Andrea and Graham Wylie’s Nichols Canyon charged up Cheltenham Racecourse’s storied homestretch under champion Irish jockey Ruby Walsh to win Thursday’s £300,000 Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle and become eligible to claim the $500,000 TVV Capital Iroquois-Cheltenham Challenge.
Trained by Willie Mullins, Nichols Canyon competed in last year’s $200,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois (Gr. 1) and finished third. To claim the Challenge prize, a horse must win the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Calvin Houghland Iroquois in the same 12-month period.
Nichols Canyon went off at close to 12-to-1 in wagering at Cheltenham, while Unowhatimeanharry was favored at less than 2-to-1, considerably longer than the odds in prerace betting.
Cole Harden, the 2015 winner, set the early pace with American-bred Lil Rockerfeller, who went off at long odds. With seven furlongs remaining in the three-mile race, Cole Harden attempted to quicken away from the field, but Little Rockerfeller caught him after the next to last fence and looked to be a longshot winner. Unowhatimeanharry began his move, but he appeared to lack the finishing kick that had carried him to eight straight victories.
Walsh, the 10-time Irish champion, had Nichols Canyon in good position throughout the race and took the inside path approaching the final fence. The seven-year-old British-bred gelding jumped the last hurdle handily and quickened for the arduous climb up Cheltenham’s run-in under a hand ride.
He caught Lil Rockerfeller with about 70 yards remaining and began to draw clear before the finish.
Unowhatimeanharry finished third, and Cole Harden was fourth. The Wylies’ Shaneshill, who had finished second in last year’s Calvin Houghland Iroquois, was unplaced.
If Mullins and the Wylies decide on a return trip to Nashville for the three-mile Calvin Houghland Iroquois on Saturday, May 13, more than $800,000 in total purses and the TVV Capital Challenge bonus will be on the line.