As one of Britain’s most prestigious long-distance hurdle races, the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle has been won by many of the greatest staying hurdlers of all time.
Generously sponsored this year by Porsche, the race - which was first run in 1965, initially as a handicap, obtaining Grade 1 status in 1990 - takes its name from the famous tree-lined avenue in Windsor Great Park and is run over a trip of three miles and about half a furlong.
Its most prolific winner was undoubtedly the mighty Baracouda. François Doumen’s dual champion stayer won a record four renewals between 2000 and 2004, the French raider’s final victory in the race - and indeed, the 18th and final victory of his remarkable career - coming at Windsor rather than his beloved Ascot when the Long Walk was rerouted there during the royal racecourse’s redevelopment.
Big Buck’s, who was saddled by Paul Nicholls to win not only three renewals of this prize (2009-2011) but also an unprecedented four editions of the Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, is another particularly distinguished name on the race’s roll of honour. His first victory in the Long Walk came at Newbury, when heavy snow forced Ascot’s popular Christmas raceday to be abandoned in 2009.
For all their dominance in the Ascot highlight, those two iconic staying hurdlers are by no means the only Long Walk winners to have also landed the Cheltenham championship contest. Indeed, Saturday’s feature race has long been a recognised stage for high-class stayers looking to further their claims for Cheltenham Festival glory three months later and, since the Long Walk Hurdle was first run as a conditions race in 1971, a total of six of its winners have subsequently gone on to win that season’s Stayers’ Hurdle – Derring Rose (1980/81), Baracouda (2001/02), My Way de Solzen (2005/06), Big Buck's (2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12), Thistlecrack (2015/16) and Paisley Park (2018/19). Furthermore, Highland Abbe won the Long Walk in 1972 before claiming the Cheltenham stayers' prize in 1974, while both Princeful (1998) and Anzum (1999) were the reigning champion staying hurdler when following up at Ascot that December. The 1983 winner Crimson Embers would, like Baracouda and Big Buck’s, become a multiple winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle himself, regaining his 1982 championship crown at Cheltenham in 1986.
Another notable winner was the Fred Winter-trained Lanzarote, who had won the previous year’s Champion Hurdle before carrying a record 12st 5lb to a comfortable eight-length victory under John Francome when stepping up in trip in the 1975 Long Walk Hurdle. (Francome and Winter, one of the most successful and longstanding partnerships in National Hunt history, would five years later strike again with the aforementioned Derring Rose.)
John Cherry, a former Cesarewitch winner on the Flat, was the first horse to win the race more than once (1977 and 1979) and remained uniquely so until Baracouda embarked upon his dominance of the staying hurdle division at the start of the next century. In the two decades since, both Big Buck’s and Reve De Sivola have triumphed on three occasions apiece to enhance the race’s reputation as being something of a specialist’s event.
The Long Walk Hurdle’s esteemed list of winners also includes a Grand National hero, Royal Athlete having landed the spoils in 1989 before going on to win the world’s most famous steeplechase for trainer Jenny Pitman as a twelve-year-old in 1995.
However, one of the most memorable characters to have won the Long Walk was the Martin Pipe-trained Deano's Beeno, who had filled the runners-up spot on no fewer than three consecutive occasions before finally prevailing in 2002. The immensely likeable yet often recalcitrant gelding, sent off a largely unconsidered 14-1 chance, repelled a formidable challenge laid down by Baracouda at the final flight to win by a length under a galvanising ride by Tony McCoy – a thrilling performance which raised the roof at an Ascot enshrouded by thick fog.
Ascot’s Christmas showpiece continues to attract the very best staying hurdlers in training, this year’s edition being no exception. Set to return to the Berkshire track after having missed the race on account of testing conditions last year is the 2018 victor and subsequent Stayers’ Hurdle champion Paisley Park. Owner Andrew Gemmell’s pride and joy was last seen finishing second in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury when conceding 3lb to the winner Thyme Hill. The pair reoppose on Saturday, with Paisley Park bidding to become the race’s fifth multiple winner. Also expected amongst a high-class field is Main Fact, seeking a remarkable tenth consecutive win; the highly-regarded mare Roksana, herself a former Cheltenham Festival winner who landed the Grade 2 West Yorkshire Hurdle last time out; last year’s Long Walk winner The Worlds End; and the enduringly popular twelve-year-old Thistlecrack, another former winner of both this race and the Cheltenham stayers’ championship (2015/16) as well as the King George VI Chase (2016), who is expected to make his seasonal debut after more than a year’s absence enforced by injury.
We hope you enjoy what promises to be an enthralling renewal of Ascot’s first Grade 1 of the season this Saturday.