Fascinating Feature On Day One:
I was indifferent about the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (3:30pm, Tuesday March 12th) before studying the race, now I’m pumped. Let battle commence. England vs Ireland. Henderson vs Elliott/Mullins. Boys vs Girls. History to be made.
Buveur D’Air tries to emulate Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq by winning the Champion Hurdle for the third time. Apple’s Jade will aim to become the fifth mare to win the race, including the likes of Annie Power and Dawn Run. JP McManus has won the race 7 times, as has Nicky Henderson, and Ruby Walsh will bid to win it for the fifth time, which would be a record that he would hold alone. He currently shares it with Tim Molony.
It has all the makings of a classic. You have the former champion, new pretenders, clash of the sexes, a concoction of running styles and protagonists blessed with speed and stamina.
12 of the 27 entries are Irish-trained. Six are from Seven Barrows, Nicky Henderson’s stable, five from Willie Mullins and four from Gordon Elliott’s yard. There is a supplementary stage which would cost connections £22,500 to join the party.
2 miles and half a furlong on the Old Course. We can presume good to soft ground or softer going. £450,000 prize money and over a quarter of a million sterling to the winner. Mares crucially receive a 7 pounds allowance. Last year’s renewal was run on heavy ground, Buveur D’Air winning for a second time from an honourable and well-backed runner up in Melon.
Melon did his best, but that's TEN wins in a row for Buveur D'Air including TWO Champion Hurdles – @BarryJGeraghty and @sevenbarrows reign supreme in Cheltenham's Tuesday highlight again#FestivalFlashback pic.twitter.com/I6mFpl6pQr
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 11, 2019
Buveur D’Air came back to hurdles from fences before the 2017 Champion Hurdle and was the first horse since Hardy Eustace to retain his crown in consecutive years. Last year he showed guts and courage to add to the slick hurdling and superb turn of foot we’ve learned to love about him.
This year he was awesome in return against the highly-touted Samcro and 2018 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner, Summerville Boy. Gears and hurdling, despite kicking the last out of the ground saw him superior to the second-season hurdlers.
It hasn’t been plain sailing though this season. Buveur D’Air was beaten at long odds on by stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. The 8-year-old gelding made an awful mistake at the last in the back straight and was done for pace after the last for an apologetic Nico de Boinville.
Order restored with a 2 length win in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. Small margin wins at short odds in the last three of those renewals have worked as a prep for the maestro Henderson. Nicky, with a confident line after the race, ‘ I know what we’ve got to do for the next 5 weeks’. I don’t doubt you do Mr Henderson, en route for 8 wins of the great race.
Out of Season, into Form
In the same way we are all experts about Equine Influenza, the Cheltenham build up will ensure we know all about the menstrual cycle of the horse and how to prevent it. Apple’s Jade has been a revelation this winter, winning all four of her starts by a combined 73 lengths and winning her tenth grade one in the process. Sensational again in the Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace for a third year running, she won the Christmas Hurdle in Leopardstown over 3 miles and dropped a mile to rout the opposition in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Time and ratings experts have Apple’s Jade as good if not better than Buveur D’Air, that is before the small matter of 7 pounds allowance. Apple’s Jade dissapointed in last year’s Mares Hurdle at odds on when beaten a length and a half by Vroum Vroum Mag and beaten further at Punchestown. Both times she has said to have been in season and below par. She also looks to favour going right handed and she jumps a little out to her right when going left handed. The demolition job in the Irish Champion Hurdle seemed to end what worries that caused due to the sheer dominance of the 7 year old mare.
Gordon Elliott is convinced he can trick the mare into not coming in season around the big spring festivals this year. The use of marbles I’ve heard explained on the final furlong podcast. I’ll leave someone else explain how this may work. I don’t doubt Apple’s Jade can show them a clean pair of heels and prove the best hurdler at all trips if in form on the first day of the festival. Her racing style will mean she’ll have to do it the hard way though, that and meeting strong UK opposition for the first time in this division and the worry about coming into season makes her price about right.
She Could be Anything
Ah that old chesnut. Generally not the term I’ll bet when it comes to the festival bar I’m getting a big price. Laurina is exciting though. A devastating winner of the Mares Novice here last year. She then went on to win graded mares races in Fairyhouse and Punchestown in similar style. This year Laurina won a match race in Sandown and couldn’t have been more impressive either. She hasn’t got a chance to achieve a level of form that would make her a serious challenger here so it’s all based on potential.
