The 2022 Stayers Hurdle, is set to run over two miles, seven furlongs, and two hundred and thirteen yards. on Thursday the 17th of March. Despite the fact he has been beaten in his three starts since, last years winner Flooring Porter currently heads the market for a repeat victory.
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Flooring Porter won a handicap hurdle off a mark of 105 back in October 2019, and his progression since then has been remarkable, culmination in a victory in this race at last years festival. He won by three and a quarter lengths from Sire Du Berlais and wasn’t all out, as he was only pushed out on the run in, having made all and was last off the bridle. If there was a negative to take from the race for the future it was that the race went pretty much as well as it could for him. Yes he set a decent gallop, but it wasn’t contested and he could set his own rhythm. He also jumped unbelievable well, meeting loads of hurdles on a long stride and taking full advantage, and even his kink of hanging badly late in his races was reduced to a slight jink after the last. So although he probably had another length or so in him, even missing one of those hurdles could have nullified his superiority.
Since then he missed the kick at Punchestown when being led in, before being rushed up to lead, and that combined with jumping left the whole way meant it was little surprise when he was pulled up. He fell at the second last on his seasonal debut at Navan, but still looked to be travelling well enough and would likely have won. At Leopardstown in the Christmas Hurdle he was a two length second to Klassical Dream, with that horse nicking a six length start when he jumped before the starter had lowered the flag, but while it should have been a false start it was allowed to continue. On that basis Flooring Porter did well to get within two lengths, but equally he never really looked like winning. While it wasn’t his fault this time is was the second time in three starts that his chance has been massively compromised at the start, and there is potential for the same to happen again.
Klassical Dream won the Supreme back in 2019 and followed up at Punchestown that season, but disappointed in two runs the following winter, and wasn’t seen again until running in the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown last April. I didn’t give him much chance of staying, so although he travelled like a dream and came there cantering on the home bend, I expected him to empty out. Instead he went clear for a nine length win. With Flooring Porter running no race, the bare from would be shy of what will likely to be required to win this, but he surely had at least something extra in hand.
He beat Flooring Porter two lengths in the aforementioned race at Christmas on his comeback this season, and although getting a jump on his main rival at the start was a theoretical advantage, he strikes me as a horse that would be better with a lead, and he did go on to totally dominate the race from that point onwards. The fact he could do it from the front off a decent gallop would ally fears he might not get up the hill at Cheltenham over this trip. He again made the running at Gowran last time, but was beaten on landing over the second last and it was a well below par run. Willie blamed that effort on given him a break after Christmas and needing the run, and while trainers do tend to come up with flimsy excuses for defeats, there is no better man to have him back right for Cheltenham.
Thyme Hill beat Paisley Park at Newbury on his seasonal debut last season, beofre going down narrowly to that same rival at Ascot on his next start. He missed Cheltenham last season due to a set back, but got up late to beat Roksana in the Stayers Hurdle at Aintree in April. While that form puts him right in the picture for a race like this, I would think it be at least a few pounds shy of what Flooring Porter and Klassical Dream have achieved.
This season Thyme Hill put a disappointing run at Auteuil behind him by again coming second in the Long Walk at Ascot. He was beaten just under two lengths by Champ that day, and was a further three and half clear of Paisley Park, and overall the form has a solid look to it. The issue for Thyme Hill is it would likely be a little shy of what you’d expect the winner of the Stayers to run to and his potential for improvement is lessening, with his form since stepping out of novice company being at a high level, but not really progressing.
Champ beat last years Gold Cup winner Minello Indo in the RSA at the 2020 festival, but his campaigning since then has been bizarre. He only ran once last year before Cheltenham, and that was over two miles, and although going off third favourite for the Gold Cup he ran like he’d never seen a fence before and was pulled up. His trainer who seems to have developed a habit of not wanting to run his stars then ludicrously claimed there was no opportunities for him over fences in December, so he went back over hurdles to beat Thyme Hill in the Long Walk. Champ travelled like much the best that day, and was probably idling a bit having hit the front before the second last, but knuckled down well to win going away again.
Last time Champ was beaten just over three lengths by Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, and given that horse almost refused to race, losing fifteen lengths at the start, then you could only conclude that he was well below the level he’d shown at Ascot. If he can bounce back from that then his Ascot form would give him every chance.
Paisley Park won the stayers hurdle in 2019 but despite getting a strong pace which should have suited he was only seventh in 2020, and he again had no excuses when third last season, beaten five lengths by Flooring Porter, when once again he got a decent gallop to aim at. In coming third in his first three runs this season he showed himself still capable of a high level of form, while looking a good bit short of the horse he used to be, so it’s hard to interpret his win over Champ last time. He tried to refuse at the start and while a steady enough early pace meant he could make the ground he lost up without too much cost, he tends to need a strong gallop to be at his best, and indeed he got outpaced when they quickened, before staying on strongly. Small field form is rarely solid, and I think it’s far more likely Champ ran well below his best than Paisley Park has suddenly re-found his, and as such he has his work cut out to regain his stayers crown.
Sporting John is another that has gone back over hurdles this season after a spell chasing, and he won handicaps at Cheltenham and Warwick, the latest off a mark of 151, when he was far from all out to go away for a three length win. He has potential for more improvement, but this is a big step up in class, and he did disappoint on better ground at Cheltenham in between those victories, so maybe a bit of cut is ideal for him.
Royal Kahala ran poorly in the Mares Novice hurdle at last years festival, but the drop in trip on better ground wouldn’t have suited. This season after a second at Punchestown she was strongest at the finish when stepping up to two and a half miles at Leopardstown, shaping like even more of a test would suit. She backed up that impression when winning the Galmoy hurdle at Gowran last time over three miles and half a furlong, but Klassical Dream flopped and a just under two length defeat of Home By The Lee is a good way short of the standard she’d need to run to to win this. She is still progressive though.
It’s a very hard race to call at this stage, while even on the day the start could make or break the chances of a few at the head of the market. Thyme Hill is probably the solid one, but his best doesn’t look as good as a few others, and while Flooring Porter’s win here last year sets a decent level, everything went right for him that day, and it’s far from sure to do so again. Champ and Klassical Dream look capable of putting up even bigger performances than he did that day, but both ran well below par last time and have questions to answer, so I’d rather wait for the declarations to try tease out a possible bet, as nothing is jumping out at me at the current odds.