporarily postponed after Thyme Hill was ruled out of the Stayers’ Hurdle, in which Paisley Park had to make do with an honourable third in his bid to regain his crown.

Hobbs is hoping Thyme Hill’s freshness could prove key on Merseyside this weekend.

He said: “He pulled a muscle on his right-hand side behind the saddle which meant he had to miss Cheltenham.

“He had a fairly easy week after that, but we have had plenty of time to build him back up and get him ready for Aintree.

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“His last run in the Long Walk was good. It was a top end race as you would expect. Obviously he was just beaten by Paisley Park, who has run well in the Stayers’ Hurdle since and he beat the nice mare of Dan Skelton’s (Roksana).

“This was not the original plan (coming straight here) and I definitely think on his best form he would have been up there at Cheltenham.

“Whether coming here without the run there is a good thing I don’t know, but hopefully it will be.”

Lavelle feels Paisley Park is sharper than he was prior to the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

She said: “He’s all set and we’re all excited. He’s fresh and well and definitely a bit sharper, which he’ll need to be on that track.

“As ever it looks a very competitive race, but he’s in good order and we’re just hoping for some luck in running and we’ll see how we go.”

Paisley Park is out to regain winning ways
Paisley Park is out to regain winning ways (David Davies/PA)

The aforementioned Roksana returns to three miles after finishing third in the two-and-a-half-mile Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, while Kim Bailey believes the application of blinkers could help Vinndication improve on his sixth-placed finish in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

“He ran very well at Cheltenham. He was second of the English horses, but unfortunately there were a few Irish horses in front of them,” said the Andoversford-based trainer.

“I’m going to put a pair of blinkers on him to sharpen him up a bit.”

Nicky Henderson deliberately sidestepped Cheltenham with On The Blind Side, who was last seen finishing third behind Third Wind and Lisnagar Oscar – also in this weekend’s field – in February’s Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock.

Henderson said: “He’s had a great season – he’s been very consistent, very tough and game and genuine all the way through.

“We kept him out of Cheltenham thinking Paisley Park and Thyme Hill would be taking each other on.

“Thyme Hill didn’t get to Cheltenham and he will be hard to beat, but On The Blind Side deserves a crack at a race like this.”

Minor muscle problem scuppers Thyme Hill’s Stayers’ date

Thyme Hill will miss next week’s Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle after suffering a minor but untimely setback.

Trainer Philip Hobbs confirmed the seven-year-old will not be able to take up his engagement at the Cheltenham Festival because of a pulled muscle – but is “very likely” to recover in time for the equivalent Grade One race at Aintree next month.

Hobbs said: “He’s definitely not going to run at Cheltenham.

“It is minor – he’s pulled a minor muscle to the right hand side of the saddle, just behind the saddle.

“He’s actually very likely to run at Aintree, which is four weeks tomorrow.

“So it’s certainly not career-threatening or anything like that.”

Thyme Hill has vied for favouritism in the Cheltenham showpiece all winter with 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle winner Paisley Park, having beaten Emma Lavelle’s stable star once and then finished a neck second to him once in his two starts this season.

The much-anticipated round three between the two heavyweights will not happen, however, next week.

“Unfortunately it’s just very bad timing,” added Hobbs.

“He’s got to have a few easy days, which you can’t really do before Cheltenham – so he’s not going to get there.”

Festival ambition still burning bright for Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson has already won all of the main events at the Cheltenham Festival at least once – but he is approaching this year’s meeting with as much vim and vigour as ever.

The former champion jockey has been riding at racing’s showpiece fixture since the days when he was able to claim 7lb back in 1995.

His first victory came four years later, on Anzum in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and since then he has won the Champion Chase on Flagship Uberalles, the Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster and the Gold Cup twice, first with Looks Like Trouble and more recently through Native River.

It is the latter who is spearheading a select team Johnson is looking forward to next week, following a display at Sandown which warmed the hearts of many National Hunt followers.

“Anyone that likes sport and racing in general, they love seeing someone at the top of their game for five or six seasons. Sandown really gave me the confidence that he can go to the Gold Cup with a fantastic chance,” said Johnson.

“I saw Joe Tizzard (son of trainer Colin) on Wednesday and we joked we hoped it could rain until next Saturday! As long as the ground is on the slower side I think he goes with a huge chance.

“He’s beaten all the ones in England and is the best of the English for me, I wouldn’t swap him for another.

“Obviously Al Boum Photo is the one to beat and we don’t know how good Champ is, but they’ll have to put a good performance in to beat Native River.”

It seems the 43-year-old is persistently fending off questions as to whether his own career might be coming to an end – but just like Native River, there is no sign of him stopping any time soon.