Laurina is with the right stable though and Mullins will make a fair call as to how far she might go with Melon and Sharjah at home to work against. One quote which did stop me in my tracks, ‘at this stage of her career she must be as good if not better than any of them’. A reminder the Closutton handler has trained Apple’s Jade as a four year old and a certain Annie Power.
I’m inclined to think though with only one run under her belt this season, Laurina may be aimed for the mares now that Apple’s Jade comes here. She also has proven she stays 2 and a half miles. Time is on her side and a few rivals in here will be hoping she takes the easier route.
Sucker for a Strong Traveller
Brain Power moved back to hurdling with an air of class in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham before Christmas that was last seen displayed by Buveur D’Air. On the new course, he toyed with his rivals, going five lengths clear at the last before doing his usual emptying. That was on good to soft over two miles and one furlong though. The old course should suit better. Brain Power has grown up a bit and a patient ride may see him hit the frame here at a big price.
The Michael Buckley owned 8 year old couldn’t jump a fence. He has always been well supported in the market suggesting he has a huge engine and catches pigeons at home in Henderson’s. 2 wind operations later and some maturity, I can see Brain Power developing into a My Tent or Yours type, ridden to achieve the best possible placing late and staying out of the heat of the battle until the last possible moment.
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) December 15, 2018
Twisting my Melon Man
Melon is bang out of form. Last year’s runner up is showing little since twelve months ago. Unlucky to fall in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, since returning this season it’s been a disaster. 2nd in a Supreme and Champion Hurdle however, 3 placings from 3 runs at Prestbury, neither can he be ruled out. The market on the day will be fascinating with this horse as it often tells the tale, it’s as if the Willie Mullins 7 year old gelding knows what price he is.
Supasundae could have done with a cleaner run in the Ryanair Hurdle. The worry is Jessica Harrington’s 9 year old lacks a gear but will be staying on best up the hill. A Coral Cup winner and second in the Stayer’s Hurdle last year, he proved his class by taking advantage of his opportunities when winning last years Irish Champion Hurdle and Punchestown Champion Hurdle. Should find a few too good.
Verdana Blue was a good winner of the Christmas Hurdle, beating Buveur D’Air and showing a blistering turn of foot. Good to soft on day one is not what she wants however and she’s entered this Saturday in Kempton and being aimed at the 2 mile race on AW Finals day according to her trainer Nicky Henderson. She is to be respected though if coming back to hurdling on a flat track track and good ground.
Samcro had excuses for poor runs this season but I’d be amazed if this was the target if he’s fit again in time for Cheltenham. Elliott has Apple’s Jade and the Stayer’s would surely be the option if there was one. Espoir D’Allen has done nothing wrong and was impressive in his three wins this winter. Saldier fell at Naas though when holding every chance against the Cromwell runner on the 10th of November. If they both reappeared here I’d like Saldier at a bigger price to be better of the two.
I rate Richard Hoiles a very fine judge and took note when he tipped up Call Me Lord non runner no bet on last Saturday’s Opening Show on ITV 4 each way. When studying Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s 6 year old, I was taken by how talented he is and curious as to what is his best trip. He was a really good 2nd in the Imperial Cup last year off 152, the front two pulling clear of the field. Then Call Me Lord destroyed a good field over 2 miles 5 furlongs in the Select Hurdle at Sandown last April. His reappearance in the Long Walk Hurdle before Christmas at Ascot can be forgiven as he was nearly brought down by the fall of Unowhatimeanharry and almost carried out at the second last. Maybe the Champion Hurdle is a step too far but he’s no no hoper and is very interesting at 2 and a half miles for all the other festivals.
Apple’s Jade should ensure a strong pace in this year’s Champion Hurdle. If she performs to the best of her ability then I think she wins. There is enough of an if though to make me swerve the wonder mare. This field is deep, even accounting for the possible diversion of Laurina and change of codes for Verdana Blue. But non runner no bet is such a concession that it’s ok to have a bet now with confidence that if a non runner, cash back. If a fancied runner doesn’t run, there’s no rule four at this stage and if by chance the race cuts up to less than 8 runners (I doubt it) you are still on the place terms when the bet is struck.
Therefore I’d recommend a small each way wager on Brain Power. He’s hugely talented and if his energy can be harnessed in the right way, it’s hard not to see him involved at the business end. Warning – he may not find as much as you think.
Brain Power 14/1 Champion Hurdle NRNB