The Champion Hurdle is run over two miles and eighty seven yards, and is the big race on the opening day of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival. What looked another potentially poor renewal was given a big boost with the news that Apples Jade would be aimed at the race, which has livened up the market, but Buveur D’air the winner for the last two years is still favourite as I write this.
Buveur D’air seems the obvious place to start. Since going back over hurdles following two chase victories in February 2017, he has won nine of his ten starts, with two Champion Hurdles and an Aintree Hurdle to his name. In truth the rest of his races have been in very uncompetitive affairs, and his Champion Hurdle wins offer the most robust evidence to rate him on. His win in 2017 was pretty impressive, and while he probably had a little more in hand than the four and a half length margin, it was a ten year old My Tent Or Your’s that chased him home, so it was far from vintage stuff.
Last season Buveur D’air was all out to beat Melon by a neck, with Mick Jazz just three lengths back in third. This time he had nothing extra in hand, and it looked a poor renewal of the race, so while the ground was softer than the previous year he looked like he would be vulnerable in his attempt at three in a row. He’s won two of his three races since, but while his defeat of Samcro was easy on the eye, it probably didn’t have much substance, and it was good ground when he got beaten by his stablemate, Veranda Blue over Christmas. The margin was just s short head, but the jockey on the winner was a long way from asking for full effort. Buveur D’air did make a mistake when he dived at three out, and while it didn’t cost him much, if any ground, it could have had an energy cost. On his win here two years ago he would likely take an awful lot of beating, but he hasn’t looked as good since, so I wouldn’t be rushing to back him at the current 2/1.
Apples Jade adds a fascinating element to this race, having won the Irish version by sixteen lengths last time, but I wouldn’t get too carried away with that performance, as wide margins wins in small fields tend to be overrated, especially when a good bit of that margin was gained in the final furlong and a half when the second hit the wall. Anyone using an average pounds per lengths scale to rate a race in such scenarios should buy themselves a copy of race-reading for dummies.
The time figure was good at Leopardstown, and adding on her seven pounds mares allowance would give her every chance in an average Champion, but bare time figures with only three hurdle races on the card, with the last hurdle missing, and only two over two miles, with the other one steadily run, while useful, are certainly not very robust, and they should be used in conjunction with sectionals to analyze a race. The actual time figure itself will, like all form analysis, be just an estimate, and in this case not a very solid one. It’s easy pick holes in the form, as apart from the margins at the line being exaggerated by the rest stopping, the second would have been way out of his comfort zone over two miles on good ground, with his two top flight wins having come on soft at that trip, the third home Petit Mouchoir has no solid recent form to speak of, while Melon the danger on form is very inconsistent, and clearly ran no race. Another factor is the last hurdle being omitted meant a run in of almost half a mile, and that makes it more of a stamina test as well, which obviously suited her.
Another concern would be while Apples Jade looks better than ever this year, she has never to my eye looked like two miles would be anywhere near her optimum before. When she won by a wide margin in the Hatton’s Grace over two and a half, it was her ability to sustain a strong pace for that trip that meant she won by twenty lengths, and while you could make a case for her outstaying a poor Champion field on soft ground, despite that Leopardstown win, I would still question whether she could do it on good ground. She won the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago, but was matched at 89/1 in running when two of Willies came there cantering all over her in the straight, but she battled back well to win. That was over two and a half, and while the pace wasn’t strong, it was one on many examples of her not looking like a two miler.
Last year she got beaten in the Mares Hurdle with the fact she was in season used as the excuse. That was also the official excuse when she was beaten at Punchestown afterwards too. Given her current odds that would have to be a huge concern again. Her tendency to shift right before each hurdle is another possible concern, all the more so if something takes her on, as it will be harder to maintain an even gallop.
Another factor that seems to have been over looked with her, is that while everyone agrees she needs a true run race at two miles to have a chance of beating speedier horses like Buveur D’air, she will very likely have to make that pace herself, and while leading isn’t a problem for her, it means her jockey, who got it spot on at Leopardstown, will need to reproduce those perfect splits to give her the best chance, and contrary to what some jockeys might believe, their record at getting it absolutely perfect isn’t all that high, which is understandable really, as tiny differences in miles per hour speed, can lead to quite big differences in overall efficiency. The margin for error with her is quite small, as if she goes too fast, even if she drags the others along with her, it will still be her that did more running at too quick a pace, and if she goes too slow she will surely get out speeded from the home bend. Buveur D’air’s jockey on the other hand has the luxury of just sitting in and getting some cover, knowing he can win if Apples Jade goes too fast, too slow, or even if she gets it just right.
Laurina is unbeaten over hurdles for Willie Mullins but the rivals she beat in mares novice races last year, are a million miles off Champion Hurdle standard and it’s a total guessing game how good she is. An easy win against one rival at Sandown in January wasn’t much help either. Potential stars like her with no substance to their form tend to be over bet though, and her current odds of 9/2 certainly look too short.
Sharjah looked exposed as a good way below this level after his novice season, and indeed was only rated 146 when wining the Galway Hurdle last July. He has looked an improved model this season though, beating Faugheen at Punchestown, before looking to have more in hand than the margin when coming from behind to win the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown, with the steady pace compressing the margins. It’s likely he needs to find more again to win though.
Verdana Blue beat Buveur D’air at Christmas and that was despite her rider only nudging her out close home to get up and win by a short head. It seems far more likely the second was below form, rather than her showing huge improvement though, and she was only fourth in a handicap off 151 on her previous start. That’s not bad form though when you add on her seven pounds mares allowance, but it’s hardly Champion Hurdle form either.
Brain Power went off at just 13/2 when disappointing in the 2017 Champion Hurdle, before going over fences last season. He went back over hurdles last time, and was value for more like a five length win in the International at Cheltenham, but that form would still leave him with a good bit to find, and he looks pretty exposed now too.
Espoir D’Allen has won seven of his eight hurdle starts, and likely wasn’t right for his only defeat. He’s won all three starts this season, and while Saldier looked to be going marginally better when falling at the last at Naas in the first of those, Espoir D’Allen was strong at the finish in his next two starts, so may well have won that one anyway. At Limerick he went right away from Stormy Ireland, while last time he was giving seven pounds to Wicklow Brave and Tombstone, but despite a mistake at the last which halted his momentum, he picked up again for a comfortable victory. He likely needs to find a bit more, and hasn’t been confirmed a runner as yet, but he certainly looks capable of doing better, when a fast run race looks sure to suit.
Melon is not consistent, that much is obvious, but he was only beaten a neck in last years Champion Hurdle by Buveur D’air, so while this may end up being a better renewal, Buveur D’air is 2/1 favourite while Melon is 20/1, so he is certainly worth a closer look, as a slight improvement on that form could easily be enough. He fell at Punchestown after that run, it was too far out to know how he’d have fared, and has been well below form in his two runs this season, but he was also well below form in the his two runs before Cheltenham last season, yet he bounced back on the day to run to his best. He also ran to his best as a novice at Cheltenham, so a return to form is probably more likely than his odds suggest.
Supasundae could place in a soft ground Champion, but doesn’t appeal as a likely winner, and none of the others do either. The ground will obviously be a big factor, so it might be wise to wait a bit longer for a bet. That said if the 20/1 currently available on Melon and Espoir D’Allen, was available when the firms go non runner no bet, then a small bet each way on both would look good value. Even 16/1 non runner no bet would be worth taking.