NICKY Henderson reports Buveur D’Air to be in tip-top condition as he attempts to become the sixth horse to record three successive victories in the Unibet Champion Hurdle – the day one highlight of the Cheltenham Festival.
Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq have all achieved that feat, and Buveur D’Air could add his name to that exclusive list if he can concede weight to the Irish-trained mares Apples’s Jade and Laurina in, arguably, the champion’s toughest assignment to date.
I think I would be comfortable to say he is as good as we have had him all yearTrainer Nicky Henderson
The eight-year-old, owned by JP McManus, suffered a rare reverse against stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, but got back on track in the Contenders Hurdle, winning the Sandown race for the third year running last month.
“I think I would be comfortable to say he is as good as we have had him all year,” said Henderson, who nursed the fragile See You Then to a hat-trick of wins in this celebrated race from 1985-87.
“Barry (Geraghty) came and schooled him and then rode him in a bit of work last week and thought he felt great – sometimes he tells me he doesn’t. It would be great if he could do it as he would join history if he could. I do think it is more competitive than last year, but I don’t think he was right last year.
“Our two biggest problems are undoubtedly the two Irish mares and they are getting 7lb. If the ground goes soft it will suit Buveur D’Air, but it will also suit the two mares. I think Laurina might be the slower of the two and in that case Apple’s Jade is the one we have to beat.”
Henderson also saddles Verdana Blue and Brain Power in a race that changed complexion when Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who runs the Gigginstown House Stud in Ireland with his brother Eddie, was persuaded to run Apple’s Jade – the mount of Jack Kennedy – after she turned the Irish Champion Hurdle into a one-horse race.
“I was nervous before the Dublin Racing Festival. Everyone was telling me – people you respect in racing and press people – that she could win a Champion Hurdle,” said trainer Gordon Elliott.
“I have to say myself that I didn’t know if she could show the pace she showed in Leopardstown. She just showed how good she is.
“She was awesome the last day and has been awesome all season. I think the Hatton’s Grace was arguably her best run of the year.
“If she wins a Champion Hurdle she’ll be a hero. She’s a hero in my eyes already, but if she could do that she’d be something special. She’s proven how good she is – she’s 10 Grade Ones won – and if she won a Champion Hurdle it would be the icing on the cake.”
As for Laurina, her trainer Willie Mullins – who saddled the last mare to win the Champion Hurdle in Annie Power (2016) – feels his mare, the mount of Ruby Walsh, is coming of age having recently turned six.
“She’s a very, very good mare. This has been the goal all along. We just haven’t had the ground for her, which is why she hasn’t run much,” said Ireland’s champion trainer.
“She’s a different type of mare to Annie Power. They’re both tall, rangy mares, but they’ve got different temperaments. Laurina’s temperament has changed dramatically. She was a bit on the excitable side, but she has settled down hugely.”
Jockey David Bass and trainer Ben Pauling, meanwhile, will be hopeful that Global Citizen, victorious at Haydock earlier in the season, can run into a place.