“Sandown showed he’s lost none of his enthusiasm and I certainly haven’t lost any of mine,” he said on a call hosted by Great British Racing.

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“I love doing this. When I started it was a dream to be a jockey, let along be any good at it. To be rocking up at my 26th Festival, most don’t do that as a spectator so I’m very lucky.

“If anything I’m more excited this year than the first. I’m very lucky, usually I’m going there with a good book of rides. It doesn’t guarantee a winner, but I’ve got half a dozen very strong rides this year, I think.

“When I was just starting out my first ride was 50-1, Strong Beau in the Kim Muir (1995) for David Nicholson when realistically if he got round it was a bonus.”

The shortest priced of Johnson’s mounts next week will be the Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill, who will meat former winner Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle for a third time this season – with the score currently level.

Thyme Hill (left) seemed to have the measure of Paisley Park only for him to fly close home
Thyme Hill (left) seemed to have the measure of Paisley Park only for him to fly close home (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“I think the slightly better ground might just help us and he’s only had six runs over hurdles, so I’d hope he is still improving. It’s far from a two-horse race, though Paisley Park is the obvious one to beat,” said Johnson.

“When you get beaten like at Ascot you always think what you could have done it differently, but at the same time I was really pleased as he travelled sweetly and jumped well. For a horse without much experience he’s really matured this year and that is what gives me confidence going to Cheltenham that we can get a different result.

“He’s got the right profile and I still think there is more to come. The ground might be a bit more in our favour and going to Cheltenham horses like Thyme Hill are the ones you want to be on. I can see him winning the Stayers’ Hurdle.”

The Hobbs-trained Zanza in the Grand Annual and a fine spare picked up on Aye Right in the Ultima Handicap Chase due to the suspension of Callum Bewley supplement Johnson’s hand nicely.

Sporting John is another Grade One-winner he can look forward to, but whether he takes on Envoi Allen in the Marsh or Monkfish in the Brown Advisory has still to be decided. Either way he will come up against a rival who has so far looked the real deal.

“I think it will depend on what the ground is like as to where he ends up, but unfortunately neither race is an easy option. We have to take on either Envoi Allen or Monkfish who are both hot favourites,” said Johnson.

“Whichever race he runs in I’d like to think he’ll be in the mix. We always hear this or that can’t be beaten at Cheltenham, but we all know differently as not all the favourites win.

“Both Envoi Allen and Monkfish have already won at Cheltenham, but they’ve still got to turn up and produce on the day. I wouldn’t put anybody off him whichever race he runs in. He’s already a Grade One winner and is very good, you should never shy away from one.”

For a man who has won it all it is difficult to pick out just one favourite when his highlight reel could run for hours – but his victory on the popular Rooster Booster in the 2003 Champion Hurdle is certainly one that springs to mind.

Rooster Booster gained a huge army of followers
Rooster Booster gained a huge army of followers (David Davies/PA)

“It’s hard to pick a favourite, but Rooster came along very early in my association with Philip, maybe only three or four years into the partnership,” he said.

“He gave 110 per cent every time. The year he won the Champion Hurdle, they went very fast early and it all just seemed to happen for him. He was still running away with me coming to the second-last, which shouldn’t happen in a Champion Hurdle.

“That day he was absolutely awesome so he figures very high in my memories.”

He added: “Looks Like Trouble is out in the stable here, he’s 29 now. He was a huge part of my career. I’d won the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999 on Anzum for the Duke (David Nicholson) which got me going, but to ride the Gold Cup winner in 2000 was a huge reason why I started getting very good horses to ride in the top tier.

“He’s special so to have him as a family pet is great. We have Menorah (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner of 2010), too. The children have ridden both of them.”

If Johnson has one regret this year it is that he will not be retaining the jockeys’ championship he lost to Brian Hughes last season having won the previous four upon the retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy.

“I’m disappointed and frustrated not to be involved. Brian is involved again and the great thing for him is he rides for loads of different trainers which coming up to the end of the season is crucial,” said Johnson.

“But the two Harrys (Skelton and Cobden) have two huge stables and unbelievable firepower behind them. It will be a very busy six weeks for them all and will probably come down to the last week.

“I don’t know how many I’ve got left in me, someone asked me this the other day and that becomes a worry when they keep asking the same question!

“I’ve never really had a weight problem luckily, unlike AP (McCoy) or Mick Fitzgerald. I’m loving what I do and when you ride for Philip Hobbs it makes things enjoyable.

