Centre pair Paisley Park and Thyme Hill
© Photo Healy Racing
Paisley Park and Thyme Hill are set to do battle once more in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park emerged as the dominant force in the division when claiming the Grade One prize in 2019, but was found to be suffering from a fibrillating heart when failing to fire in last season’s renewal.
The nine-year-old has bounced back to something like his best this term — filling the runner-up spot behind the Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, before reversing that form in an epic climax to the Long Walk at Ascot.
The pair remain on course for a mouthwatering third clash at the Festival on March 18, for which there are 51 entries.
Gordon Elliott has a strong hand, with his four-strong team headed by dual Festival winner Sire Du Berlais.
The JP McManus-owned gelding has won the Pertemps Final in each of the past two seasons and made a successful start to the current campaign in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan in November.
Sire Du Berlais had to settle for minor honours on his latest appearance at Leopardstown over the Christmas period behind Gavin Cromwell’s surprise winner Flooring Porter, who is also in Stayers’ Hurdle contention.
Elliott also has The Storyteller, Commander Of Fleet and Fury Road in the mix, while Willie Mullins has entered six horses for a race he has won twice in recent years with Nichols Canyon (2017) and Penhill (2018).
The Closutton maestro’s sextet includes last year’s third Bacardys, top-class mare Benie Des Dieux and triple Grade One-winning chaser Kemboy, who has not run over hurdles in nearly four years.
Nicky Henderson has entered Gold Cup contender Champ, while shock 2020 winner Lisnagar Oscar (Rebecca Curtis), runner-up Ronald Pump (Matthew Smith), McFabulous (Paul Nicholls) and Sam Spinner (Jedd O’Keeffe) — who chased home Paisley Park two years ago — also feature.
The latter has not looked at his best in two outings so far this season, but O’Keeffe believes there were valid excuses.
He said: “Sam Spinner is fine at home and the Stayers’ Hurdle is a definite target for him.
“He has had a little bit of time off after his run at Newbury as an old foot injury has flared up again. Due to that injury, the plan is to stay over hurdles this season and so the Stayers’ Hurdle will be his main spring target.
“I think we are going to struggle to get a run into him before the race, so he will be going to Cheltenham fresh.
“He has solid form at Cheltenham, so hopefully he can get there in one piece.”
There is one entry from France in Paul’s Saga (David Cottin). The seven-year-old mare landed the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil (French Champion Hurdle) in October.