In each of the last two National Hunt horse racing seasons, the UK’s top two-mile hurdler Buveur D’Air has made a winning return to action in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
On both occasions, the Nicky Henderson trained eight-year-old has come to the Gosforth Park track as the Champion Hurdle winner at the Cheltenham Festival from the previous spring.
While Buveur D’Air is a best-price 2/1 joint-favourite to win that championship race for the third consecutive year, he may be challenged like never before.
A second Fighting Fifth success that saw the JP McManus owned gelding burst the bubble surrounding highly regarded Irish raider Samcro leaves him with one less contender for his crown to worry about at least.
There is still serious competition from the Emerald Isle and even within his own stable, however, as Buveur D’Air could do battle with three younger mares and have to give them weight come the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, 12 March.
Verdana Blue just got the better of him in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day at Kempton. It’s worth stressing Buveur D’Air flattened the third last flight on that tight, right-handed flat track and went down just a short-head.
On a left-handed, undulating and galloping track like Cheltenham that really tests the mettle of a thoroughbred racehorse, that form could easily be reversed and a 14/1 price about Verdana Blue reflects that. Buveur D’Air has only ever found undefeated stable companion Altior and Min too good for him over two miles at the Festival.
While he doesn’t have either of those to worry about in the Champion Hurdle, the latter’s Willie Mullins stablemate Laurina presents a clear threat. The six-year-old is unbeaten since joining the Irish champion trainer, though has only competed against her own sex in doing so and we’re yet to see the bottom of her.
Laurina is a Festival winner after readily taking the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2018 and has form over further. While she is a standout 9/2 for Champion Hurdle victory, the best horse over the smaller obstacles in Ireland this season on paper is clearly Apple’s Jade.
While the Gigginstown House Stud-owned, Gordon Elliott-trained mare is among Cheltenham betting tips as a lay on the Betfair blog, she has beaten the boys in Grade 1 races over the full range of distances. Wins in the 2m 4f Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse, then the three-mile Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown and finally back down in trip in the Irish Champion Hurdle arguably set the standard.
Whatever the length of race, no gelding has got within 10 lengths of Apple’s Jade this season. She commands respect and is trading at around 2/1 for the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle as a result, but is only one from three at the Festival.
Buveur D’Air, to his credit, has bounced back and won his traditional prep race in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. He does tend to frighten decent competition off in that Listed race mind, but there’ll certainly be no hiding place as he bids to emulate Henderson hurdling great See You Then.