(Editor’s note: The following is an edited press release.) U.S. challenger Rawnaq features among 47 entries, the third-highest level in the last 11 runnings, for the £300,000 Grade 1 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 $500,000 bonus after defeating European raiders Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon in the 3-mile Grade 1 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle, part of the first Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, at Percy Warner Park in 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 $1 million.
Rawnaq followed up his Iroquois Hurdle success with victory in the Grade 1 Grand National Hurdle at Far Hills in October, when partnered by Ruby Walsh, and was second on his latest start in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup at Camden in November.
The 10-year-old, who runs in the colors of Irv 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.
“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,” said Maryland-based trainer Cyril Murphy. “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 1 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 is the 5-2 favorite after extending his winning streak to seven with a 4 1/2-length beating of Lil Rockerfeller in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
Unowhatimeanharry’s owner JP McManus has six entries in total. They also include 2014 scorer More Of That, multiple Grade 1 winner Jezki, set to make his comeback shortly, and Yanworth.
Willie Mullins, who has yet to win the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, is responsible for ten 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 for Warren Greatrex and the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained pair of Ballyoptic and The New One.
“It is great to see so many high-class horses in the race,” said Tim Reynolds, Sun Bets Head of PR. “Unowhatimeanharry’s story is a remarkable one and on this season’s form he is the standout staying hurdler and worthy favorite.”