So much of Cheltenham’s appeal revolves around tradition so it’s a good thing the doughty Unowhatimeanharry brings some traditional virtues to the festival’s Day Three championship highlight.
Except it’s still debatable if the newly re-titled Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle constitutes a real Cheltenham championship or is a spray-paint job polished up to accommodate the modern four-day festival’s need for glitter.
Commercial demands made the introduction of a four-day festival in 2005 a financial no-brainer but Thursday here remains something of a middle child, hardly unloved but hardly showered with love either.
The creation of new races like the mares novice hurdle, and the repackaging of others such as the Ryanair, has padded out the week, but their dilutive impact on competition this week in particular has been obvious.
Without a Grade 1 JLT Yorkhill is likely to have had to take on Altior in Tuesday’s Arkle: without the Ryanair Un De Sceaux would have had little option but to tackle the Champion Chase; Empire Of Dirt may have been added to the Gold Cup mix.
Maximising your chance of winning here is clearly the sound choice for those professionally involved, but such side-stepping ultimately has to have an impact on championship status.
Everyone wants to have a festival winner but that allure has at least something to do with the difficulty involved in getting one.
The Stayers’ crown might not have been regarded as a Cheltenham pinnacle for much of its history but there is at least a reassuring package of history underneath the modern wrapping paper.
A version has been around for over a century – although only as something we’d recognise for less than half that. Since then it has scuttled about the festival schedule, been parked before the Gold Cup, and generally coveted without being mistaken for any sort of “ultimate” in the overall context.
Such big-picture considerations aside, however, it will represent an "ultimate" for Unowhatimeanharry. The horse purchased by JP McManus following his Albert Bartlett victory here a year ago appears to have the archetypal requirements for this race.
He’s not particularly quick or spectacular. Instead he possesses the stamina, grit and galloping power that the restored race title says on the tin.
That the McManus team moved to buy a horse hardly bursting with youthful potential was its own hint. Cheltenham’s most successful ever owner twice won it under the World Hurdle title with Baracouda and once with More Of That. McManus knows the tin and what it requires to successfully open it.
This is one race where speed can actually be a negative, which is a lingering concern about whether or not McManus’s 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Jezki can complete an unlikely festival double.
In terms of class Jezki still looks to be in a different league to Unowhatimeanharry despite a long injury layoff that saw him return to action just a matter of weeks ago. Since then he’s been beaten by Tombstone at Gowran; in his favour is that he is a proven Grade winner at the three-mile trip.
Nevertheless, in comparison to some of these dogged stayers, it’s not hard to imagine Jezki travelling almost too well through the race and then find he has expended too much energy for the business end.
The same can hardly be said for Willie Mullins's trio, although, having expressed doubts about Nichols Canyon travelling to the festival at all, it looks significant this prolific Grade 1 star lines up at all.
Unowhatimeanharry’s credentials, though, are impossible to argue with. He has looked better than ever in three unbeaten starts this season. At nine he is surely coming to a peak and he is a course and distance Grade 1 winner on the same sort of ground he encounters now.
That’s a profile that demands respect at Cheltenham whatever and whenever the circumstances.
2: Nichols Canyon
3: Clondaw Warrior