TRAINER Jedd O’Keeffe is the first to admit that the odds are stacked against Sam Spinner in this year’s Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Like many he was very impressed by Paisley Park’s runaway victory at Cheltenham’s three-mile Cleeve Hurdle for overjoyed owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth and follows the fortunes of his horses by listening to the racecourse commentary.
His reaction as Paisley Park galloped remorselessly to the line was an image that deserves to define any racing year because of the pleasure that can be derived from such successes.
However, the Leyburn trainer is simply relieved that the Paul and Caron Chapman-owned Sam Spinner – winner of the 2017 Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and the beaten favourite in last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle – is still good enough to compete at the highest level after a welcome return to form.
Though only fourth in the Cleeve Hurdle the display was a significant improvement by a high-profile horse that had not completed the course on his two previous starts.
Well-beaten when unseating Joe Colliver at Newbury last November, Sam Spinner crashed out at the second flight when attempting to win back-to-back renewals of the Long Walk Hurdle last month.
“He’s come out of the Cleeve Hurdle fine, which is the first bit of news,” O’Keeffe told The Yorkshire Post.
“The Stayers’ Hurdle is where we are going now we know his jumping is okay.
“To win it we will have to turn in an improved performance, but we think we can improve a bit.
“Joe felt he was a little bit tired towards the end and it was the first time he has completed a race since Aintree last April.
“If the ground came up soft at Cheltenham it would suit us as well.
“But we have an awful lot of ground to make up with Paisley Park, who was super impressive.
“He quickened, stays well and made it look so easy. I think we can narrow the gap a bit.”
Yet O’Keeffe can draw strength from this latest performance when it is compared to Sam Spinner’s two previous runs this season.
First the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury. “He got a little bit tired and unseated when he was beaten,” explained the trainer.
“That wasn’t the greatest setback in the world. We just felt he was a little bit lacklustre.”
Then to Ascot for the defence of a Long Walk Hurdle where the performance of Sam Spinner – he jumped the first awkwardly and then veered out at the second – overshadowed by the emergence of the triumphant Paisley Park as a three-mile hurdler of the highest order.
Named in honour of the musician Prince, the success of Paisley Park provided rider Aidan Coleman, the jockey who once gave up the opportunity to ride the multiple Grade One winner Thistlecrack, with a first victory at the highest level after 94 attempts.
O’Keeffe believes the most likely explanation is the newly-installed padded hurdles at the Berkshire track, which are intended to enhance equine welfare still further.
“I am more certain that they were the issue – more than anything else,” said O’Keeffe, who has never lost faith in the aforementioned Colliver despite the jockey receiving some unwelcome and unwarranted criticism from so-called experts in the national broadcast media who seem to derive pleasure from singling out lesser-known riders for criticism.
“It was a surprise that he behaved that way, but horses surprise us all the time.
“What happened was a slight shock, but trainers and other people were telling me they’ve seen other horses react like that.”
The solution, says the trainer, was plenty of hurdling practice to get back the horse’s confidence, a strategy that appears to be working for Sam Spinner who, nevertheless, is likely to switch to larger obstacles next season.
“We have had to do fairly intensive schooling to restore his confidence,” added O’Keeffe.
“However, his last two schooling sessions before the Cleeve were electric and he still loves the game. We still need to get to the Stayers’ Hurdle fit and healthy.
“We have a lot of ground to make up – I can’t tell you how impressed I was with Paisley Park.
“But so much can happen between now and then, and then there is what happens on the day. We were the beaten favourite last year.”