Buveur D'Air stands on the brink of Champion Hurdle history, but do we tip him believing Kempton was a blip, or is he about to relinquish his Cheltenham Festival crown?
JP McManus's last great Champion Hurdle star Istabraq was the last to win the Festival championship race three times, now his eight-year-old, Buveur D'Air is in line to become the £450,000 Grade 1's sixth three-time champion.
Odds of 4/6f followed him to his emphatic neck win over Melon in 2018, but he is challenged heavily in 2019's Cheltenham betting by Gigginstown House Stud's prolific mare Apple's Jade.
But even she, Ireland's hottest betting tip, has question marks, opening the Champion Hurdle betting up and potentially providing value for non-believers in a championship test for the ages this Cheltenham Tuesday.
The Champion Hurdle, sponsored in 2019 by bookmakers Unibet, is a 2m 1/2f Grade 1 hurdle race open to any horse with a hurdle rating of 130. Worth £253,215 to the winning connections, it is the seasonal championship for speedy hurdlers, and the first championship race to be run at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.
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There is a direct correlation between the Champion Hurdle trends shortlist and the Champion Hurdle betting; the only three entries making the grade are Buveur D'Air, Laurina, and Apple's Jade.
Unsurpringly, that trio head the betting for the £450,000 hurdle, and it's very hard to see past them when you're looking to bet on the winner. In the trends above, Buveur D'Air (2/1 Black Type) is strongest, mainly because he's written a lot of them.
At 172, he's the top-rated in the field, and that horse has finished worse than third just twice in the past 10 years. In addition, trainer Nicky Henderson feels he wasn't 100% when winning by a neck last year.
The hype surrounding incredible Irish Champion Hurdle winner Apple's Jade (9/4 William Hill) should ensure he goes off a more generous price than the 4/6 he won from in 2018, so he looks the best bet in the Champion Hurdle.
At his Cheltenham Stable Tour, Henderson talked up the chances of Brain Power, who is 20/1 with Bet365 right now, while Sharjah, the Galway Hurdle winner, also looks a good each-bet at 12/1 with William Hill in the Champion Hurdle odds.
"He lived in a box next door to We Have A Dream and on the Monday morning he had a temperature that was screaming. We took him out at 6am, got him out of the barn, he hadn’t touched his food, and his temperature was through the roof.
"Buveur D'Air is tough as teak and he didn’t get over Cheltenham at all. It should have been a piece of cake for him to come back to Aintree like he did the year before, but he couldn’t.
"He has to bet better than last year, because I'm sure it's a better race, but I still think he's the one to beat.
"Brain Power’s rather forgotten. I know he won an International Hurdle at Cheltenham that probably wasn’t a great contest, but it was one of the better British ones. He was good there.
"That’s the way to ride him, and good ground helps him. I was never intending to run him again. He’s in great form wasn’t at his best last year.
"Over two miles on fast ground round Kempton, Verdana Blue caught Buveur D'Air out at Christmas. Nico [de Boinville, jockey] got a lovely run round in his slipstream, and she does have a great turn of foot."
"She's been awesome this season. I was nervous coming back in distance against the geldings in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Everyone was saying to me, 'what she’s doing, she could win a Champion Hurdle'. I wasn’t sure she could show the pace she did show at Leopardstown.
"She showed how good she is there. The last time she showed that was winning the juvenile hurdle at Aintree. She’s just gone from strength to strength and I think she’ll run a big race in the Champion Hurdle."
"Laurina has settled down hugely this year, which I find fascinating. We do the same work with her, she’s in the same stable, so I don’t know what it is, but I think she’s just more mature. It was not ideal running her after a flu vaccination, but the race had been in my head for ages.
"I think the buzz and bustle of Cheltenham will really sharpen her up and a race like the Champion Hurdle, she’s going to have to be sharper.
"Melon looks good, I’m very happy with him. We’re trying to figure out why he disappointed last time. We have our own reasons and will change a few things for Cheltenham.
