Paisley Park showed plenty of heart and grit to win the Grade One Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Eighteen contested this three-mile contest, including the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen and the leading UK hope Paisley Park.
As the starter set them on their way, Nautical Nitwit and Sam Spinner disputed the lead and quickly moved four lengths clear of Faugheen and Kilbricken Storm.
Nautical Nitwit pressed on and moved three lengths ahead of Sam Spinner, with a five length gap back to Faugheen, Wholestone and Kilbricken Storm, with another gap back to Top Notch, who led the remainder.
The field raced down the hill and Nautical Nitwit continued to lead by three lengths from Sam Spinner, with Faugheen and Wholestone moving closer and then came Kilbricken Storm, Top Notch and Black Op.
Racing down the home straight, Nautical Nitwit continued to lead, but the field had closed up notably by the sixth flight.
The leader raced away from the stands with a two length advantage over Sam Spinner, with a length back to Faugheen, Wholestone and Kilbricken Storm, with Top Notch, Black Op, Supasundae and Petit Mouchoir leading the next group.
Racing to the third last, Nautical Nitwit lost a little ground and Sam Spinner went on from Faugheen and Wholestone.
Sam Spinner and Joe Colliver headed down the hill with Faugheen and Wholestone and then a host of horses who were biding their time, headed by Kilbricken Storm and Black Op.
Two from home and Sam Spinner was joined by Faugheen and Wholestone and this trio turned for home with Supasundae making ground.
Sam Spinner proved stubborn and Faugheen struggled to get past, while Paisley Park began to charge on the stands side and went on at the last.
He dived at the last and gave fresh hope to Sam Spinner, but Aidan Coleman managed to galvanize Paisley Park on the flat and he found extra reserves to move away again from the gallant Sam Spinner and win the race by about two lengths.
Faugheen ultimately had nothing left to give but came home a game third, ahead of his stable mate Bapaume.
Emma Lavelle had never trained a Grade One winner until Paisley Park gave his first indications of stardom, with victory in the Long Walk Hurdle, at Ascot, in December. Now she has the Champion Stayer.
Owner Andrew Gemmell was all smiles in the winner’s enclosure after Paisley Park wonthe Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle.
Gemmell, who has been blind since birth, said: “This is fantastic and a real dream for me. I cannot believe it has happened.
“I still had hopes [during the race] because we know that is the way Paisley Park runs.
“I hope this is the first of many because I will keep coming back. We are so chuffed and we’re all in tears.”
Gemmell is a fan of the singer Prince and the gelding is named after a song written by the late American artist and the house where he lived in Minneapolis. Paisley Park also runs in the colours of Gemmell’s favourite football team, West Ham United.
The owner continued: “Paisley Park is a bit like Big Buck’s and Baracouda in that he does hit a flat spot, but he keeps finding. It was a scary moment when he made a mistake at the last too.
“This has been a brilliant journey and I have enjoyed it all the way. I’ve been to Cheltenham for years and years. It is just something else to be in the winner’s enclosure.
“Emma Lavelle and Barry Fenton [assistant trainer] have done brilliantly with this horse. I’m so chuffed for those two and Aidan. They are all great people to be around and this is a brilliant moment.”
Emma Lavelle waited 20 years for a first top level win courtesy of Paisley Park in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December, but she had less than three months to wait for a second with the same horse in the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle and this time it was even better.
Lavelle enjoyed Festival handicap wins with Crack Away Jack in 2008 and Pause And Clause in 2010, but Paisley Park’s win here was of a different order all together, not least because her husband Barry Fenton rides the seven-year-old every morning and owner Andrew Gemmell has been a friend and valued supporter of the yard for years.
The trainer said: “It’s different gravy. It’s just a different level. People are giving three cheers for Paisley Park! It’s just phenomenal for everyone. All the lads are at home watching on TV.
“It’s amazing. Watching the race we wondered if he was too far out of his ground, but Aidan (Coleman) knew what he had and said he still got there too soon. These real true stayers need to travel off the bridle, and then they need to find it when asked. That’s what he’s done. He’s had a proper race today, and I’m so proud of him.”
