All four days at the Cheltenham Festival come with a distinctively green hue as our Irish cousins descend upon Prestbury Park on mass. However, only Day Three comes with the official title of St Patrick’s Thursday, serving to ramp up the chaos and excitement in the Guinness Village.
There is plenty of fun in the stands, and the action on the track isn’t too bad either. Topping the bill amongst the three Grade 1 contests on offer is the season’s championship-level event for the stamina-laden hurdlers, the Stayers’ Hurdle.
First held in 1912, the race has undergone several changes over the years but has been run under its current title since 1972 – barring 14 years as the World Hurdle between 2005 and 2018. Whatever the title, the race never fails to attract the crème de la crème of the staying division, as the best of the British, Irish, and occasionally French performers fo battle up the famous Cheltenham Hill. No stranger to a multiple winner, Big Buck’s holds the record thanks to four successive triumphs between 2009 and 2012, with French star Baracouda, the brilliant Thistlecrack, and ever-popular Paisley Park amongst the other names on an illustrious roll of honour.
With £325,000 in prize money and a place in the history books up for grabs, expect to see the biggest names from the ranks of trainers and jockeys amongst the entries. But what does it take to win? Here, we look back at the 23 editions of the race between 2000 and 2023 (with no race in 2001 due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease) in an effort to unearth a trend or two, which may help you zero in on the most likely contenders.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Age Trends
Many in racing suggest that stamina improves with age. That may be true in general but does not seem to apply to this event. Whilst no horse younger than six has come home in front since 1951, runners so young rarely tackle this race, with the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle a more viable target for many. Those aged six or seven hold much the best record in the current century, having been responsible for 15 or 23 (65.22%) of the winners, whilst 2023 hero Sire Du Berlais is the only horse older than nine to prevail.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Trainer Stats
Paul Nicholls’ four consecutive wins between 2009 and 2012, courtesy of the phenomenal Big Buck’s, make him the most successful trainer in the history of the race. Howard Johnson’s three wins came courtesy of Inglis Drever, while Flooring Porter was responsible for Gavin Cromwell’s two, and Baracouda landed back-to-back editions for Francois Doumen in 2002 and 2003. As such, Willie Mullins and Jonjo O’Neill are the only 21st-century trainers to have won the race with two different horses.
Unlike many other races at the Festival, the home team holds the edge in this one, having recorded 15 wins, compared to only six for Ireland and two for the French.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Rating of Winner
The above chart suggests that the standard of the Stayers’ Hurdle has declined over the last 10 years or so, seeing the average rating of the winner slip to just over 163. The big reason for this is that generational talents Baracouda and Big Buck’s appeared between 2000 and 2012, skewing the highest ratings towards the start of the century. Nevertheless, the fact that the only four winners rated below 155 all came between 2011 and 2023 indicates that the quality of the race is trending downward.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Finishing Position Last Time Out
Whatever the rating headed into the race, recent results suggest that we should favour those runners who arrive on the back of a solid performance. 83% of winners had finished in the first two last time out, whilst the only horse to finish outside the first four was Nicholls Canyon, who bounced back from a fall in the Irish Champion Hurdle to come home in front in 2017.
Route to the Race
We have a clear winner in the key trial for the race, with the Cleeve Hurdle six ahead of its nearest challenger. Held over the same course and distance at the back end of January, it makes sense that those who have run well in that Grade 2 event would repeat the performance back at Prestbury Park six weeks later. However, don’t focus solely on the Cleeve Hurdle winner, as it is not unusual for the form to be reversed on the big day. Of the nine winners who arrived via the Cleeve Hurdle, five had won that January contest, with the other four finishing second, third, or fourth.
Whilst only three winners arrived on the back of a run in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, a further five had run in that December event before taking in another race (usually the Cleeve Hurdle) on their way to the Stayers’ Hurdle. The big staying event at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival is the only other race to provide more than one winner.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Fate of the Favourite
A strike rate of eight winning favourites or joint favourites from 23 editions (34.78%) is solid enough. However, with five of those priced at 11/8 or shorter, a £1 level stakes punt on the market leader would have returned a loss of £6.42.
There has also been an interesting split in the results. Between 2000 and 2012, there were six winning favourites, with no winner priced at bigger than 8/1. However, the 11 renewals between 2013 and 2023 have seen only two winning favourites, with winners at 10/1, 12/1 (twice), 14/1, 33/1, and 50/1. That may be a random pattern, but it is also possible that the lack of outright superstars and the overall lower rating of the winner has made the race much tougher to predict.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Other Stats
- As with the other three Championship level events at the meeting, a proven ability against top rivals should be taken as a significant positive. Of the 23 winners during the period analysed, 17 (73.91%) had previously won in Grade 1 company.
- The race has most often fallen to a horse with a relatively recent run. 15 of the 23 winners had previously appeared within 55 days, whilst only one was returning from an absence of 90 days or more.
- Thanks to his four wins on Big Buck’s and one on Penhill, Ruby Walsh tops the all-time jockeys table in this race. Of the riders still active in 2024, Danny Mullins is the only jockey to have landed the prize more than once.