Thyme Hill and Paisley Park engage in what promises to be a fascinating rematch for the Porsche Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill won three of his four starts in the novice hurdling division last season – his only defeat coming as a close-up fourth in the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival.
The six-year-old made a successful reappearance when seeing off Paisley Park by a length and a half in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle three weeks ago – and four-time champion jockey Richard Johnson hopes he can confirm his superiority this weekend.
Johnson said: “He’s in very good form. Hopefully he can build on his Newbury performance in what is a very good renewal of the race.
“It’s going to take a lot of winning, but obviously I wouldn’t swap Thyme Hill for anything else.
“I was very pleased with him at Newbury. It’s going to be testing conditions on Saturday, and whatever wins the race is going to have to put up a good performance.
“In these races, there’s nowhere to hide.”
Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park landed this Grade One prize during what was a faultless campaign two seasons ago.
However, an unbeaten run of seven straight victories came to an abrupt end when he finished only seventh in defence of his Stayers’ Hurdle crown in March, after which he was found to be suffering from a heart problem.
Connections were justifiably thrilled with his Newbury comeback, and he is 3lb better off with Thyme Hill for their second clash.
“He had a lovely blow this (Friday) morning and he’s very fresh. He’s all set for Saturday,” said Lavelle.
“There’s always plenty to be done here, so you can keep focused on that before thinking too much about Saturday. I think the drive to Ascot will be when the nervous excitement will kick in.
“It’s very exciting to have horses able to run in these kind of races – and from Paisley’s point of view, it’s just lovely to see him back on the track after what happened at Cheltenham.”
Paisley Park was declared a non-runner on the morning of last year’s Long Walk Hurdle because of the ultra-testing conditions.
Soft ground will again be to the fore, but Lavelle is not making any pre-race excuses, adding: “You just want everyone to have a clear run, and the best horse wins.
“You never want to run on extremes of going, but the ground is what the ground is.
“He’s handled soft ground before. I’m glad we’ve got a run under our belt before running on this ground, but I think he has every right to handle it as well as anything else, anyway.”
Main Fact bids to stretch his remarkable winning streak to double figures for trainer David Pipe.
The seven-year-old appeared to relish the step up to three miles when making it nine on the bounce in the Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock – and now aims to complete his fairytale rise with a top-level success under conditional Fergus Gillard .
Pipe said: “He’s been fantastic. We have to improve again, and obviously the first two in the betting (Thyme Hill and Paisley Park) are the ones to beat, but at least we’ll have our favoured ground. Maybe he’ll handle the ground better than the top two.
“He keeps beating what’s put in front of him. It will be tough for him on Saturday, but he’s definitely earned his place and we’ll give it our best shot.
“If he can finish in the first three, it will be another fantastic run.”
The only mare in the field is Dan Skelton’s Roksana, who was thoroughly impressive on her return to action at Wetherby in October and has purposely been kept fresh for this race since.
Skelton said: “Obviously the boys have got to give us 7lb. She had a great run at Wetherby last time, and this has been the target since.
“I’m very happy with how she looks and she handles soft ground. It’s the first time we’ve gone to this level, and we’re excited and ready to go.”
It is five years since Thistlecrack trounced his Long Walk rivals for Colin Tizzard and Tom Scudamore and he was due to bid again but unfortunately he was withdrawn on the morning of the race due to lameness.