Cheltenham - At The Races

15:30 Cheltenham 12 Mar 2019

Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1) (Class 1) (4YO plus)

Winner £253,215 - 10 ran

Weighed In

Martin Kelly
by Martin Kelly

For much of last summer through to the mid-winter, the Unibet Champion Hurdle has looked at the mercy of Buveur D’Air. And all looked to be going to plan for the Nicky Henderson inmate as he re-appeared to slay young pretender Samcro at Newcastle in November.

Samcro though has turned out to be a shadow of his former self and a shock reverse for Buveur D’Air at Kempton over Christmas has left a cloud hanging over his invincibility.

Here, we will explore his credentials and work out whether any of his market rivals can emerge victorious and deny JP McManus’s runner a place in history with his Champion Hurdle hat-trick bid.

Horse profiles

Apple's Jade (FR)

Many have long called for Gordon Elliot’s star mare to take her chance in the Champion Hurdle, and they look like getting their way after her demolition job in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival early in February.

She was having her first run over the minimum trip for the first time since late 2016 that day, but it didn’t bother her and she put her stamina to good use to make all and win by 16-lengths in a brilliant time. However, those in opposition were not up to scratch and she again displayed a tendency to jump out to the right – something which will cost her dearly against the likes of Buveur D’Air.

Apple’s Jade is an outstanding mare winning 14 of her 20 career starts, and she has never been out of the first three. A Champion Hurdle success at Cheltenham would be the undoubted highlight of her career. Added into the mix that the seven-year-old appears better than ever this season, Apple’s Jade brings star quality to a race lacking in depth and, although the nagging doubt is she is better over further, she is entitled to stake her claim.

Video Form
28 Dec 2018:
2 Dec 2018:
11 Nov 2018:
28 Apr 2018:
28 Dec 2017:

Brain Power (IRE)

The eight-year-old has won half of his 20 starts over timber and, like with Buveur D’Air, he has been switched back to hurdling after a chase campaign. But the similarities stop there.

Although quite taking in the International Hurdle last December, his only other win of note came in handicap company. It may be he is better suited by hurdles rather than fences, but his eighth-place finish, beaten 30 lengths, in the 2017 Champion Hurdle, tells its own story.

Video Form
20 Jan 2018:
28 Apr 2017:
17 Dec 2016:

Buveur D'air (FR)

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Crillon - History (Alesso)
  • Trained by: N J Henderson
  • Last Race: Newcastle, 30 Nov 2019 14:05
  • Result: 2/5, held up in 3rd, went 2nd behind clear leader (winner) when shaken up after 3 out, hit next, 1 length down last, ridden and stayed on to challenge flat, just held
  • View full form

Nicky Henderson’s eight-year-old has won the last two renewals of the race, beating his veteran stablemate My Tent Or Yours in 2017 and last year seeing off Melon, who has flopped since, and the 156-rated Mick Jazz. His championship form may not be as strong as previous renewals of the race and the gloss was taken off with his defeat at the hands of stablemate Verdana Blue in December. However, he is the winner of 12 of his 14 starts over hurdles and has a wonderfully slick way of jumping. He can only beat whatever is in front of him, which he has done so in two of his three starts this season, having undergone a breathing operation. His form can be crabbed but his overall record cannot and he heads back to Cheltenham bidding to emulate Istabraq’s record as the one to beat.

Video Form
30 Nov 2019:
1 Dec 2018:
2 Dec 2017:

Espoir D'allen (FR)

  • 5-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Voix Du Nord - Quadanse (Maille Pistol)
  • Trained by: G P Cromwell
  • Last Race: Cheltenham, 12 Mar 2019 15:30
  • Result: Won/10, held up in mid-division, closed 4 out, 3rd before 3 out, led 2 out, allowed to drift right when drawing clear before last, stayed on strongly, impressive
  • View full form

Gavin Cromwell’s five-year-old has only been beaten once in eight starts over hurdles, and that was a run too bad to be true at Leopardstown in February 2018. He is unbeaten in three runs this year and looked a class act when seeing off Wicklow Brave at Naas in January. He was entitled to win that day and his form remains a stone below that necessary to win a Champion Hurdle.

Video Form
28 Dec 2018:
10 Nov 2018:
4 Feb 2018:
26 Dec 2017:
3 Dec 2017:

Global Citizen (IRE)

The trail-blazing front-runner will probably be swallowed up by his rivals up the Cheltenham hill, but I’d like to wish him well. Ben Pauling’s seven-year-old has a tough-as-teak attitude and has been so game in victory at Haydock and Newbury this season.

His drubbing behind Buveur D’Air and Verdana Blue at Kempton over Christmas exposes his limitations at this level but he is a warrior and will go out on his shield.

Video Form
3 Nov 2018:
5 Feb 2018:
12 Oct 2017:

Laurina (FR)

  • 6-y-o; bay mare
  • Breeding: Spanish Moon - Lamboghina (Alkalde)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Gowran Park, 23 Nov 2019 14:45
  • Result: Won/10, tracked leaders, jumped well, 2nd 4 out, improved to lead travelling well 3 out, went clear before last, stayed on strongly run-in, eased, impressive
  • View full form

While we know all there is to know about Apple’s Jade and Buveur D’Air, Laurina is the unexposed contender after an unbeaten six-run stretch for trainer Willie Mullins. The six-year-old was a wide margin winner of her four starts last year, taking the mares’ novices’ hurdle at the Festival by 18 lengths and a Grade 1 at Fairyhouse by over eight.