“I’m thinking if Thyme Hill goes over fences next year he could be in the Gold Cup in a couple of years, so there’s always reasons to look to the future.”

Hobbs favours Brown Advisory for Sporting John

Philip Hobbs is favouring the  Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase over the shorter Marsh Novices’ Chase for Sporting John at the Cheltenham Festival.

The lightly-raced six-year-old came from way off the pace to win the Grade One Scilly Isles at Sandown this month, on just his second start over fences.

That form looks strong, with previous Grade One winner Shan Blue in second, and Hobbs is left with a choice of taking on Monkfish over three miles or Envoi Allen over two miles and five furlongs next month.

“I think it’s far more likely that he will run in the three-miler (Brown Advisory) – although we still have the option of the Marsh,” said the Somerset trainer.

“But I think unless it is very deep ground he will go for the longer race.

“He got better and better as the race went on at Sandown – and as it was only his second run over fences, you can understand that a lot of it was through greenness. But in the end he won quite comfortably.”

Hobbs’ stable star Thyme Hill was slightly unlucky in last year’s Albert Bartlett behind Monkfish and was beaten only narrowly by Paisley Park last time out, having got the better of Emma Lavelle’s popular hurdler at Newbury earlier in the season.

Thyme Hill is set for another clash with 2019 Stayers' Hurdle winner Paisley Park at Cheltenham next month
Thyme Hill is set for another clash with 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle winner Paisley Park at Cheltenham next month (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The pair are set for another mouth-watering clash in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.

Hobbs said: “With Thyme Hill, he is bang on course for the Stayers’ Hurdle and won’t run before it.

“He’s in good form – and ground-wise with him, it really doesn’t make any difference.”

Hobbs hopeful ahead of Thyme Hill trilogy with Paisley Park

Philip Hobbs feels youth will be on Thyme Hill’s side when the seven-year-old bids to exact revenge on Paisley Park in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Paisley Park collared Thyme Hill in the closing strides to claim the Long Walk Hurdle by a neck at Ascot in December, when the pair met at level weights.

That made the score between them one each as Thyme Hill had beaten Emma Lavelle’s nine-year-old by one and a half lengths at Newbury the previous month, in receipt of 3lb.

“You’d have to say Paisley Park didn’t have the best of runs and he did well to win the race, but Thyme Hill ran an extremely good race and hopefully he is still an improver. That would be the plus,” Hobbs told Sky Sports Racing.

“He’s not had that much racing and our biggest hope really is he could still be an improver and is still going in the right direction, whereas Paisley Park you imagine at his age shouldn’t be.

“He (Paisley Park) is a formidable horse and is not going to be easy to beat whatever happens.

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“Thyme Hill was particularly well this (Wednesday) morning. Having a canter, he had a buck at the top of the gallop and is in really good nick. We are at the stage of thinking about a few gallops to wind him up before Cheltenham.

“He’s not a horse that needs a lot of work anyway. We’re very much looking forward to it.”

Trainer Philip Hobbs
Trainer Philip Hobbs (David Davies/PA)

Whatever the going at Cheltenham would not worry the Minehead trainer.

“I don’t think the ground really matters to him,” he said.

“I suppose you probably don’t want heavy. Anything else would be fine and he is the kind of horse who could cope with quick ground. The ground is the least important thing.”

Hobbs has named the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (formerly the RSA) over an extended three miles as Sporting John’s likely Cheltenham target, following his Grade One triumph at Sandown on Saturday.

The two-and-a-half-mile Marsh Novices’ Chase would be second choice, with Hobbs all but ruling the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy over two miles.

“He’s in the Festival Novices’ Chase. I think we can probably discard the Arkle with it being two miles, but he’s in the three-mile race which is more likely to suit him on the likely better ground,” he said.

“If it was soft at Cheltenham you might consider the Marsh, but I’d say the Festival Novices’ Chase is more likely.”

Sporting John booked his place at the Festival when landing a first success over fences in the Scilly Novices’ Chase, after being beaten at odds-on on his only other start over the bigger obstacles at Exeter in November.

Sporting John (right) battles to victory over Shan Blue at Sandown
Sporting John (right) battles to victory over Shan Blue at Sandown (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“We were delighted with him. At his best, he is very good,” said Hobbs.

“He’s a most lovely-looking horse and has also got a fantastic temperament. He’s just a really nice horse to have about.

“He’s had the six races. He obviously won’t run again before Cheltenham. I feel he’s probably got enough experience. If we’d been able to run him through the winter and he’d had another run that would be better, but I think he has enough experience and he’d have learnt a lot from Sandown the other day.

“It’s going to be the most important novice chase of the season, so why not?”

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.”