While most of Paisley Park’s supporters had their hearts in their mouths when he hit the last and lost momentum, Lavelle didn’t even see it.
She explained: “I watched it from the stands and had a tannoy right in front of me across the last hurdle, so thank God I never even saw the mistake. But when I watched it on the replay it was maybe not absolutely ideal, but apart from that Aidan said he probably jumped the best he’s ever jumped. He just missed that one. What a special horse.”
Asked about the pressure she must have felt in the build-up, Paisley Park having become one of the meeting’s ‘people’s horses’ owing to his hugely progressive profile Gemmell’s widely reported sight impairment, she replied: “Weirdly I felt calm until the race was about to jump off and then I thought I was going to burst into tears.
“You just kind of feel those fairytales don’t happen, and the most emotional I’ve been today is after Frodon won for Bryony. I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing, but now she’s gone and stolen the whole fairytale’. But we got a chunk of it so it’s okay!”
She added: “I felt that if the will of the people was anything to go by this horse was going to win. He had so many people behind him and they were probably just blowing him up the hill. It’s just brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
“I cannot say quite how bad our hangovers are going to be in the morning.”
Aidan Coleman has had to wait 10 years for a second winner at the Cheltenham Festival – Kayf Aramis was his first, in the 2009 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle. But Paisley Park’s thrilling victory in the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle was worth the wait.
Coleman said: “It was super. You are never expecting to go round on the bridle on Paisley Park, but that’s what makes him such a good horse because he races behind the bridle, but it is the Stayers’ Hurdle and what he does is stay, exceptionally well. Because he’s quite a relaxed horse to ride, that allows him, when he hits the hill, to really finish. Although coming down the hill you’d like to be going that little bit better, you do know that when you meet the rising ground you’re going to get there. He’s a fantastic horse to be associated with – I’m just living the dream at the moment.
“[Hitting the final hurdle] wasn’t ideal but we had to do something wrong, didn’t we? I thought for a second, ‘oh, we’re beat’, but he just took a second and I gathered him again and we just took off. That shows how good he is, how classy he is and how tough he is. Andrew is a great fella – the whole thing is just very special and I’m loving it.
“I don’t know what I was thinking coming here today, but I could not see Paisley Park getting beat. I have not really had these winners at the festivals so I thought I better calm down a bit and enjoy the day.
“When I gave the saddle to Emma, she was super. She told me to enjoy myself and said, ‘you know the horse so I am not going to tell you what to do’.
“It was a strange thing when I crossed the line because my first thought was when my best friend, Campbell Gillies, had his best day here a few years ago. For whatever reason, when I passed the line, he was the first person I thought of. He was a great friend of mine and I just want his family to know that, although he died a few years ago now, he is always there in our hearts.”
Jedd O’Keffe, trainer of the two and three quarter-length second home Sam Spinner, was tearful and thrilled after the race when talking to the press.
Yorkshire based O’Keefe said: “That was much more like it. I am absolutely thrilled, what a brave horse and what a great ride from Joe (Colliver). I think we were beaten by a very very good horse.
“We thought we just had a chance when Paisley Park made a mistake at the last, but it wasn’t to be.”
Joe Colliver, Sam Spinner’s jockey, added: “Everything has worked out well, we just met one better on the day. I thought we had him turning in but he just blew past me.
“He has jumped great. I am grateful for his run.”
Willie Mullins, trainer of the third and fourth home, Faugheen and Bapaume, said: “Faugheen went well. He gave us a brief moment of whatever coming down the hill.
“I thought wow this is on but probably age has caught up with him. He might have liked the ground a bit softer but that is the way it is.
“I imagine Faugheen will go to Punchestown and he might go on to France. He is still a very good horse.
“I haven’t discussed anything.”
Ruby Walsh added: “He did well to battle back and regain third but the winner went by us like we were standing still – that’s what it felt like, anyway. I never thought I was getting by Sam Spinner; I never felt I had Joe Collier [Sam Spinner’s jockey] covered, even.”
Mullins went on to discuss his fourth home, saying: “Bapaume stayed on fantastically. I am really delighted with him. He will go to Punchestown and then maybe look at a novice chase career for him next season.”