The Cheltenham Festival build-up will be all the more enjoyable for trainer Emma Lavelle after Paisley Park became her first Grade One winner in Ascot’s JLT Hurdle.
In a race high on drama, still known to many as the ‘Long Walk’, the six-year-old showed he will be a major player in the Stayers’ Hurdle come March – completing his hat-trick on Saturday in the manner of a horse on the upgrade.
With last year’s winner Sam Spinner departing at the second flight and 2016 victor Unowhatimeanharry coming down mid-race, it meant a new name was going to be joining the likes of Big Buck’s and Baracouda on the illustrious roll of honour.
One of a host of horses in with a chance at the penultimate flight, Lavelle’s 8-1 shot stayed on strongly after the last under Aidan Coleman to defeat West Approach by two lengths – with Top Notch a further length and three quarters back in third.
Lavelle said: “I think he will get better. He has posted a personal best today, so we just have to hope he keeps going the right way.
“I’m going to draw a line through Cheltenham last year, because that was what was scaring me today about the ground. He didn’t handle it in the Albert Bartlett, but I think he wasn’t right rather than it was Cheltenham or the ground.
“Barry (Fenton, partner) rides him every day at home, and he is his absolute pride and joy. (Owner) Andrew (Gemmell) doesn’t normally ring before he has a runner – but he rang me at 7am this morning and said ‘is he okay’?.
“Andrew owns on him on his own, and he means a lot to him. It has been his plan from the start (this season), the three-mile handicap at Haydock and then here. I just did what I was told.
“He has finished up being a super horse for Andrew and us – it’s our first Grade One, and Aidan’s first Grade One and Andrew’s.”
Coleman said: “I’ve been riding an awful long time, and I hadn’t had (a Grade One).
“I never thought it was on my mind – I’m not far off 1,000 winners – but 50 yards from the line, I finally realised what a monkey it was on my back.”
As for the winning owner, who was born blind, there is only one place he wants his pride and joy to head for now.
He said: “The plan has already been made – it’s 82 days to Cheltenham. We’ve had this planned all season. I think we’ve been quietly hopeful – but you never know. I did think we had a chance today.”
A rematch at Cheltenham looks likely to be on the cards between the winner and the runner-up, according to West Approach’s trainer Colin Tizzard.
The Dorset handler said: “It would be brave not to go for the Stayers Hurdle. He has run off 157 over hurdles before, and people seem to forget that.
“He has always been cautious jumping – he just jumps fences too high. We schooled him, and tried flattening it out – but it didn’t work.
“When you watched the race it looked like he was going to win. The winner is a dour stayer – but I don’t think we stopped at all, and on the line he was getting back.”
Nicky Henderson, trainer of third-placed Top Notch, hailed his efforts – while a drop back in trip is likely to be on the cards for beaten favourite Call Me Lord.
“Top Notch is Top Notch – when does he ever not run well?” asked Henderson.
“Daryl (Jacob) said Call Me Lord got knocked about and probably didn’t stay. We will bring him back to two and a half miles, I would think.”
A close eye will be kept on the Seven Barrows master’s other runner Soul Emotion, who needed treatment after the line.
Indicating further urgent medical attention will be needed on site or nearby, Henderson added: “Poor old Soul Emotion is not very well at all. He won’t be going home at all tonight, I think. “