The Stayers’ Hurdle – Fry’s Favourite Vulnerable To Irish Speedsters

He’s proved peerless over the winter, and is understandably a short-priced favourite, but is Unowhatimeanharry vulnerable to a speedier type when he lines up for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival next Thursday?

He took the Albert Bartlett a year ago, and is four from four at the course. He’s spent the season sweeping-up the usual trials, and has looked impressive in winning the Long Distance, the Long Walk and the Cleeve. Previous staying stars such as Baracouda, Inglis Drever and the mighty Big Bucks, often travelled a similar path towards Cheltenham glory, as did Thistlecrack during his dominant campaign over a hurdles a year ago.

The Irish have a shocking record in the Stayers’, with Solwhit the sole winner this century. And with Harry Fry’s nine-year-old having accounted for all the British contenders during his dominant spell, he starts to have the look of a ‘Festival Banker’. If you add to this the strong record of favourites, and that only Cole Harden has won at double-figure odds in the last 10 years, then we are amassing a pretty strong case for Unowhatimeanharry landing his ninth straight victory.

The intriguing aspect of this year’s race is the likely assault of speedier Irish contenders, similar in type to 2013 winner Solwhit.

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Vroum Vroum Mag now looks unlikely to head here, instead going for the Mares’ Hurdle. Nevertheless, Willie Mullins could have both Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill challenging for this, with both possessing plenty of natural speed. The former was third in the Neptune of 2015 and filled the same spot in last year’s Champion Hurdle. He won at Aintree over 2m4f in 2015 and then demolished Alpha Des Obeaux over the same trip at Punchestown. It was a little surprising that he was then dropped in trip last year, though he ran well in smart company. Whether he’ll get the three miles is questionable, but on good ground at two and a half he’s looked impressive.

Shaneshill has become a Festival stalwart, having finished runner-up in his three visits. He chased home Douvan in the Supreme of 2015, proving that he has plenty of speed, and last year came within half a length of winning the RSA Chase. Cheltenham in March clearly sparks this son of King’s Theatre, and he won his prep at Gowran over the trip. He’s a horse I like, and is probably better trusted to get the trip than Nichols Canyon.

The other Irish contender of interest is the 2014 Champion Hurdle winner Jezki. He returned from injury to win at Navan over two-miles, but was beaten by Tombstone last time at Gowran. Connections are yet to commit to this, and the open nature of this year’s Champion Hurdle is probably tempting, especially on better ground. If he heads here, he has to be a serious contender, though the year off the track is a nagging concern.

The 2015 winner Cole Harden is fancied by many to go close, especially after his promising performance in the Cleeve on unsuitable soft ground. He came off second best to Unowhatimeanharry that day, in receipt of 8lbs, so he has his work cut out to reverse placings, even on a sounder surface. Warren Greatrex had sent him over fences at the start of the season, but a mediocre performance at Wetherby brought about a change in direction. I think he’s held by the favourite, though he could run into a place.

Ballyoptic is another that appears to be well-held by the favourite. He was running a huge race at Ascot in December when coming down at the last, but was disappointing at Cheltenham in the Cleeve. I fancy he’ll make a better staying chaser, and he’s not for me.

Of those at a bigger price, there are two that catch my eye as each-way propositions. Lil Rockerfeller can’t beat Unowhatimeanharry on all-known form, but at 25/1 looks a fair bet to run into a place. He missed his intended prep at Fontwell, but that could prove a blessing, having looked a little jaded when finishing fourth in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day.

The horse that won that day is Agrapart, trained by Nick Williams. He was behind Zarkandar last time at Haydock, but was giving the winner 8lbs, and I fancy that 40/1 for the Stayers’ is wildly underestimating his chance of hitting the frame. He wasn’t stopping at Haydock last time, and I’m sure he’ll run far better than his odds suggest.

Everything points to the favourite in this, and often a punter can be guilty of trying too hard to find a chink in the armour of something that appears bulletproof. Unowhatimeanharry ticks every trend box and is rightly a short-priced favourite. Nevertheless, you occasionally need to go with a ‘gut feeling’, and this is one of those occasions. I think Shaneshill will have the gears to ‘out-kick’ the favourite from the last. And I take Agrapart at the prices to creep into the frame for each-way backers.

As always, best of luck to those having a punt.

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