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Cheltenham Festival is on the horizon and trainers will be making their final preparations for the week-long event in the second week of March in their attempt to capture the most prestigious prizes on offer in the National Hunt.
The Champion Hurdle will be one of the most fiercely contested races of the week, with several talented horses competing for the crown. No trainer has enjoyed greater success in the meet than Nicky Henderson, who will be looking for his third win on the bounce and eighth title in total.
Henderson will have two outstanding horses in the meet. Buveur D’Air is one of the modern-day greats, having delivered back-to-back crowns for his trainer and owner John P McManus.
However, he will be put to the test as Gordon Elliott, Willie Mullins and Jessica Harrington will all have their respective charges lined up and ready to snatch away the title. Even Buveur D’Air’s own stable-mate Verdana Blue will mount a serious challenge, having already beaten the French-bred horse in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park.
We’ll now break down the leading contenders for the Champion Hurdle crown, beginning with the reigning champion.
After losing to Altior in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival in 2016, the bay gelding reeled off a run of 11 wins in a row. Henderson’s charge was unstoppable, winning his first Champion Hurdle crown in 2017 with a fine performance with Noel Fehily. He was a slight outsider at 5/1 for the victory, but he delivered the win by four-and-a-half lengths ahead of My Tent Or Yours.
Buveur D’Air carried that form into the Christmas Hurdle later in the year and was flawless in his triumph at Kempton Park. His reputation preceded him at Cheltenham last year as the bookies made the seven-year-old the odds-on favourite for the title. On this occasion Buveur D’Air was pressed all the way by Melon, but just had the edge to close out the win by a neck.
The French-bred horse had become accustomed to winning and appeared to be on his way to successive Christmas Hurdle titles. However, the Irish-bred horse was able to beat him out on the line, claiming the win by a short head. The defeat to his stable-mate proved that Buveur D’Air is not invincible, although it will take a special effort to defeat him at Cheltenham.
Apple’s Jade has a point to prove at Cheltenham after a disappointing outing in her last appearance at the Festival. She was the outright favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle last season, but underwhelmed on the track, finishing in third place behind Benie Des Dieux and Midnight Tour. Gordon Elliott’s charge was poor towards the end of the last campaign also losing out her conqueror of Cheltenham in the Mares Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
However, the seven-year-old has responded this term winning her four races of the campaign, handing her momentum to take forward in Cheltenham. It began at the Lismullen Hurdle where she produced a dominant outing, cantering away from the rest of the field to win by 11 lengths. Apple’s Jade improved on the level of her performances, delivering comprehensive victories in December.
Elliott’s charge arrived at the Irish Champion Hurdle where she faced off against Supasundae along with Melon and Petit Mouchoir. She blew away the rest of the competition with Jack Kennedy in the saddle, winning by 16 lengths. Apple’s Jade has the ability, but toppling Buveur D’Air will be a tough task.
Henderson’s charge made a statement with a brilliant performance to defeat her stable-mate at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. Before the 2018/19 National Hunt season, the Irish-bred horse had not made a huge impact on the jump racing scene. The seven-year-old began the autumn in a flat race to find her feet, delivering a comfortable victory ahead of the field.
She was able to build off the performance to make a breakthrough in a Class One race for the first time. At the Matchbook VIP Hurdle, Verdana Blue put forward put a smooth display at Leopardstown to claim the victory by seven lengths. Another impressive outing followed at Wincanton in the Uniibet Elite Hurdle.
After being considered the favourite for the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle and the 32Red Wild Flower Stakes, she underwhelmed placing fourth and second respectively in two events where Henderson’s charge should have be able to triumph. However, Verdana Blue saved her best for the big occasion, displaying her pace down the straight to see off Buveur D’Air. A similar outing could see Verdana Blue in the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham.
The French-bred horse is the hope of Willie Mullins entering the contest. Laurina has displayed excellent pedigree in her fledgling career and could be the competitor that has the best opportunity to dislodge Buveur D’Air from pole position. The six-year-old has won all five of her races, including her debut at Cheltenham Festival last season.
Laurina only had two races under her belt before she competed in the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Mullins’ charge was able to build on her success with another an accomplished display at the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse.
She was the odds-on favourite and delivered by finishing eight-and-a-half lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Against only Sensulano at Sandown Park, the six-year-old cantered to another comfortable win. Her limited experience could hold back a challenge of Buveur D’Air, although Laurina is a competitor on the rise and looking for a major scalp on the big stage.
Buveur D’Air has been imperious at Cheltenham, fending off Melon last season, while producing a flawless effort in 2017. Only five horses have won the event three times, with each of those winning in three consecutive years. Buveur D’Air has the opportunity to join an elite company of competitors.
However, his defeat in the Christmas Hurdle has proven that he is not infallible. Laurina could be the outsider ready to knock him off his perch. Mullins does have a history in the Champion Hurdle, winning the event four times, including twice with Hurricane Fly. Back Laurina at odds of 7/2 4.50 +350 3.50 3.50 -0.29 with Bet365 to claim the victory.