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Blind owner has flown from Australia hoping his horse can claim glory

Should Paisley Park pull off victory in the feature Grade One Stayers’ Hurdle, there is a chance the news may even make a few lines in the sports pages in Australia. It was Down Under where the gelding’s story began. 

Despite being blind from birth, Paisley Park’s sport-mad owner Andrew Gemmell attends big events around the globe and it was while he was attending a cricket match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground that, through a mutual friend, he met Alex Lavelle, editor of the Melbourne Age.

When Andrew, who had dabbled in syndicate ownership, explained that he wanted to own a racehorse of his own, Alex immediately recommended his sister Emma as the perfect trainer to employ. 

Paisley Park (right) was close to death’s door from an illness that was never diagnosed

Paisley Park (right) was close to death’s door from an illness that was never diagnosed

So it is hugely appropriate that Alex has flown in from Australia to see if Emma can win the biggest race of her career for the owner he found for her.

Emma said: ‘Because of the story and probably thinking it is extraordinary that his sister has the favourite for one of the main races at the Cheltenham Festival, Alex thought he should come over to be part of it. The pressure is on now he has flown all the way from Australia!’

The potential symmetry of a story that crosses two hemispheres masks what has, in reality, been a very rocky road.

Despite being blind from birth, owner Andrew Gemmell attends big events around the globe

Despite being blind from birth, owner Andrew Gemmell attends big events around the globe

Gemmell gave Lavelle a budget of £100,000 to buy him a horse. She spent 860,000 when buying Paisley Park at a sale in Ireland in June 2015. The son of Milan was a promising second in a race at Warwick on his debut in January 2017, but then it all went wrong.

Paisley Park may now be an equine athlete who has come into his prime but not long ago he was close to death’s door, suffering from an illness that was never diagnosed.

The symptoms were like colic — abdominal pain caused by problems with the gastrointestinal tract — but Lavelle believes Paisley Park, who had stopped eating and was left looking like skin and bone, was normally fatal grass sickness. 

Lavelle said: ‘Paisley Park was so straightforward to start with. We ran him in a bumper and everything was great, but then he got sick and he got properly sick.

‘The veterinary support we had was fantastic. That got him through the first stage, but they got to the point where there was nothing more they could do. 

‘They did not want to open him up. They kept treating him medically. Once his bowel and whole system went back to normal, he was allowed home.

‘At that point it was up to him to get better, get that weight back on and get back going.

‘He looked horrendous but all he wanted to do was eat. He has a great constitution and I think he was pretty determined to live. He has a great attitude.’

The fighting spirit that saved Paisley Park’s life is now driving his success on the track. Last season his runs earned a Festival start in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, though he was well beaten behind winner Kilbricken Storm – but this season Paisley Park has been a revelation.

Starting with a handicap hurdle at Aintree in October, he has won all four races, landed a first Grade One for Lavelle and jockey Aidan Coleman when winning the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December, and won the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham on Trials Day in January.

Lavelle, who trains in Wiltshire with her partner, former jockey Barry Fenton, said: ‘If not for the (firm) ground, he would have been going over fences this season. 

‘Because we had no rain, we could not do enough schooling with him and he was going to need plenty of schooling to go over a fence, so we decided to run him in a decent hurdle race.

‘We felt pretty confident he could win off his handicap mark and he duly did at Aintree first time and we were well in for a £100,000 hurdle at Haydock, but there is no way at the start of the season I’d have thought he’d win the Stayers’ Hurdle.

‘It wasn’t that we didn’t feel he was a good horse. It is just there are lots of good horses, but not many exceptional ones. That is what he has now shown himself to be and you can  only dream of having a horse like that. Barry has been riding him at home all season and said he felt great going into his first run.

‘In his work before his second run, he said he had improved a stone. Before his next race, he said he had improved another stone. He has just kept improving.

‘We did a piece of work with him last Wednesday. He jumped off, got into a rhythm and quickened without coming out of second gear.’

Those gears will be needed against a line-up which includes Willie Mullins-trained Faugheen, who won the 2015 Champion Hurdle and is bidding to become the first winner of that to land the Stayers’ Hurdle.

A strong Irish challenge also includes Jessica Harrington’s Supasundae, runner-up in last year’s race, and Mullins-trained Bacardys, who fell at the last 12 months ago when certain to be placed.

A win for Paisley Park, named after the record label founded by Prince, would be a third Festival success for Lavelle following Crackaway Jack in the 2008 Boodles Juvenile Hurdle and Pause And Clause in the 2010 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle.

For Gemmell, who bought into Ed Dunloptrained Trip To Dubai after he had won the 2015 Ascot Gold Cup — and was the only member of the syndicate to follow the horse to Australia when he then ran second in the Caulfield Cup and fourth in the Melbourne Cup — it would be a pinnacle of racing success.

The former civil servant for Westminster Council is an MCC member and Test-match regular who has been coming to the Festival since 1973, when The Dikler won the Gold Cup. In January, when Paisley Park ran in the Cleeve Hurdle, Gemmell changed his plans to attend and gave away tickets to watch the semi-finals and final of the Australian Open tennis. 

Once again Gemmell will watch from the paddock, surrounded by friends, in front of a big screen showing the race. 

Gemmell said: ‘Racing is the one sport that you don’t need a commentary relayed to you. With cricket, I have my headphones for Test Match Special but on the racecourse you can hear the Tannoy.’

If favourite Paisley Park storms clear, it might be a struggle for Gemmell to hear the commentator — but he will know his horse is in front from the roar of the crowd.

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