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US challenger Rawnaq features among 47 entries, the third-highest level in the last 11 runnings, for the £300,000 Grade One Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on the third day of The Festival, St Patrick’s Thursday, March 16.
The Cyril Murphy-trained Rawnaq is going for a US$500,000 bonus after defeating European raiders Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon (both Willie Mullins IRE) in the three-mile Grade One Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle, part of the first Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, at Percy Warner Park, Nashville, on fast going in May.
The terms of the Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, brought in to revive transatlantic competition, are simple: win both the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle and the Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle within a year’s time to claim the bonus. Altogether, the purses and bonus would approach US$1-million in total winnings.
Rawnaq followed up his Iroquois Hurdle success with victory in the G1 Grand National Hurdle at Far Hills in October, when partnered by Ruby Walsh, and was second on his latest start in the G1 Colonial Cup at Camden in November.
The 10-year-old, who runs in the colours of Irvin Naylor, was previously trained in Ireland by Matthew Smith and already has experience at The Festival, having finished third in the 2015 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate over fences. He was also third in 2013 Greatwood Hurdle at The Open.
Trainer Cyril Murphy, who is based in Maryland, said: “It is so far so good with Rawnaq. After he ran in November, we left him alone for a month and then started to pick him up again before Christmas.
“He did a piece of work last week and did another bit on Tuesday, and everything seems to be moving in the right direction for us.
“Rawnaq has been very solid. We bought him hoping he could be a Grade One horse but to go and do what he did last year and win two of them was great.
“He got beat the last day, which was disappointing for everybody, but in hindsight I think the ground was even firmer than we wanted. He just didn’t have a cut at the fences.
“Ruby Walsh rode him in October and was impressed. He made himself available to us after Jack Doyle got injured and that said enough to me as he was behind us on Nichols Canyon in the Iroquois. I asked Ruby if he felt we could finish in the first four or five in Cheltenham and he said he would not put us off chasing the bonus because it is an open year in the stayers’ division.
“The horse has run well over fences and hurdles at Cheltenham, so we know the track doesn’t hold any fears. He is not ground dependent either as he won a good race on testing ground in Ireland.
“At the moment, the plan is to leave here either on February 3 or February 6 to arrive in England the following day. It is a 12-hour drive from our place to Huntsville airport in Alabama, then he has a direct flight to Stansted and finally a road trip to Neil Mulholland’s [in Somerset] where he will be based. You are looking at about 36 hours door to door.
“I worked with Neil Mulholland for a period of time at Nicky Henderson’s. We lost contact in the interim but we got back in contact through an existing owner of his who lives and follows the racing out here. Before Nicky’s, I was with Sir Mark Prescott for four years and then a conditional jockey with Bill Turner for four years. I rode 13 winners from about 200 rides.
“If everything goes right, the hope at the moment to give Rawnaq a prep race in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell on February 26.
“Jack Doyle is going to ride him. He won on him in his first two starts last year and would have ridden him in his last two starts but for getting injured. It was always the plan for Jack to ride him if he was available because he obviously knows the horse and has experience around Cheltenham.”
Rawnaq is a 33/1 chance with Sun Bets. Last year’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle hero Unowhatimeanharry (Harry Fry) is the 5/2 favourite after extending his winning streak to seven with a four and a half-length beating of Lil Rockerfeller (Neil King) in the G1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
Unowhatimeanharry’s owner J P McManus has six entries in total. They also include 2014 scorer More Of That, multiple G1 winner Jezki (Jessica Harrington IRE), set to make his comeback shortly, and Yanworth (Alan King).
Willie Mullins, who has yet to win the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, is responsible for 10 of 19 Irish entries and, along with Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon, has also put in the last two winners of the Stan James Champion Hurdle in Faugheen and Annie Power.
Other high-profile contenders include the 2015 winner Cole Harden (Warren Greatrex) and the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained pair of Ballyoptic and The New One.
Sun Bets Head of PR Tim Reynolds said: “It is great to see so many high-class horses in the race. Unowhatimeanharry's story is a remarkable one and on this season's form he is the standout staying hurdler and worthy favourite.”
Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle – Sun Bets prices:
5/2 Unowhatimeanharry; 4/1 Faugheen; 7/1 Vroum Vroum Mag; 8/1 Nichols Canyon; 10/1 Annie Power; 12/1 Clondaw Warrior, Jezki; 14/1 Ballyoptic; 16/1 Apples Jade, Shaneshill, Snow Falcon, Yanworth; 18/1 The New One; 20/1 Lil Rockerfeller, One Track Mind; 25/1 Ptit Zig; 28/1 Wicklow Brave; 30/1 Milsean; 33/1 Agrapart, Cole Harden, De Plotting Shed, Footpad, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Mister Miyagi, More Of That, Rawnaq, Shantou Village, Un Temps Pour Tout; 40/1 Dedigout, Diakali, Kotkikova, West Approach, Zarkandar; 50/1 Camping Ground, Reve De Sivola, The Romford Pele; 66/1 Monksland, Old Guard, Ordo Ab Chao, Shantou Bob, Taquin Du Seuil, Whiteout; 100/1 Anteros, Born Survivor, Henri Parry Morgan, Supasundae; 150/1 Three Musketeers
Each-way 1/4 odds, 1-2-3
Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag given OLBG Mares’ Hurdle option
Willie Mullins, who has dominated the race, is responsible for 15 of the record 53 entries for the £110,000 Grade One OLBG Mares’ Hurdle on the first day of The Festival, Champion Day, Tuesday, March 14.
The Mullins team includes 2015 last hurdle faller and 2016 Stan James Champion Hurdle scorer Annie Power and last year’s OLBG Mares’ Hurdle winner Vroum Vroum Mag, plus unbeaten novice Airlie Beach, Let’s Dance and Limini, who captured the G2 Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival in 2016. Mullins has won eight of the nine runnings of the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, with the legendary Quevega scoring a record six times.
A record 22 Irish-trained contenders for the race also include last season’s JCB Triumph Hurdle runner-up Apple’s Jade (Gordon Elliott), who beat Vroum Vroum Mag in the G1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December, and dual G1 scorer Jer’s Girl (Gavin Cromwell).
Among the potential home challengers are Kotkikova (Nicky Henderson) and Dusky Legend (Alan King), second to Limini last year, and Rons Dream (Peter Bowen), plus progressive novices Colin’s Sister (Fergal O’Brien) and Happy Diva (Kerry Lee).