Cheltenham Festival: Champion Hurdle Preview
The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is like no other as the famous roar from 70,000 excited punters heralds the start of four days of quality racing with the Champion Hurdle providing the day’s feature race…
Buveur D’Air goes for a three-peat
The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Racing Post Arkle both catch the eye but there is little doubt that the feature race on Tuesday is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, won for the past two years by the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air, who returns to defend his title one more.
The 8-year old is bidding to become the first three-time winner of the race since Istabraq in 2000 and is currently joint 3.00* favourite to create a little bit of Cheltenham history and on recent form there is every reason to believe he can achieve the three-peat.
Since reverting to the hurdles back in 2017, Buveur d’Air has won nine of his 10 starts with the sole defeat coming when beaten by stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton after going off as the strong odds on favourite.
He was an impressive winner of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle back in the autumn, beating Samcro and Summerville Boy, but whether that form means much going into Cheltenham is up for debate and for that reason others might be more appealing.
Apple catches the eye
Without doubt, the horse coming into this year’s Champion Hurdle in the best form is Apples Jade, who has romped home in her last four outings – including a Grade 2 win at Navan before three Grade 1 victories on the spin at Fairyhouse and the Christmas Hurdle and Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown – with an aggregate winning distance of over 70 lengths.
The one area for concern might be that she’s not really a Cheltenham course specialist having lost in the Mare’s Hurdle last season but the fact that Gordon Elliott has targeted this race rather than another pop at the Mare’s suggests more than an air of confidence.
Willie Mullins, with 61 festival successes to date, will be well represented in this race with the pick of his horses surely being Laurina, who has won on all six starts since joining his yard and landed the Dawn Run at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, as well as picking up a victory at Punchestown last month, though questions might be raised about the quality of opposition she faced in those runs.
Red letter day for Verdana Blue
Mullins also sends last year’s runner-up Melonto Prestbury Park along with Sharjah and both will have serious questions to answer. Melon has looked ordinary this winter while – despite a good turn of foot and two recent Grade 1 victories – the quality of opposition Sharjah faced on both occasions could be a factor.
However, if you’re looking for a bit of value outside of the top two contenders then Nicky Henderson’s Verdana Blue appears to be the best of the rest despite suffering a surprise defeat to Gumball in the 32Red Casino Novice Stakes at Kempton Park recently.
Maybe not the strongest front-runner, Verdana Blue appears to have stamina by the bucket load and looked to have plenty more in the tank when beating stable companion Buveur D’Air by a short head at Kempton back in December.
So maybe she should deserve more credit for overturning the favourite on that occasion than she’s been given going into this one rather than looking at the failings of her rival and can be backed at a tempting 15.00* to cause an upset once again.
*all odds are subject to change