Paisley Park: what makes Emma Lavelle's star stayer such a hit with the public
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Champions are the sum of many parts and Paisley Park is no exception. He has stamina, an enthusiasm for racing and, as his trainer Emma Lavelle loves to point out, massive ears.
“They’re enormous,” she says with great affection. “They are pricked forward pretty much the entire time, whether he’s being ridden at home or at the races. He loves being a racehorse.”
The eight-year-old has hardly put a foot wrong in the last two seasons and, after winning his last seven starts, he will bid to defend his crown in the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
His meteoric rise to the top of the staying division has transformed the lives of those closest to him, with each success contributing to a ripple effect that is showing no signs of slowing down.
Biggest win 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle
Unbeaten run 7
Future targets 2020 Stayers’
“He’s the horse you dream of having as a trainer,” says Lavelle. “His performances have meant other people have come to us with horses. Our whole business and yard have benefited from him in so many different ways. He’s definitely been a life changer for us.”
Paisley Park provided Lavelle, his inspirational owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth, and regular jockey Aidan Coleman with their first top-level successes in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot last season. It was a major breakthrough but the best was yet to come.
Gemmell has an infectious enthusiasm for sport and sensibly opted for the Cotswolds over a visit to Melbourne for the Australian Open when Paisley Park sauntered to a 12-length success on his next start in the Cleeve Hurdle to set up a dream bid at the festival.
What followed was nothing short of a fairytale. Paisley Park survived a late blunder to land the Stayers’ Hurdle and was met with rapturous applause by the Cheltenham crowd. It was an early highlight in an ongoing love affair between racing fans and this remarkable horse.
“I remember him walking back in and hearing people cheering him down the walkway,” Lavelle fondly recounts. “People were so happy to see him. Then Andrew said it was the best moment of his life. For a horse to achieve that is simply magical. That’s the power they have over us.
“Popular horses are massively important. People get to see them year on year. That’s where we differ from the Flat, where you perhaps get one or two stars who capture the imagination before going off to stud, which is what is so fantastic about Enable staying in training.
“You get lots of horses like her over jumps and that’s what makes it so special. People latch on to them and are on the journey too.”
Paisley Park has picked up precisely where he left off last season, winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury from loveable veteran Thistlecrack on his reappearance before producing a professional display to power up the hill and land back-to-back Cleeve Hurdles.
It is not uncommon for winners to receive a raucous reception on their way into the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham but it is rare for them to be so vigorously applauded when they leave, as he was last month. For Lavelle, it was the latest sign of the public’s adoration of him.
He is considered by many to be one of the bankers of the festival and, with his number of devoted followers increasing with every run, there is a new pressure this season.
“There’s pressure with every horse,” Lavelle reasons. “You’re always trying to do the best you can. It’s an enjoyable pressure with Paisley. You wouldn’t swap it for not having him.
“In some ways the greatest pressure I felt was on his reappearance at Newbury following such an amazing season. There was a degree of expectation to bring him back to the same level and it was my least enjoyable day of racing with him.
“I just wanted him to show everybody he was the same horse as before. At Cheltenham last time, there was less pressure and I enjoyed it. It felt amazing to be associated with him.”
His commanding performance last time suggested he may be getting even better and Lavelle is quick to praise the contributions of two vital members of the team at Bonita Stables: her husband Barry Fenton, who rides Paisley Park every day, and travelling head girl Laura Scrivener.
“At home he has his routine and the excitement bubbles under the surface,” says Lavelle. “When he’s been on the grass gallops, it’s like sitting on a time bomb. He’s just a very happy horse.
“He knows when he gets to the races that he’s there to run and the adrenaline starts pumping. He gets on his toes and has started to love the crowd too. When the cameras started clicking at Cheltenham he seemed to grow a couple of inches and started prancing around the paddock. He’s got a great attitude to life and is a wonderful character to have in the yard.”
That last sentiment could just as easily apply to Gemmell, who has had a number of horses with Lavelle, with whom she has formed a lasting friendship since he first sent her horses in 2007.
“What’s made Paisley’s success that little bit different is the fact Andrew owns him. He’s a special horse in the way he interacts with him and it’s been a wonderful story,” she reflects.
“I have such a laugh with Andrew. He comes down to the yard and takes the mickey out of me mercilessly, and I him. He’s an extraordinary man. It’s a great relationship and exactly how it should be. Ownership is not just about the races, it’s about the whole experience.”
All roads once again lead to Cheltenham this season as Paisley Park bids to become the first dual winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle since four-time winner Big Buck’s won his second in 2010.
When asked if she had wrapped her stable star in cotton wool, Lavelle says: “He’s just in his normal routine. He seems in excellent heart. He cantered away after his run at Cheltenham and is back in full work. It’s all systems go and touch wood we’ll get there fighting fit for the big race.”
‘He’s such a big part of my life’ says besotted Gemmell
There are few bigger gambles than owning horses. For many simply having a winner is an achievement, so Andrew Gemmell feels like he has won the lottery with Paisley Park.
The eight-year-old has risen to the top of the staying division but it has not always been plain sailing as he was off the track for 336 days due to grass sickness after his first start in 2017.
