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Cheltenham Festival: Key Stayers’ Hurdle contenders analysed by Sky Sports Racing expert Mick Fitzgerald | Racing News

The Stayers’ Hurdle market has chopped and changed all season and remains a wide-open contest for Sky Sports Racing’s Mick Fitzgerald to get stuck into.

With two-time champion Flooring Porter failing to get on the board since last year’s Cheltenham Festival, the three-mile division has been shaken up, with a number of new faces emerging into the picture.

The most intriguing of those could well be Nicky Henderson’s Marie’s Rock, who looks set to step up in distance for the first time.

Seven Barrows’ mare is a horse Fitzgerald knows well from his relationship with the trainer, but will she be good enough to take the Stayers’ Hurdle crown?…

Flooring Porter

Key facts

Trainer: Gavin Cromwell
Jockey: Danny Mullins
Age: 8
Odds: 6/1
Big-race wins: Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle (2020), Stayers’ Hurdle (2021, 2022)

It would be remiss of us to leave out Flooring Porter as a two-time winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle, with him returning for a hat-trick bid. He’s been an incredible horse for the Flooring Porter Syndicate and Gavin Cromwell, but I do think he’s been the beneficiary of two great Danny Mullins rides in this race.

In 2021, Danny got the fractions spot on in a well-run race, keeping something up his sleeve to get home off a good gallop, and last year, it was a bit different with a slightly more tactical race where Danny poached a lead and got a good breather into him going to two out.

I’ve seen him before races and he can be a handful just going to the start, but Danny has done well on him, along with Gavin’s team at home. He’s not easy and can hang left in his races, but Danny gets a fair tune out of him.

I suppose the real worry this season is he hasn’t looked in as good a form for whatever reason and Gavin also reported that Flooring Porter had a setback after his Christmas run. Even before that setback, I was struggling to get a read on him this season.

Image:
Danny Mullins is lifted around the Cheltenham parade ring by Flooring Porter’s owners after winning the Stayers’ Hurdle

He maybe needed the run in the Lismullen Hurdle under a big penalty over a trip too sharp on seasonal debut, but I thought he’d come forward more in the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle. I don’t know is this a deliberate ploy by Gavin to have the horse ready for one day in March or has Flooring Porter become more relaxed at home and, so, harder to get fit this season?

If that is the case, whatever issue he had after Christmas obviously isn’t a positive and Gavin was open with everyone saying Flooring Porter had a setback. This is a horrible time of year for trainers, and I’m sure Gavin is no different.

I do hope, for the Flooring Porter Syndicate, he can shine on the day because we had great scenes when the horse won last year. In their favour at least, they know their trainer has got Flooring Porter to Cheltenham in tip-top shape off the same lay-off the last two seasons running. But, with the setback, the market on the run-up to the race will give us more guidance.

Strengths – The horse has been there and done it twice in this race.

Weak spot – His form doesn’t look as strong this season and he comes to Cheltenham off a setback, too.

Blazing Khal

Key facts

Trainer: Charles Byrnes
Jockey: Philip Byrnes
Age: 7
Odds: 11/4
Big-race wins: Hyde Novices’ Hurdle (2021), Bristol Novices’ Hurdle) (2021), Boyne Hurdle (2023)

As the season went on last year, subsequent Grade One winner Gelino Bello told us how much we were missing Blazing Khal, who was ruled out of the Albert Bartlett through injury. Before Gelino Bello won the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree, he had twice been put in his place by Blazing Khal, once on the Old Course and once on the New Course.

At the time, the form looked strong, but Blazing Khal took his form to new heights when winning the Boyne Hurdle under a penalty last time out. I thought he was very impressive, but, and it’s a big but, you’ve got to wonder how he will perform at Cheltenham on the back of that run. The ‘bounce factor’ has got to be in play here.

I always think when a horse comes back that good off a big lay-off, you just don’t know how much it will take out of him, and for me, that is the potential negative with Blazing Khal. At Cheltenham, he’s got to go and do that again, but not only that, be better to win a Stayers’ Hurdle.

His trainer Charles Byrnes is a magician though, and he’ll need to work his magic again, but the horse’s fans should take some positives in Byrnes winning the 2013 Stayers’ Hurdle with Solwhit, who was a horse who had his own issues, but was produced brilliantly to win a Stayers’ Hurdle. At the same time, Solwhit was a horse of serious class on his day.

Image:
Blazing Khal and Philip Byrnes race away from the final hurdle to win for trainer Charles Byrnes

There’s no doubt Blazing Khal is a good horse, though, whose form is working out along with him being at home on the track. Class and stamina are not the issue, it’s just what kind of form he turns up in on the day.

I don’t think Charles (Byrnes) would’ve gone to the Boyne if he didn’t think this horse was capable of running two races back relatively quickly as you’d assume Cheltenham would’ve been the top goal. This is the type of trainer who doesn’t do things by accident so if Charles thinks the Boyne onto the Stayers’ is the way to go, who are we to question him?

You can be sure it will all be well thought out, but I do feel he needs to take another step forward.

Strengths – Class and especially stamina are not in doubt.

Weak spot – Will he be able to put up another big performance off a long lay-off?

Marie’s Rock

Key facts

Trainer: Nicky Henderson
Jockey: Nico de Boinville
Age: 8
Odds: 9/2
Big-race wins: David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle (2022), Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle (2022), Relkeel Hurdle (2023)

We don’t know for sure if Marie’s Rock will run in the Stayers’ Hurdle, as she has the option of the Mares’ again, but she is entered in the three-mile race so it’s obviously a possibility.

I’d like to see her over the trip for the first time in the Stayers’ because as a horse, she is evolving. She’s finally becoming more tractable on the racecourse, something Nicky Henderson has been seeing at home, and it’s allowing her to show everybody how good she is.

