Donn McClean previews the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle from Cheltenham Trials Day
It’s the new against the old in the Grade 2 gallardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday.
The new? Paisley Park and Midnight Shadow. Paisley Park is three for three this season, a handicap hurdle at Aintree, a Grade 3 handicap hurdle at Haydock, and the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, when he provided his trainer Emma Lavelle and his rider Aidan Coleman with the first Grade 1 wins of their respective careers.
Midnight Shadow has won his last two. He beat Ch’tibello in a handicap hurdle at Aintree in December, and he beat Wholestone in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Both horses are highly progressive, but neither is rock solid. This year’s renewal of the Long Walk Hurdle that Paisley Park won was not the strongest renewal ever run. Also, Sam Spinner unseated at the second flight, and Unowhatimeanharry fell at the eighth. Emma Lavelle’s horse stayed on well to win it, and he is a really nice progressive staying hurdler. But he is probably going to have to progress again if he is going to win the Cleeve Hurdle, and he is short enough in the market.
Midnight Shadow is also progressing nicely, and he was very good in beating Wholestone and Old Guard in the Relkeel Hurdle. However, that was over two and a half miles. He still has to prove his stamina for three.
He may well get the trip, and his running style is not a negative in that regard. But he is out of Holy Smoke, who never went beyond 10 furlongs, and she is by Statoblest, a sprinter. Connections were thinking about the Champion Hurdle instead of the Stayers’ Hurdle as his Cheltenham target, and it may be that two and a half miles is his optimum trip.
The step up to three miles may allow Wholestone reverse Relkeel Hurdle placings with Midnight Shadow. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse was just out-stayed by Agrapart on heavy ground in this race last year but, on better ground, he could improve on that. Three miles on good to soft ground could represent close to optimal conditions for him. Or two and a half miles on heavy.
He does not have the fashionable, progressive profile that Midnight Shadow and Paisley Park have, but he is not old, he is only eight, just a year older than Paisley Park, and he is a high-class staying hurdler who goes well at Cheltenham. His record at Prestbury Park now reads 121131232.
Sam Spinner is not old either. Actually, Sam Spinner is young, just seven, the same age as Paisley Park and just a year older than Midnight Shadow. But he is part of the established brigade, by dint of the fact that he was an established staying hurdler last season, he won the Long Walk Hurdle and he started favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle.
This season has not gone well so far for the Black Sam Bellamy gelding. He was a beaten horse when he was brought down in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, and he unseated at the second flight in the Long Walk Hurdle last time, after giving the first a long lingering look.
Trainer Jedd O’Keeffe said afterwards that he was blinded by the low sun, and that is a more than a plausible reason for such a peculiar performance. He could be an under-rated horse now.
Black Op is fascinating, last season’s Ballymore Hurdle runner-up and Mersey Hurdle winner, returning to hurdles after two runs over fences. He was well beaten by Defi Du Seuil and Topofthegame at Exeter on his chasing bow, and he was well beaten again by Lostintranslation and the same Defi Du Seuil in the Dipper Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day when he didn’t look like a chasing natural.
It is an understandable change of policy by Tom George and Roger Brookhouse, going back over hurdles. Remember Buveur D’Air had two goes over fences too before he returned to hurdles, and look how that one turned out. Black Op is obviously a highly talented hurdler, but he is short enough for Saturday’s race.
Aux Ptits Soins is another who has returned to hurdles after having a go at chasing. He has since moved from Paul Nicholls’ to Dan Skelton’s, and he looked very good at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day on just his second run for his new trainer, staying on well to win a decent three-mile handicap hurdle fairly readily.
He is going to have to improve again if he is going to win a Cleeve Hurdle. An 8lb hike for that win at Cheltenham leaves him on a mark of just 149, which still leaves him with plenty to find on official ratings. However, he receives weight from eight of his 11 rivals, and he is progressive. He is not without a chance.
Nor is Lil Rockerfeller, another who is returning to hurdles from fences, and Agrapart would have been high on the shortlist had the ground come up soft or heavy, which it usually does for this meeting. He is unlucky with the weather.
All into the mix? At current odds? Wholestone may represent the best value in the race at around 11.0.
Host Tom Stanley is joined by Donn McClean and Rory Delargy to look ahead to Saturday’s Cheltenham card with an eye on the festival itself. There’s some Irish reflection from the week just gone plus the usual best bets.