Buveur D’Air is quite correctly the banker for many at the Cheltenham Festival. Winner of the Champion Hurdle last year, he is currently best price 4/7 to retain the title. Having raced four times since this victory, he has comfortably beaten all placed in his way. This includes The Betway Hurdle at Aintree last April, The Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in December and most recently The Contenders Hurdle at Sandown earlier in the month.
The question mark over him, however, is the lack of a test. The Fighting Fifth looked too easy and the The Contenders was a three horse race, with one starting at 100/1. I recently heard it said that he has only run in egg and spoon races this season. That is a bit harsh as most have been in Grade 1 company, but frankly if I’d lost a couple of pounds and held on tightly enough, I would have fancied my chances on his back in the Fighting Fifth.
Whilst the weakness of the division can only strengthen the argument for a win, history might suggest otherwise. Statistically the Champion Hurdle is the least predictable of the four championship races. Five of the last ten winners have returned at prices of 9/1 or greater and you have to go back to 2005 to find the last back to back victories in Hardy Eustace.
It is always easy to overemphasis historical data, but the case against Buveur D’Air becomes stronger if you factor in the lead up. Nicky Henderson had hoped to give him a run at Kempton before the meeting today, but with the covers on this opportunity was lost. Henderson said earlier in the week “He needs an awful lot of work and he didn’t have a race at Sandown the other day. So we have to take him somewhere”. With the weather set to get even colder and to stay with us, you have to wonder where the chances will come from to have a strong gallop before the Festival. It might just be the weather has conspired against him and thrown the timing out.
Given the paucity of rivals, you may well suggest all this academic, and ask who realistically can beat him. Even assuming Faugheen turns up, on recent evidence would offer no challenge. My Tent Or Yours, must surely be too old. Next in the odds is Yorkhill at 16/1. Really? I’ve read nothing to suggest Willie Mullins has this race in mind and he’s only run twice this season staying over fences, without making any impact.
There then follows a host of prospects at 20/1, many of whom have multiple entries and most of whom it would be hard to make a case for.
Amongst the 20/1 group is Alan King’s Elgin, who isn’t even entered at this stage, but looks a certainty to be supplemented. Far from disgraced with 7th place in last year’s freakish Supreme Novices’, he has since proved himself around the Old Course, winning the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle in November. Given the weight he can probably be forgiven his subsequent 6th place in December’s Handicap Hurdle at Ascot and bounced back with victory, under a penalty, in last weekend’s Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. This race is really the last British prep run before the Champion Hurdle and is often used by those who are catching up late. However, with the weather likely to frustrate last minute preparations for Buveur D’Air, the timing might just have been perfect for Elgin.
There are worse races than the Kingwell from which to pick a Champion Hurdle winner and it provided Elgin with the one thing Buveur D’Air hasn’t had this season, namely having to prove himself in a proper dust up of a competitive race.