Willie Mullins’ charge defied a 323-day absence when defeating Supasundae by two lengths in 2018 and is set to head to the three-mile hurdling championship again without a recent run. He is going for a third successive win at The Festival™ presented by Magners, having won the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in 2017.
There are a record 23 Irish-trained entries with Penhill’s trainer Willie Mullins responsible for 11 of them. His contingent also features 10-time Grade One scorer Faugheen, the 2015 Unibet Champion Hurdle victor, who relished the step up to three miles when beating Penhill by 13 lengths at the Punchestown Festival in April, and the 2018 Coral Cup victor Bleu Berry.
Gigginstown House Stud-owned stars Apple’s Jade and Samcro, both also entered in the two-mile Unibet Champion Hurdle, headline eight entries for trainer Gordon Elliott. The octet also includes Pallasator, winner of the 2018 Queen Alexandra Stakes on the Flat at Royal Ascot, and last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle scorer Farclas.
The leading British-trained hope is Paisley Park (Emma Lavelle), following victories in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on December 22 and the valuable G3 Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock Park the previous month.
Paisley Park wins at Ascot
Sam Spinner (Jedd O’Keeffe) looked a potential star when landing the same two races as Paisley Park last season, making all both times under Joe Colliver, but failed to replicate that form when favourite for the 2018 Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle, finishing fifth.
The seven-year-old has been let down by his jumping on both starts this season, having unseated his rider in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot when it looked as though he tried to refuse at the second.
Trainer Jedd O’Keeffe, based in North Yorkshire, reported: “Sam Spinner is in good form. We don’t really know why he behaved like that at Ascot. The padded hurdles may have given him a fright, but he has schooled since and seems fine.
“The plan is still to go to the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle [Festival Trials Day, Cheltenham, January 26] and hopefully all will be good and his confidence will be OK. Basically, we have got to try to get his career back on track. If we can get everything right again, the plan would be to return to The Festival for the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle.”
Sam Spinner – heads to the Cleeve Hurdle
Another Northern challenger Midnight Shadow (Sue Smith) marked himself down as a contender with a smooth success in the Grade Two Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle over an extended two and a half miles at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Leading owners Simon Munir & Isaac Souede have three entries in total, including the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained pair of Wholestone, third last year and also entered in Unibet Champion Hurdle, and four-time Grade One-winnning grey Bristol De Mai, a well-established top-class chaser.
Colin Tizzard’s two Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle entries include Kilbricken Storm, winner of the 2018 G1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Others entries to note include dual G1 scorer Yanworth (Alan King), novice chaser Black Op (Tom George) and 2015 Coral Cup winner Aux Ptits Soins (Dan Skelton), who impressed when taking a three-mile handicap hurdle by seven lengths at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.