“It was a really serious illness that nearly finished his career but he came back and has improved beyond recognition,” says Gemmell. “He was second in his bumper at Warwick and three days later we found out he was sick. Luckily the vets did a brilliant job with him.”
Gemmell started sending horses to Lavelle in 2007 and made an excellent start with his first runner Seymar Lad, who won his first two starts and four times in total for the pair.
“We’ve had a few disasters but you have to go through that to appreciate the success,” says Gemmell. “I gave Emma some money to take to Goffs Sales and she got Paisley Park for less than I intended to pay. We had no idea he would become the performer he has.
“I feel like we won the lottery and I’m sure I’ll never have another horse as good as him again. I go to cricket matches now and people ask after him. He’s such a big part of my life.”
Sport has been a lifelong obsession for Gemmell and his love of racing began in the 1960s when, stuck for things to do during the school holidays, he started following the sport.
“My first winning bet was on Team Spirit in the 1964 Grand National,” Gemmell recalls. “I fondly remember horses like Arkle and Derby winner Royal Palace on the Flat.”
Gemmell also watched the exploits of Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s, staying royalty who Paisley Park will bid to emulate by winning a second Stayers’ Hurdle next month.
“It’s amazing to hear Ruby Walsh so enthused about Paisley Park,” he adds. “Never in a million years did I think I would own a horse that would be compared to those top horses.”
He admits his star performer has become one of the people’s champions and jokes that he is more than happy to share his ownership, provided he does not have to divide the prize-money.
“I’ve started to notice the reception he receives a bit more, certainly after this year’s Cleeve Hurdle. I’m like a poor man’s Richard Burridge, who owned the great Desert Orchid.
“When he first won the Cleeve I realised he was pretty special. I missed a trip to Australia for that and I’ll always remember Ian Bartlett’s commentary. He put the race to bed so quickly.
“He then went to the festival and after Bryony [Frost] won on Frodon both Emma and I thought the fairytale was scuppered and we couldn’t win. The whole day was astonishing and I remember it so well. I’ve played the commentary so many times since.
“There’s a greater pressure this year. That’s the way it is. I just hope he can do himself justice whatever happens. I don’t want him to be a one-season wonder. It would be great to do it a second time and everybody has said he seems to be getting better.”
His exploits on the track are well documented but just as important is his impact off it, and Gemmell finds great joy when interacting with Paisley Park at Lavelle’s stables in Wiltshire.
“The main thing is the yard,” he says. “It boosts its profile and hopefully more people will send horses to Emma because of it. That’s the biggest pleasure for me. The yard is full of great people who I value so highly. Aidan [Coleman] as well. They’ve become great friends.
“I think he knows he’s good as well. I’m certain he knows who I am when I visit – I love that. He takes his Polos off me and he loves it. I always go well stocked.”
Paisley Park is expected to add another chapter to his memorable story next month and Gemmell is hopeful the adventure can carry on for another year at least, and says: “We always take each season as it comes but I see no reason why he wouldn’t stay in training.
“These long-distance hurdlers tend to have longevity. I wouldn’t want to keep him going for too long but I don’t see why he couldn’t do at least another year. He just pricks his ears and has a great enthusiasm for the game. I’d be astonished if I found another Paisley Park.”
Why I love . . . Paisley Park
Karen Henshall from Worcestershire got in touch to tell us what makes the star staying hurdler so special to her . . .
There are a million reasons to love Paisley Park, not least the turbo-jet engine he has hidden away under such a handsome, laid-back exterior, but it starts with those big ears. As soon as he hits the front, up they prick, posing for his photo in the newspapers as he cruises up the hill. The Paisley Park story is about to gain another victory and another chapter.
Paisley Park’s decision-making seems to be a little out of sync with Aidan Coleman’s, as the horse often thinks he’s done enough a good bit earlier than his jockey. You’ve got to love a horse with a sense of humour, one who always seems to have a moment or two of vulnerability during a race while he remembers where he’s put fifth gear.
Some horses shrink from the crowds, but Paisley Park laps up the attention and looks around at everything and everyone, even while winning a Stayers’ Hurdle.
There are so many stories that come with Paisley that he must be a dream for journalists. He’s the horse who nearly died from illness when young, he has a blind owner, Andrew Gemmell, who gives great interviews with a sense of humour to match his horse.
Paisley’s groom, Laura Scrivener, seems to glow with pride as she leads him round, both before and after a race. Then there’s Emma Lavelle and Barry Fenton, who are rapidly becoming a double-act to rival Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe – they’ve always had the talent but not the luck to go with it.
The same can be said for Aidan Coleman, who always looked like all he needed was that one breakthrough horse.
Paisley Park looks even better this year too! His jumping looks slicker and he has an aura that only the really good horses seem to possess, one of class and style. I’ve read that he likes to eat as many Polo mints as he can, though, so he’s not getting too grand.
I’d love to see him and his team get a second victory in the Stayers’. But most of all, I want to see those ears pricked in triumph after another charge up the hill, and to have another chapter in the amazing Paisley Park story.
It’s not a fairytale, because you don’t really get those in racing, but it is a story of how a horse and his connections can capture your imagination and make you lose your voice cheering for them.
And “what larks, Aidan!” those pricked ears always seem to say.
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