This time last year, and arguably even well into the season, the staying hurdle division looked light on any real quality or superstars.

The first two Graded long distance hurdles were won by 143-rated handicapper in Nautical Nitwit, and then by a veteran in Unowhatimeanharry. In that time though, an Emma Lavelle trained 6yo had gone in at Aintree off a mark of 140, and then followed up a few weeks later in a similarly competitive Haydock event.

The horse was Paisley Park, certainly a useful, if unspectacular novice, in 2017/18, though he’d flopped badly at The Festival when trailing home 13th of 13 finishers in the Albert Bartlett.

The promise he’d shown on his first two starts last season would certainly have given his sporting owner Andrew Gemmell reason to upbeat about the rest of the season, but surely even the most optimistic of connections would’ve been surprised as to how far clear of the pack Paisley Park ended the season.

He provided a first Grade One for both his trainer, and regular pilot Aidan Coleman when taking the Long Walk at Ascot just before Christmas, before stamping his authority on the division by dismantling every other good British staying hurdler, (barring one, who we’ll discuss later), in the Cleeve.

It was the same story when the Irish contingent were added into the mix in the Stayers itself, with Paisley Park briefly looking outpaced turning for home before powering his way up the stretch.

There doesn’t seem to be much coming through the ranks in terms of potential opposition, and given the way he improved with every run last year, his price of 7-2 could look an absolute gift come next March.

THE CHALLENGERS

Similarly to the Champion Hurdle market, both Benie Des Dieux (6s) and Laurina (8s) occupy prominent roles in the market, as they do with practically every Grade One Hurdle (or novice chase in Laurina’s case).

As usual with a good Mullins mare, it’s hard to enough to predict as to where their destinations will be even a month before the Festival, never mind a month before the season, though if both were to take their chances, I’d have preference for Benie Des Dieux out of the pair- if it wasn’t for a lapse in concentration at the final flight of the Mares’ Hurdle, she would still be unbeaten in eight starts for Mullins.

Her last victory, where she turned over the odds-on French star De Bon Coeur in the Grand Course De Haies at Auteuil, was arguably a career best.

That was her first try at a trip further than 2m4f and really saw every inch of the extra half mile out well. Of course, it’s impossible to confidently say which race she’ll be aimed at, especially as she’s also 4-4 over fences for Willie, but he doesn’t lack for quality mares and it’s not inconceivable that he might send the best of the bunch to vy for championship honours.

Laurina is a hard horse to assess at the minute, she’s obviously got bundles of ability, but just how much is a topic for debate. Was her run in the Champion Hurdle a disappointment, or a career best? She’s high in the betting for several races at the Festival and I’d wager she’d be much more likely to turn up in a novice chase or the Mares’ Hurdle than this.

If The Cap Fits (10s) always looked like a horse who would be at his best over 3m and duly obliged on his maiden attempt at the trip when edging out Roksana and Apple’s Jade in an exhilarating Liverpool Hurdle. Carefully plotted by Harry Fry across both of his hurdling seasons, the 7yo is yet to make a Cheltenham appearance, but he’s a rare rival that Paisley Park has yet to face and he appears to pose the biggest domestic threat to the reigning champion.

There’s been more sightings of Bigfoot than of Penhill (12s) in the last few seasons. Rather surprisingly for a 10yo dual Festival winner, I’m not sure anyone could say with much confidence exactly how good a prime Penhill is. His 2018 Stayers Hurdle victory was impressive, but stones can easily be thrown at that form; the gallop was slow, so slow that it allowed Supasundae, who has never convinced over a trip that far, to emerge as his chief rival. Penhill then couldn’t get near Faugheen at Punchestown, before injury ruled him out of a title defence last season. Based on the progress Paisley Park made last season and the degree to which he was above the rest of the staying hurdlers, I think it would take a career best from Penhill to threaten him at the age of 11.

Sam Spinner (25s) hinted that there was still a Grade One horse in him when runner up to Paisley Park in last season’s renewal, but on the whole had a disappointing campaign and his best chance of winning this has probably been and gone. The other two horses available at 25s, Younevercall & Shades Of Midnight both won woefully bad Grade 2s in the back half of last season and would surely need to find 20lbs worth of improvement to even be considered.

THE NEW FACES

Uniquely enough for the Cheltenham Festival, I went away from last season’s Friday feeling strongly that the Albert Bartlett was the strongest of all the novice hurdles ran that week. Unfortunately, not many of last season’s star staying novice hurdlers seem to be sticking around for the transition into open company. Minella Indo, who followed up his Festival win at Punchestown, will be going chasing, whilst the runner up Commander Of Fleet is out for the season with an injury. Chasing also appears to the be plan for Aintree Grade One winner Champ, whilst fellow talented novices Allaho and Dickie Diver also shape like their futures are over the bigger obstacles, as do the another Grade One winning duo in City Island and Reserve Tank.

Two of last season’s novices who may stay over hurdles are Emitom and Lisnagar Oscar, (both 25s), but both would need to improve by 10lbs minimum to be competitive at the very top- Lisnagar Oscar in particular may lack the necessary gears to do so, whilst Triumph Hurdle runner Gardens Of Babylon is also available at the same price.

Though, Paisley Park might be defending his crown against an almost identical group of horses to the one he beat last year, although he himself is a prime example of how new, previously unconsidered rivals can come from leftfield to throw down the gauntlet. Nevertheless, at this stage, 7-2 for the reigning champion to retain his crown looks like a cracking price, even before the season has started.