There are bigger fields this week at Cheltenham but perhaps none that present such a puzzle as Thursday's Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle. Analyse the claims of all 10 runners and sceptics might be persuaded to believe none of them can win.
There is a reigning champion in Flooring Porter whose famously short fuse could get blown during the preliminaries. Then there's a 2019 champion in Paisley Park who all but downed tools at the start of his last race yet still somehow managed to win.
Even with a massive head-start in that Cleeve Hurdle, the mercurial Champ somehow still found a way to lose. And for good measure, neither is Willie Mullins’s sole hope, Klassical Dream, rarely mistaken for any kind of stoic when it comes to temperament.
In comparison to some of her opposition, the only mare in the race, Royal Kahala, is an oasis of reliability. However, she has plenty to find on official ratings.
So it would be no surprise if any of those at the forefront of the betting either turns in a dominant display or blows up spectacularly. That’s not something to encourage confidence in those trying to tease out a winner but does make for an intriguing puzzle.
With the shock 50-1 winner in 2020, Lisnagar Oscar, also back for another crack, the last three champions are lining up. There is an argument to be made though the most reliable option this time is a horse having his first start in the race.
Thyme Hill was forced to miss last year’s Stayers having sustained a muscle problem just a week beforehand. He bounced back from that to score in a Grade 1 at Aintree run on a quick surface but is admirably versatile in terms of ground.
Less encouraging is a history of racing almost too generously and that’s always a problem in a marathon contest like the Stayers. It might sound contradictory but class in this particular championship can be a negative.
The priority for jockey Tom O’Brien is likely to be to get Thyme Hill relaxed in the early stages so a generous tempo through the race will help him. Trainer Philip Hobbs has given the horse a single run this season when runner up to Champ in Ascot’s Long Walk last December.
At that point, Champ looked the heir-apparent to the Stayers crown. However, his effort behind a recalcitrant Paisley Park last time makes it hard to be confident about him.
Klassical Dream and Flooring Porter lead a five-strong Irish challenge and if the latter’s temperament allows him to show his best he looks the one to beat. However, in a contest full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ perhaps the least amount of conditions surround Thyme Hill.
Jockey Rob James has experienced plenty of career uncertainty of his own but looks to hold some excellent chances of festival success on Thursday. James, already a Kim Muir winner in 2020 on board Milan Native, has three topweight rides for Gordon Elliott who is keen to employ the rider's 7lb claim.
It is an expression of faith from the trainer for a jockey who also endured a torrid 2021, spending a four month suspension relating to a controversial video of James sitting on a dead horse in 2016. He has bounced back from that setback and with loads of experience from the point to point fields contributes a generous looking 7lb allowance.
Frontal Assault is well fancied for the Kim Muir while another Gigginstown hope, Hardline, is joint top-rated for the Craft Irish Whiskey Plate. The best of James’s trio could turn out to be the JP McManus owned stalwart Sire Du Berlais who goes for a third success in the Pertemps Final.
Runner up to Flooring Porter in last year’s Stayers, Sire Du Berlais was previously a Pertemps winner in 2019 and 2020 off official handicap marks of 145 and 152 respectively. That would often be that for a horse in terms of being a top handicap force. But Sire Du Berlais is on 155 for his Pertemps comeback and with James’s claim thrown in he doesn’t look badly treated at his best.
Colm Murphy could complete a perfect comeback of his own with Impervious in the mares novice hurdle.
Winner of the 2006 Champion Hurdle with Brave Inca, and the Champion Chase with Big Zeb in 2010, Murphy handed in his licence in 2016 only to reverse that decision three years later.
Resuming a place at the top table has proved difficult but the Co Wexford trainer's proven festival touch is a plus for Impervious. She hasn't run since a slightly unlucky run behind Statuaire in November but had previously impressed at Down Royal.
Willie Mullins runs seven including the impressive Clonmel winner Dinoblue who concedes experience all-round. Brandy Love is another who should relish racing left-handed. Impervious though could be a touch of value to get Murphy back to the big time.
Brian O’Connor’s Cheltenham Tips
1.30- Galopin Des Champs
2.10- Sire Du Berlais
3.30- Thyme Hill
4.10- The Glancing Queen
5.30- School Boy Hours (Nap)
Nap and Double- School Boy Hours & The Glancing Queen