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Staying Hurdlers

After a setback when Willie Mullins lost his 2017 Stayers' Hurdle-winner Nichols Canyon in a fall at Leopardstown over Christmas, the stable's Penhill - last seen when beaten by Champagne Classic at the 2017 Punchestown Festival - made light of a 323-day absence to beat the well-fancied Supasundae and make it back-to-back Stayers' wins for the Mullins yard.

It's a simple concept which doesn't always work out - novice wins the Albert Bartlett, then comes back the following year to win the Stayers' Hurdle over the same course and distance. Makes sense, except that he'd had a setback, an injury - what kind of injury wasn't made clear - that prevented him not just from making a bid for the 2017 Melbourne Cup, which some reports suggested he was being aimed at, but from running at all before the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Suddenly it didn't make sense to support him, at least to the majority.

Then there was the post-race chat, which suggested that Mullins wants to send Penhill fresh to the 2019 Stayers' Hurdle, the implication being that he'll be campaigned like Quevega used to - Cheltenham in March, then Punchestown and that's it. It'll make sense to consider Penhill for the 2019 renewal, now that we know that if he goes there fresh, it will be by design.

Despite two wins over two miles last season - one of them fortuitous - the most suitable target for Supasundae at Cheltenham will always be the Stayers' Hurdle. I've suggested before that he now seems to be a horse without a trip, but perhaps there was another reason why things didn't work out for him in the 2018 Stayers' Hurdle, for all that connections are sure to have been pleased with his second-place.

In a steadily-run Stayers' in which the time was 11 seconds slower than Delta Work clocked in the Pertemps Final over the same course earlier on the Thursday card, the pace only quickened at the second last. Supasundae moved better than most approaching the turn, but lacked the speed to get past Penhill up the hill. He'll be a contender again - he probably won't be going chasing now as he turns nine on January 1st.

One who wasn't in the latest Stayers' Hurdle, but who'll be worth a second look if running in the 2019 renewal, is Identity Thief, who enjoyed a revival in the 2017/18 campaign, having lost his way when tried over fences.

It was reportedly the idea of his jockey Sean Flanagan that Identity Thief tried three miles in the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree, having run fourth to Buveur D'Air in the Champion Hurdle, outpaced three out and staying on to go fourth up the hill. It proved one for those who believe in that familiar old chestnut 'form is temporary, class is permanent' as Identity Thief, travelling best approaching the second last, found the necessary when shaken up approaching the last and pulled five lengths clear of Wholestone, posting a 160s-rating with me for the first time in ages. A poor effort at Punchestown on his final outing of the season suggests that there are still reliability issues, but he's won a Grade 1 over the trip, and for that reason his 20/1 ante-post price over the Summer is too big.

Wholestone isn't a bad yardstick, having run more or less the same race at Cheltenham and Aintree, third and second respectively and beaten the same amount - theoretically giving Identity Thief an identical chance to Penhill if and when they meet - and he didn't do a lot wrong at Aintree. The way I read the Stayers' Hurdle though, Wholestone was the most affected by the steady pace only quickening with two to jump. First he had little room there and was bumped; then he had a wall of horses in front on the home turn, and still no clear run approaching the last flight. With five still in front of him jumping it, fast though he finished to take third, he couldn't get to the first two. He might be worth another chance.

As stated above Identity Thief ran poorly at Punchestown, a long way behind another horse enjoying a revival - none other than Faugheen, finally back running over his best trip.

Penhill started 2/1 favourite for the Champion Stayers Hurdle and gave his running, moving comfortably when going second after two out, but was no match for the Faugheen-machine, who set a fair pace throughout, enjoyed an uncontested lead and wasn't troubled to stretch clear in the straight - a performance made all the more remarkable when it was announced just over a week after the race that he'd had surgery to remove a growth the size of an orange from his groin area. No swelling - sorry, dwelling - on that in this corner, after all this is a family website.

Faugheen will be 11 next March, and a horse that age last won the Stayers' Hurdle in 1986, when Crimson Embers drew clear of the field. It's a feasible possibility though, at least at the beginning of the season - although those who've made him ante-post favourite at the time of writing (best odds 6/1 in August), presumably have taken no notice of the fact that he'll be trying to do something that hasn't been done for 32 years.

As suggested in the Two-Mile Hurdlers-piece, the Ballymore (former Neptune)-winner Samcro should spend his season over longer distances, not shorter. The style marks of his win, his seventh in a row, were high - only idling up the hill briefly when beating subsequent Aintree winner Black Op - and time and again those who have the size and scope for chasing have made good staying hurdlers.

The latest Long Walk Hurdle-winner, Sam Spinner, having improved dramatically from the handicapping-ranks, looked off his game at Cheltenham and Aintree, but I'll be leaving him out of calculations if he goes for the races again in 2019. He's a free-going sort who'll have nothing left for the Cheltenham hill.

Black Op, who despite winning at Aintree shaped as though he'd be better over three miles, is more likely to be going chasing than staying over hurdles in 2018/19, and noises from the Colin Tizzard-yard suggest that their Albert Bartlett-winner Kilbricken Storm will be doing likewise, although for me the latter is not a chasing sort in appearance. Neither is the Albert Bartlett-third and Sefton-winner Santini, who makes no appeal to me for any big-race target, having ground out the win at Aintree through nothing but stamina, and perhaps a bit flattered on the day by virtue of being taken wide into the home straight. I don't think he's a class act in the making.

So we're looking at last year's best staying hurdlers to take a hand again in 2018/19, with the possible addition of Samcro - although even if he goes chasing or is aimed at the Champion Hurdle instead, the three-mile hurdlers look a stronger bunch than the two-milers as we enter the 2018/19 season-proper.

If the 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle was tomorrow, who are the first four?

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