Andrew Gemmell is counting down the days to the Cheltenham Festival as his beloved Paisley Park prepares to line up for a third Cleeve Hurdle.
The nine-year-old has won the race for the past two seasons, using it as a springboard to the ultimate prize for horses in his division, the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Paisley Park was a hugely popular winner of the latter race in 2019 – a victory that was made particularly moving by the joy and passion shown by Gemmell, who was born blind and follows his runners via the race commentary alone.
A 2020 title defence was not successful, however, as the Emma Lavelle-trained gelding could only finish seventh when 4-6 favourite and was later found to be suffering from an irregular heartbeat.
Thankfully Paisley Park went on to make a full recovery, as well-evidenced by his two gallant efforts this season; a runner-up spot behind Thyme Hill in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on his first run back and a scintillating last-gasp victory over the same horse in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle in December.
Despite the limitations now imposed on owners attending the races, that performance fell at a time when connections could access the racetrack and Gemmell was thrilled to be there as his horse resumed winning ways.
“The race at Newbury, I got more nervous about that than any of the previous races,” he said in a call hosted by Great British Racing.
“Obviously we didn’t know, after the difficulties with the heart, how good he’d be, but he ran such a cracking race behind Thyme Hill.
“It was just such a relief to know he was back in full order again and then to win the Long Walk was truly astonishing.
“It was really terrific, that race against Thyme Hill at Ascot.
“I think the enthusiasm was really brought to the boil by the race at Ascot, and Simon Holt’s commentary when he got him right at the end was brilliant.”
Like all parties bar a few key industry personnel, Gemmell is now unable to be on a racecourse and is resigned to following the action via the television coverage this weekend.
Victory would be an important stepping-stone to the prize connections covet the most, the retrieval of his Stayers’ Hurdle crown.
“Everything’s been going to plan, which is really exciting,” Gemmell said.
“Everyone’s been saying he’s been doing brilliant pieces of work and it’s all going well, everything’s on course.
“It’s the ideal time span, six weeks from one race (Ascot) to the other (Cleeve Hurdle), six weeks to the next (the Festival). We just can’t wait to get going again.
“I think he’s as good as ever, I just can’t wait for the big day.”
Gemmell and his favourite horse have become one of the sport’s most endearing tales, and it is a team trainer Lavelle is grateful to be a part of.
“He’s created a huge interest and deservedly so, he’s a very special horse,” she said of her stable star.
“I can’t believe that I’m saying this live, but Andrew’s a pretty special bloke as well – it’s lovely to have this involvement with them.
“I think the only thing that Paisley’s disappointed about is that with Andrew not coming down, it means that he’s definitely having a reduced load of polos every day!”
Paisley Parks looks the horse to beat, and a triumph will surely elevate his owner’s Cheltenham Festival fever even further.
“It’s everything, really,” he said.
“You’ve got something really exciting and it’s at the end of the rainbow.
“I just can’t wait for it to happen again, the more we’ve gone on, the more excited I get just thinking about it.
“We could be there again and hopefully regain the title.”