The Champion Hurdle is the main event of Cheltenham Festival day one this Tuesday, and defending champion Buveur D’Air looks to make it three consecutive victories in the 2m contest (15:30). He’s one of a trio in this prestigious race for trainer Nicky Henderson.
In winning the last two renewals, Buveur D’Air demonstrated different qualities. The eight-year-old’s first Champion Hurdle victory came when he drew clear of consistent and now retired stable companion My Tent Or Yours up the Cheltenham hill to score by 4 1/2 lengths.
He was then made to really battle to retain his crown 12 months ago by Melon, ultimately prevailing by a neck. It was game stuff from the JP McManus owned gelding and, although the runner-up has done little to advertise the form since, there was lots to like about Buveur D’Air on reappearance at Newcastle.
Not only did he defend his Fighting Fifth Hurdle title in style, but he obliterated highly-regarded Irish raider Samcro. It had been a huge decision from connections of that one to keep their star horse in training over the smaller obstacles. Buveur D’Air led on the bit and quickened clear of him for a decisive eight-length victory.
Although then beaten a short-head by stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle, Kempton is a tight, right-handed track which played to the mare’s strengths. Cheltenham is a different playground altogether with its undulations and emphasis on a strong gallop.
Buveur D’Air has gone through his tried and tested prep run for this with a third consecutive success in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. With seven Grade 1 successes under his belt, he is respected at 5/2 with Boylesports, but could be vulnerable giving a 7lb sex allowance away to the mares in opposition.
Apple’s Jade and Laurina clear dangers
The beneficiaries of that weight include Apple’s Jade, who has socked it to the geldings over a variety of distances this season. The Gordon Elliott trained seven-year-old comes out 1lb ahead of Buveur D’Air on adjusted ratings and heads to her fourth Cheltenham Festival on the back of a Grade 1 hat-trick.
Apple’s Jade has had the beating of the boys in Ireland this season, romping to wide-margin victories in the Hatton’s Grace (2m 4f), Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle (3m) and Irish Champion (2m) in a scintillating campaign. She’s even eclipsed Buveur D’Air with 10 wins at the highest level now.
Eight of those have been in open company, so Apple’s Jade is entitled to a prominent position in the Champion Hurdle betting at 9/4 with betway. If there is one nagging doubt, it’s her Cheltenham Festival record being only one from three, but she has the foot to win this.
Fellow Irish raider Laurina is a horse that trainer Willie Mullins has nowhere near got to the bottom of. The six-year-old tackles geldings for the first time in her career here and is unbeaten in six starts for the Closutton handler.
Laurina was by far the most impressive winner at last year’s Cheltenham Festival when she bolted up in the Grade 2 Dawn Run by 16 lengths. She made her rivals look very ordinary and followed-up at the highest level at Fairyhouse over Easter.
Victories in a match at Sandown and another Listed contest around Punchestown this season haven’t told us much more about Laurina. This is going to take a career best now stepping outside of her own sex, but she’s unexposed, has form over further and a softer surface is no problem. Laurina is 4/1 with BetVictor for Champion Hurdle glory.
Improving Sharjah has more to offer than Melon
Mullins also saddles three in this and, of the remaining pair, Sharjah has progressed to win back-to-back Grade 1s for owners Rich and Susannah Ricci. This six-year-old didn’t look capable of such success on last season’s form, but has silenced doubters and is something of a surprise find for connections.
Sharjah plundered the Galway Hurdle over the summer and, after running in a couple of staying handicaps on the Flat, scalped Faugheen in the Morgiana at Punchestown. Perhaps he has been campaigned very well by Mullins, as he followed-up in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas when a couple of rivals disappointed.
That is not to Sharjah’s detriment, however, but to his credit. This will be far tougher than the small field Grade 1s he has won, but there’s each-way value in the double figure 14/1 price on offer with Coral. Sharjah shouldn’t be inconvenienced by soft going either, if his Galway win is any indicator.
Melon completes the Mullins trio and has been a major disappointment in stark contrast. His lofty rating is very hard to justify on the two races from 10 hurdles starts that the seven-year-old has won. Twice beaten at the Cheltenham Festival, Melon was a below par fourth on both of his previous outings this season.
He has plenty to find on both Sharjah and Apple’s Jade, judged on those appearances. Melon is trading around double the price he was sent off for last year’s Champion Hurdle at 14/1 with William Hill, but significant improvement is needed to make the frame in a more competitive renewal this time around.
Espoir D’Allen another improving sort
Verdana Blue beat Buveur D’Air at Kempton, but Henderson’s mare does not want any cut in the ground. The more rain that falls, the less likely the seven-year-old is to run in the Champion Hurdle with an All-Weather Finals target on her agenda too.
Henderson also brought Brain Power back over hurdles at the urgings of owner Michael Buckley and he won a weak renewal of the Grade 2 International at Cheltenham back in December. This demands plenty more than that and last year’s Arkle runner-up could be vulnerable, despite jockey Nico De Boinville choosing him over Verdana Blue.
McManus also has another iron in the fire with Espoir D’Allen, the youngest in the line-up. Trained by Gavin Cromwell, the five-year-old has a progressive profile and won’t mind soft going. He wasn’t right when fourth in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle last season and missed the end of the campaign as a result.
However, Espoir D’Allen has since proved himself in winning three Grade 3s in open company this term. This requires a step up from that level, but many of the Champion Hurdle field are exposed relative to this young improver and odds of 25/1 with Coral make him another worth considering each-way.
Espoir D’Allen is certainly a horse for the future. Whether this is tackling too much too soon remains to be seen, but his owner looks set to run both him and Buveur D’Air. In the eventuality extra places are available, then Espoir D’Allen is certainly worth exploring.
Remainder have lots to find
With Supasundae set to again go down the Stayers’ Hurdle route in the absence of last year’s conqueror Penhill, it’s hard to see anything else making the frame. Global Citizen has won twice for Ben Pauling this season, including in the official trial for this race at Haydock last time out.
There’s no doubt the seven-year-old benefitted from a race-costing mistake three out by Silver Streak there and beat him three lengths. Global Citizen has 13 lengths to find on Verana Blue and Buveur D’Air from the Christmas Hurdle, and this is much more difficult.
Silver Streak, meanwhile, has developed a nasty habit of finishing second – albeit when giving lumps to weight away to Nietzsche in the Greatwood Hurdle. Evan Williams’ charge has not really proved himself better than a handicapper as yet and may be exposed now trying Grade 1 company.
Punters are betting around the first three in the Champion Hurdle market to some extent here, but it’d be no surprise to see any of them in the winners’ enclosure. Sharjah and Espoir D’Allen have the scope to potentially get in amongst them if one or other fail to fire.