Laurina has been restricted to just two runs this campaign, when she beat a sole rival at Sandown by 48 lengths under Ruby Walsh – who it expected to take the ride on March 12, something which has to be significant given Mullins’s armoury, and when winning again easily at Punchestown in February. The problem is she has yet to race outside of mares’ company but given her connections and their success with similar types, she deserves the utmost respect – especially when this big individual will receive the generous sex allowance.

Video Form
1 Apr 2018:
27 Jan 2018:
14 Dec 2017:

Melon (GB)

Looked a future Champion Hurdle winner in waiting when running Buveur D’Air to a neck last March, but the reckoning is the winner wasn’t at his best. Melon has been well held in two runs this campaign and regressed from his first start to his second.

The seven-year-old has only ever won two races, a maiden and a weak Down Royal Grade 2. He wouldn’t even be in the mix but for his sole effort in this race 12 months ago.

Video Form
18 May 2019:
29 Dec 2018:
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The wheels have rather fallen off last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle winner, with a fall, two seconds and a lacklustre fifth-placed finish all he has mustered since. He has looked an out-and-out staying chaser all along and will find the pace all too strong if even turning up. The Stayers’ Hurdle and a novice chase campaign beckon.

Video Form
29 Dec 2018:
1 Dec 2018:
2 Nov 2018:
27 Apr 2018:
4 Feb 2018:

Sharjah (FR)

Another from the Willie Mullins’s camp, and not to be underestimated. The six-year-old has stacks of room for improvement and heads to Cheltenham having landed Grade 1 races on his last two starts – claiming the scalp of Supasundae and Faugheen in the process, although a collateral form line through Supasundae gives him a mountain to climb with Apple’s Jade.

Sharjah loves good ground so a dry run into Cheltenham will be an advantage and his eighth-placed finish on heavy ground in last year’s Supreme was a great effort in the circumstances.

Video Form
29 Dec 2018:
18 Nov 2018:
2 Nov 2018:
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15 Sep 2018:

Verdana Blue (IRE)

  • 7-y-o; bay mare
  • Breeding: Getaway - Blue Gallery (Bluebird)
  • Trained by: N J Henderson
  • Last Race: Ascot, 1 May 2019 15:25
  • Result: 4/7, in touch, driven to chase leaders when not clear run 2f out to over 1f out, soon ridden, no impression in 4th final furlong
  • View full form

The winner of six of her fourteen starts over hurdles caused a Christmas shock when lowering the colours of Buveur D’Air at Kempton on Boxing Day. The speed track would have played to her strengths that day, as would the mistake from her stablemate at the second-last flight.

The seven-year-old does seem to be a better horse this campaign but she has plenty of toe and a strong-run Champion may find her out. Saying that, she keeps defying the odds and was slightly unlucky in November’s Greatwood Hurdle. It’s hard to see her winning but this plucky mare will give her all.

Video Form
1 May 2019:
23 Dec 2017:
24 Nov 2017:
4 Nov 2017:
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Unibet Champion Hurdle

Buveur D’Air is the standard bearer and undoubtedly the one to beat. His warm-up run now looks even better after the Sandown second Vision Des Flos landed the National Spirit Hurdle. However, he has two star mares to contend with this time and they may just have his measure. I love Apple’s Jade but worry about her against specialist two milers, and am siding with LAURINA to come out on top. She is a Cheltenham winner and has looked an absolute monster in her unbeaten run for Willie Mullins. I know the Champion Hurdle is a totally different proposition to anything she has encountered before, but she has tons of ability, a huge engine and can make the most of the mares’ allowance.

Previous Winners
Year Going Ran Winner Draw Age Weight OR Form Last run Trainer (Distance) Jockey SP Time
2018 Heavy 11 Buveur D'Air 7 11 10 - 111-111 38 days N Henderson (51 miles) B J Geraghty 4/6 4:05.00
2017 Good to Soft 11 Buveur D'Air 6 11 10 - 131-111 38 days N Henderson (51 miles) N Fehily 5/1 3:51.00
2016 Good to Soft 12 Annie Power 8 11 3 - 121F-11 27 days W P Mullins R Walsh 5/2 3:45.10
2015 Good to Soft 8 Faugheen 7 11 10 - 1111-11 74 days W P Mullins R Walsh 4/5 3:50.90
2014 Good to Soft 9 Jezki 6 11 10 - 31-1124 44 days Mrs J Harrington B J Geraghty 9/1 3:44.60
2013 Soft 9 Hurricane Fly 9 11 10 - 131-111 44 days W P Mullins R Walsh 13/8 3:59.10
2012 Good 10 Rock On Ruby 7 11 10 - 1223-12 78 days P Nicholls (69 miles) N Fehily 11/1 3:50.10
2011 Good 11 Hurricane Fly 7 11 10 - 131-111 51 days W P Mullins R Walsh 11/4 3:53.60
2010 Good to Soft 12 Binocular 6 11 10 - 113-531 38 days N Henderson (51 miles) A P McCoy 9/1 3:53.90
2009 Good to Soft 23 Punjabi 6 11 10 - 1-111F3 24 days N Henderson (51 miles) B J Geraghty 22/1 4:00.90