Sign o' the Times - Why Prince fans could be in the purple at Cheltenham

Aidan Coleman on Paisley Park
Paisley Park has made a big impact this season
Cleeve Hurdle
Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse Date: Saturday, 26 January Time: 15:35 GMT
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live

Paisley Park represents the Prince fans who would be kings - and queens - as he lines up in the Cleeve Hurdle, as the countdown to March's Cheltenham Festival gathers pace at the course's Trials Day.

Named by owner Andrew Gemmell after the vast home and recording studio complex in Minnesota, USA owned by the late music genius - of whom he is an enthusiastic fan - the horse has been rocking and rolling his way through the jumps season.

Under the guidance of trainer Emma Lavelle and her ex-jockey husband Barry Fenton, who count Prince's Purple Rain and 1999 among their playlist favourites, Paisley Park has made it three wins from three starts - at Aintree, Haydock and in the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot - since late October.

They're hoping that it's all a Sign o' the Times ahead of the seven-year-old's prime target the Stayers' Hurdle on day three of the Festival, Thursday 14 March.

Lavelle told BBC Sport: "Oh yes, you're not the first to come up with puns on his name; it's such a good one that I've heard all sorts.

"But, seriously, he's in great order - we have to step forward again, but it's the natural race on the way to the Stayers'.

"After Ascot, my first thought was to go straight there, and it would be great to show up at the Festival unbeaten, all flags flying, but they're called racehorses and he's in great form and they don't stay in great form forever.

"Andrew was planning a big trip to Australia, but when I rang him to discuss the change of plan he'd already had the same idea and contacted the travel agent about changing dates."

Trainer Emma Lavelle
Lavelle describes Paisley Park as a laidback character

At Ascot, Paisley Park gave Lavelle, Gemmell - who's something of a connoisseur of racecourse commentary having been blind since birth - and jockey Aidan Coleman their first victory at Grade One level.

However, that he's competing at all is something of an achievement.

After finishing an encouraging second in his first ever race, the seven-year-old son of stallion Oscar became critically ill - no one is absolutely certain with what - and spent six weeks away from Lavelle's HQ on the rolling Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire under veterinary care, during which time he suffered a dramatic weight loss.

The long subsequent recuperation was rewarded with a winning return, followed by two second places and then a run down the field at the 2018 Festival when galloping, according to his trainer, "as though being chased by the Hound of the Baskervilles - too fast too soon".

That said, Lavelle is also hoping to gain reassurance from the return to the Cotswold track - where he's due to face fierce competition including from fellow Stayers' Hurdle hopefuls Midnight Shadow and Black Op - that the horse isn't in any way disadvantaged by its famously examining contours.

"I can't see why Cheltenham shouldn't suit him," the trainer of 68 horses said, "but he has won, or run well, in races on flat or pretty much flat tracks so it would be good to just to go there and do it."

She added: "Whatever happens, he will always be very special to all of us as our first Grade One winner - no one can take that away."

Among his rivals will be Sam Spinner, once the darling of the long distance hurdlers, who will have another go at regaining his mojo after two races in which his jockey Joe Colliver has been unseated when lining up against Paisley Park.

In 2018, the Jedd O'Keeffe-trained gelding went off as favourite for the Stayers Hurdle at both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals, finishing fifth and third respectively, but not a lot has gone right since. However, recent vibes from the O'Keeffe operation have been positive.

Joe Colliver on Sam Spinner
Sam Spinner badly needs a return to form after a couple of disappointing runs

Also this weekend

Jockey Tom O'Brien, a nephew of champion flat trainer Aidan, is well on course for his best-ever season, a campaign highlighted by a Grade One success on Elixir De Nutz and by getting the better of a stirring finish to the Welsh Grand National on Elegant Escape; both horses are trained by Colin Tizzard.

The seven-year-old Elegant Escape has a similar profile to Tizzard's 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Native River, and a significant run in the Cotswold Chase (14:25 GMT), against opponents headed by Frodon and Valtor, is anticipated.

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