Thyme Hill made up for missing Cheltenham with a gutsy victory in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.
A minor injury ruled the seven-year-old out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival, but he was brought back to fitness in time by his trainer Philip Hobbs.
There was also a change of jockey, with Tom O’Brien getting his chance after Richard Johnson’s recent retirement, having last ridden Thyme Hill to victory on his debut in a bumper at Worcester in October 2018.
O’Brien rode a copybook race, sitting in the main pack as Vinndication and Emitom set up a big early lead. The former was well clear at one stage, but he could not keep up the gallop.
The race changed complexion in the straight and it soon became a duel between Roksana and Thyme Hill.
The former held a narrow lead, but she was worn down in the closing stages by a determined Thyme Hill (5-2 favourite), who got the verdict by a neck. Thomas Darby was third, four and a quarter lengths away.
Paisley Park was a big disappointment, Emma Lavelle’s nine-year-old being pulled up before the third-last flight without posing a threat.
Hobbs said: “I should think he’s finished for the season, but the entries closed this week for the stayers’ hurdle in Punchestown. We didn’t enter. It was 1200 euros. We thought why waste that when it’s likely he’s not going to run.
“If he is going to go anywhere he’ll go for the Champion Hurdle in Auteuil at the end of May, which is worth more money anyway.
“Whether he stays over hurdles or goes chasing next season was going to be decided on what happened today so we now need to discuss it. He’s schooled over fences and jumps very well. He’s not the biggest horse in the world, but he will definitely jump fences, although while he looks the best in this league he might stay over hurdles.”
He added: “It’s great for Tom to kick-off with a Grade One win. In some ways it would have been nice for Richard to win on him, but it left the door open for Tom which is great. I’m not sure how long he’s been with us – rather like Richard, it’s been such a long time.”
O’Brien said: “I’m delighted he’s won for everyone. If anyone was doubting me, to get a Grade One win is spot on. The horse missed Cheltenham so to get it all right today is great.
“He’s a very uncomplicated horse. Richard has been in close contact about all the horses, but when I watched all his replays this morning I wondered if I needed to ring about this lad, he’s so straightforward and push-button. I did ring, and Richard just said he’s uncomplicated, try get a lead to the last and Harry (Skelton) came through on my inside and we had a good battle.
“I’ll never fill Richard’s boots, all I can do is pull up my own. I’ve been in the same position for so long but this is new now, I’m on a different calibre of horse.”