Cheltenham Festival 2019: Champion Hurdle Preview
This race for many, myself included will be the most anticipated race of the entire festival. The main reason for this is how the complexion of the market and the horses opposing dual winner Buveur D’Air has changed throughout the course of the season. Six months is a long time in horse racing and at the start of the National Hunt season Gordon Elliott confirmed his star novice from last season Samcro, would be targeted at the Champion Hurdle.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, Samcro fluffed his lines in the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal on seasonal reappearance getting beaten by Bedrock. This was followed up with a remote second to the current champion in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, where he attempted to make the running but Buveur D’Air picked him up with relative ease and went on to score, being eased down. From this point Nicky Henderson’s star was odds on with most firms to become the sixth horse to win the event three times. Since then Apple’s Jade has been rediverted to this race after some sensational performances, particularly at Fairyhouse where she pummelled good horses like Supasundae and then confirmed that form over the minimum trip at Leopardstown, which booked her ticket here. However, I would have concerns about her running in the Champion Hurdle.
The first of those being that she was turned over at Cheltenham last year in the Mares Hurdle, she was subsequently found to be in season and again at Punchestown. Gordon Elliott has said they think they have found a way to prevent that happening this year but there are no guarantees. The second reason is that Apple’s Jade does tend to jump slightly to her right which she can get away with going two and a half miles around a right-handed track like Fairyhouse but here her jumping will be put under more pressure. Especially as she is likely to be taken on for the lead here, which she didn’t have the problem of dealing with when winning the Irish Champion Hurdle in February. Without her getting an easy lead, it might mean she gets racing sooner than Jack Kennedy would like her to, and although she will stay on she would become a target to aim at for horses likely to be held up, such as Buveur D’Air and Melon.
The other interesting contender here is Laurina, who is completely unexposed at this level and is unbeaten for Willie Mullins. She comes under the “could be anything” category but until she goes and does it by beating a decent yardstick, I can’t have her. She hasn’t come off the bridle yet but she has beat one horse at Sandown which was essentially a racecourse gallop and some mares that would not be sighted in a Champion Hurdle. She also, to me, does not jump like a Champion Hurdle horse. She is a good jumper but she is not super-slick which you need to be in a championship event.
For the aforementioned reasons I think Buveur D’Air will retain his title, and with 2/1 available on the Betfair sportsbook this still represents value in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, his win by a neck from Melon last season would not be good enough to see him beat Apple’s Jade here but Nicky Henderson said he was a hard horse to get right last year. He is in a box next to We Have A Dream who missed Cheltenham last year with really bad sickness, which Buveur D’Air may well have been suffering from, but he still got his head down and got the job done. Regarding his defeat at Kempton on Boxing Day I would be inclined to put a line through that as he made an absolute mess of the second last and had to get racing from further out than ideal. His prep at Sandown went as well as can be expected and he beat Vision Des Flos comfortably, who has since scored in a Grade 2 event at Fontwell.
I think Henderson will have Buveur D’Air primed for his title defence and he will be hard to beat. If I was going to have an each way bet in the race it would be Sharjah, 12/1 is available and he is now a dual Grade 1 winner as well as winning the Galway Hurdle. Willie Mullins has given him a break since Christmas so he comes here a fresh horse and has seemingly improved a great deal this season, accounting for Faugheen and Samcro in the races he has won and the way the race will run, combined with the ground, should see him to good effect.
Selection – Buveur D’Air @ 2/1 with Betfair or Sharjah each way @ 12/1