"I know connections are saying Buveur D’Air has improved hugely from last year, but we hope that we’re going to improve hugely too. Now, obviously there isn’t any evidence of that.
"I’d say we’ve gone backwards on the racetrack, but I’m hoping if we change one or two things with him, it might bring back his old form. I’m not going to say what we’re going to do for now.
"Sharjah has improved beyond all recognition. He probably is what we thought he was coming up to Christmas two years ago, when he fell coming to win at the last at Leopardstown.
"He just sort of lost his way after that, perhaps it was a lack of confidence. But now he seems to be back to being a really good horse. He has really shown that, winning a Galway Hurdle off topweight, the Morgiana Hurdle and then Leopardstown."
"He's kept improving. He doesn't show us that much at home, but he keeps winning - and that's a very important thing. I think he stays well, and the hill should play to his strengths - I don't think the track is going to be a problem."
Buveur D'Air has won the last two Champion Hurdles by four and a half lengths, and a neck, his win last year being his 10th successive victory. He was caught out by speedy stablemate Verdana Blue for a first defeat since 2016 at Kempton last Christmas, but was back on song at Sandown last time out - the same race he won last year before his famous Cheltenham win.
Apple's Jade has proven unstoppable in Ireland this winter, winning three valuable Grade 1 hurdles over distances from 2m-3m. Her remarkable romps from the front have wiped from memories her defeat in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham last year, and trainer Gordon Elliott is doing everything he can to ensure that continues. The seven-year-old was in-season for that run, and for her only other defeat last season.
Laurina, a big six-year-old mare, has not been beaten since joining trainer Willie Mullins from France in late 2017. She has won at every level, including the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival, but she's also never been tested outside her own sex. Now, she's won six times by six lengths or more, and four times by 11 lengths or more, so is clearly leagues ahead of the females she's faced, but the Irish handicapper ranks her 6lbs inferior to Apple's Jade - and below Melon, Sharjah, Supasundae, and Samcro.
The Galway Hurdle winner Sharjah made the breakthrough to Grade 1 victory at Punchestown in November, winning the Morgiana Hurdle. It was not the strongest renewal, but he stepped up to beat top yardstick Supasundae in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on his next run. Trainer Willie Mullins feels the last time he went to Cheltenham for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle he was still suffering mentally from a fall two runs previously, and that the Sharjah on show now is what was expected there.
Melon has been to the Cheltenham Festival twice and finished second both times, most recently being beaten a neck by Buveur D'Air last year. He did not come into that race in scintillating form, and will not line up this year with form to write home about either. However, the drag up the final hill seems to bring the best out in him - he relishes a hill finish - so he cannot be discounted. Trainer Willie Mullins has also suggested tactical and maybe even equipment changes could be made to improve his performance.
Verdana Blue may be part of Nicky Henderson's Champion Hurdle 'B' team, but she's no back marker, having skipped to victory over Buveur D'Air in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She had earlier been fourth in the uber-competitive Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham. The worry for her is that she shows too much speed, and not enough stamina - and she's been beaten the three times she's run at Cheltenham.
Espoir D'Allen was short odds to win the Triumph Hurdle last year, having beaten Farclas, who would go on to win the Cheltenham race, at Leopardstown. However, trainer Gavin Cromwell felt the four-year-old needed a break and made the tough decision to skip the Festival. He has come back this season to land three Grade 3s by wide margins, but the odds are stacked against this youngster: 73 five-year-olds have been beaten in the Champion Hurdle since See You Then won in 1985.
Brain Power was well beaten by Buveur D'Air two years ago, and has since taken to fences, with limited success. The five-time hurdle winner made the return to smaller flights this season, winning a Grade 2 at Cheltenham in December comfortably. Ridden with more restraint than usual, the eight-year-old appeared renewed and looks a dark horse at big odds in the Champion Hurdle betting.
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