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Paisley Park primed in search for 'very special' second Stayers' Hurdle success

Andrew Gemmell and Emma Lavelle after Paisley Park's emotional 2019 Stayers' Hurdle
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3.05 Cheltenham
Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1) | 3m | ITV/RTV

It has been an amazing story so far – and the next chapter could be glorious, if the betting is right.

Paisley Park is named after the late Prince's home in Minnesota and the odds suggest Cheltenham could be poised to party like it's 2019.

It was two years ago he capped an emotional afternoon with a memorable victory in the Stayers' Hurdle. A crowd that had just gone wild for Bryony Frost on Frodon in the Ryanair went even wilder as the hot favourite collected for popular trainer Emma Lavelle and the super enthusiastic Andrew Gemmell, the blind owner whose vivid reactions to the triumphs of his beloved stayer captured the public imagination in a season in which his pride and joy won all five starts.

Covid restrictions mean Gemmell cannot be present as Paisley Park returns on something of a retrieval mission two years on, having being diagnosed as suffering an irregular heartbeat after finishing only seventh when sent off 4-6 for a repeat last season.

Nor is that the only low point in a tale that includes two brushes with death: one when he came down with serious illness after his debut in 2017, the other when he suffered anaphylactic shock, collapsed and got himself trapped and unable to breathe in his lorry just under two years ago.

But there have been plenty of highs in the story too, the most recent coming at Ascot last December. The former champion had been overturned by younger challenger Thyme Hill, who received 3lb, at Newbury the previous month, coming off second best in a race that turned into more of a test of speed than stamina.

Three weeks later, at level weights in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle, Paisley Park turned the tables with a performance which Lavelle reckons was "the best race of his life" – making up prodigious ground to catch Thyme Hill, who had looked to have his measure when jumping into the lead at the final flight. A minor setback means Philip Hobbs's star has been deprived of a chance of gaining his revenge.

This will be the first time the public has seen Paisley Park since Ascot as his usual prep run in the Cleeve Hurdle was scuppered by waterlogging at Cheltenham, but Lavelle is confident the nine-year-old is at the top of his game.

She said: "Touch wood, he's in great order. He's such a star for us, fingers crossed he goes and runs his race but in how he seems at home and how the season has gone for him there's nothing to suggest he's not going to go and do what we hope he'll do.

"I felt it was a career-best last time. He certainly feels fantastic in himself and you just want his A game to come to the track and him to go and do his thing."

The going will not be as testing as when Paisley Park won in 2019 but Lavelle added: "I think if anything the ground should be a positive. We always thought he'd be better on better ground. He's an out-and-out stayer but he's not a slow horse – he's just a good horse.

"It would be very, very special to win again. It's clearly going to be pretty tough for Andrew not being there but it will be very special. Even in these weird circumstances, to have a Cheltenham Festival winner is like winning no other race."

Dual festival winner Sire up in class

Sire Du Berlais is bidding to make history today – and plenty of people believe he can do it.

He has won the Pertemps Hurdle Final for the last two years, looking a smart stayer in landing an ultra-competitive handicap run over the same course and distance as this Grade 1 contest.

Sire Du Berlais (left) wins a second Pertemps Hurdle Final in 2020

No horse has ever gone on from success in that race, which was founded as the Coral Gold Hurdle Final back in 1974, to take this championship event. But Sire Du Berlais won his latest Pertemps in a time nearly three seconds quicker than Lisnagar Oscar recorded in the Stayers' two races later and he made a smooth transition to Grade 2 company when scoring at Navan last November.

Although only third at Leopardstown in December, he has never seemed as effective there as he clearly is at Cheltenham and has been aimed at this race all season.

Trainer Denise 'Sneezy' Foster said: "Sire Du Berlais has been there and done it twice on this track, albeit in a handicap. He has two solid runs to his name in quality company and he should give another good account."

Foster has two other runners and added: "The Storyteller is a marvellous horse. He's a huge favourite of everyone here in the yard. You can see why when you look at his race record.

"He had a very good run in the Pertemps and again in a Grade 1 at Christmas. He loves this track and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him run well.

"Fury Road had a decent run at Navan last time. We're still not absolutely certain he's an out-and-out three-miler, but he's a quality horse and the best is still to come from him."

Hoping for another Oscar win

Paisley Park is not the only former winner in the field as Lisnagar Oscar came out on top at 50-1 when the 2019 winner underperformed last year.

Lisnagar Oscar shaped encouragingly on his first run since wind surgery when second under a 6lb penalty at Haydock last month and trainer Rebecca Curtis said: "I'm looking forward to the race. I was very pleased with him last time at Haydock. I hope he's fresh enough and he doesn't seem flat at home.

"He may want slightly more cut in the ground but he goes on any and he loves Cheltenham so he should run a big race."

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What they say

Willie Mullins, trainer of Bacardys
He always runs well here and will benefit from the drying conditions. He has an each-way chance.

Noel Meade, trainer of Beacon Edge
We think he has a good chance. He's travelled over well and seems in good form. He had a colic during the winter and that knocked the stuffing out of him but he was very good at Navan and seems to have come on for that again.

Gavin Cromwell, trainer of Flooring Porter
He has form with Sire Du Berlais and the best of the Irish. He’s in good shape and is coming here fresh. It’s a little bit of an unknown with the track and we'd prefer if he had a true running rail the whole way as he’s just not completely straightforward.

Harry Fry, trainer of If The Cap Fits
We're reverting to hurdles as he hasn't hit the same level of form over fences. He seems in good form and I hope he's got an each-way squeak. 

Neil King, trainer of Lil Rockerfeller
He's in really good form - he's only had two runs this season which is a big plus because he's fresh and not been drained on heavy ground. The more the ground dries the better and we've put the headgear on as he'll need to be sharp. 

Joe Tizzard, assistant to Colin Tizzard, trainer of Reserve Tank
He had a nice comeback run and he loves a bit of good ground. Whether Cheltenham is his track I don't know, he might prefer Aintree. He's improved for his last race and if we can nick a bit of prize-money we'll be chuffed.

Jedd O'Keeffe, trainer of Sam Spinner
We've put blinkers on to help with his confidence. His work and his schooling have been great. He's still very capable and it's not impossible he could get placed again. 

Kim Bailey, trainer of Vinndication & Younevercall
I'm very happy with Vinndication, he's in a good place and he's unbeaten over hurdles. All Younevercall's form is right-handed and I just hope we don't do a Goshen. His form is good but the question is whether he can go left-handed. 

Cheltenham Festival Thursday previews:

Punters have penetrated deep into enemy territory – now for our biggest weapon (Members' Club)

A changing of the guard in the Stayers' Hurdle – but one familiar face remains (Members' Club)

1.20 Cheltenham: Keith Melrose believes there is only one viable alternative to Envoi Allen

1.55 Cheltenham: can conditional Jordan Gainford be the boss in a wide-open punting puzzle?

2.30 Cheltenham: classy and deep Ryanair field could lead to championship race of the week

Can Paisley Park run below form and still win? Graeme Rodway dissects the data (Members' Club)

3.40 Cheltenham: bonus hunter The Shunter bids to bag £100,000 on return to fences

4.15 Cheltenham: Peter Fahey confident Royal Kahala can end Willie Mullins mares' monopoly

4.50 Cheltenham: Keith Melrose fancies a pair of novices to come to the fore in a tricky contest

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It would be very, very special to win again. It's clearly going to be pretty tough for Andrew not being there but it will be very special
E.W. Terms