I’ve got to be honest, I was worried going into Cheltenham last year that she would get warm and sweaty before her race again and throw it away a bit, but she quashed that worry with a big performance in the Mares’, finding plenty for pressure and running on strongly.

She then went to Punchestown and beat two class mares in Stormy Ireland and Epatante and you’ve got to say she improved again that day. It’s part of the reason I like her for the Stayers’, because Marie’s Rock is clearly progressive and might have more to offer up in distance, especially now she’s not in a mad rush everywhere.

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Trainer Nicky Henderson is yet to decide on final plans for his star mares Epatante and Marie’s Rock, with the latter facing a potential step up in trip to the Stayers’ Hurdle

Look, there is no doubt the trip is still a question mark but there were more positive signs in the Relkeel, beating a proper soft-ground lover and strong stayer over the distance in Dashel Drasher. A few of the geldings had penalties in that race, but so did she and she only got a pound from Dashel Drasher, where as in a Grade One, she will get the full 7lb mares’ allowance.

Some people might be worried that she’s only had one run this season, but Nicky didn’t run her until he was completely happy with her. Earlier in the season, he wasn’t happy; there was nothing wrong, but she wasn’t sparking. She sparked in the Relkeel though!

I love Nicky’s training of her this season because she was busy last season, running seven times in total and doing both Cheltenham and Punchestown. She proved to everyone how tough, hardy and progressive she was last season so this year’s different preparation is no worry.

The Stayers’ is another step up for her in various ways, but I like her profile and how she’s going into this year’s Festival.

Strengths – I like her profile, progressive nature and the fact she is relaxing.

Weak spot – If she runs here, the trip is obviously the unknown.

Home By The Lee

Key facts

Trainer: Joseph O’Brien
Jockey: J J Slevin
Age: 8
Odds: 11/2
Big-race wins: Lismullen Hurdle (2022), Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle (2022)

Home By The Lee is an interesting contender for this year’s Stayers’ Hurdle as he has without a doubt improved this season. Why that is, I’m not quite sure but Joseph O’Brien seems to think the consistent spell over hurdles has helped him having been chasing.

It’s good he has improved, but he had to if he was going to figure in the race having been well held, albeit with a good run at 33/1, in last year’s Stayers’. He was sixth of 10 and beaten seven-and-a-half lengths by Flooring Porter.

I don’t think I was the only one surprised by his wins in the Lismullen Hurdle and the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle. He was 28/1 the first day and was 7/1 at Leopardstown, but won both races well. Bob Olinger maybe blew out at Navan while Flooring Porter needed the run under a penalty, but Home By The Lee improved again over three miles at Christmas.

Image:
Home By The Lee and JJ Slevin (red) win the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle

I think Home By The Lee has caught horses and people alike on the hop a bit this year. Given Joseph started him at Down Royal in August, I wonder is he surprised by the horse winning a Grade One so well? There is a small feel to Home By The Lee picking up the pieces on the day this season, but the horse can only beat what’s put in front of him, and he has done that well.

You’ve got to hand it to connections, they are making hay while the sun shines this season and capitalising on the opportunities. The Stayers’ division is maybe not a weak division, but it’s certainly open and it feels like the race is there for the taking for any number of horses. It wouldn’t be any surprise to see the fella carry on winning, especially as we know he stays.

Strengths – It’s an open race this year and this fella is improving at the right time.

Weak spot – I know he has improved this season, but he was well held in last year’s race.

Teahupoo

Key facts

Trainer: Gordon Elliott
Jockey: Davy Russell
Age: 6
Odds: 4/1
Big-race wins: Hatton’s Grace Hurdle (2022)

I do like Teahupoo but can’t get away from the fact that the trip is still a doubt in the Stayers’ Hurdle, especially if we get a true end-to-end gallop from the likes of Flooring Porter.

He was really impressive, visually, when winning the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park, but that race played to his strengths with him stepping up in trip. Teahupoo was long odds-on and entitled to win on form, even under a big penalty, but they really did play into his hands, making the race a test of late speed.

We are talking about a horse who Gordon Elliott felt was classy enough and quick enough to run in a Champion Hurdle, and who beat Klassical Dream and Honeysuckle in a Hatton’s Grace so the Galmoy couldn’t have fallen better for him given the steady pace, both in terms of him ‘staying’ the trip and also not having a hard race.

Even how Gordon’s jockeys have ridden Teahupoo in the past – they have dropped him in – clearly they never thought he was a slow horse and was the type to pick up well.

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Trainer Gordon Elliott has trained 34 Cheltenham Festival winners and looks to have another strong squad this year, led by Gold Cup hopeful Conflated

My concern is: Can Teahupoo carry his excellent form this season into the spring festivals? I just cannot banish the memory of him tailing off in the Champion Hurdle or at Punchestown.

I just don’t know what to make of those runs. Was it the trip? The ground? A combination of both? Or, is he a horse who struggles to carry his form into the second half of the season? He is still only a six-year-old meaning he was five taking on peak-form Champion Hurdlers like Honeysuckle so maybe he is just stronger this season and, so, can carry his form later into the campaign?

These are the questions we need answering, but we won’t find out until the Stayers’ Hurdle where he is likely to encounter much quicker ground than the going at Fairyhouse (Hatton’s Grace) and Gowran (Galmoy Hurdle). Maybe spring ground is the issue as he clearly goes well in heavy, but Gordon says he isn’t a heavy topped kind of horse and doesn’t seem too bothered by better going.

Strengths – I think he is the best horse in this year’s race.

Weak spot – An end-to-end type gallop might stretch his stamina to the max and he must prove himself in the spring.

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