Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake sets the scene for this week's Champion Hurdle, a race Kevin feels two-time winner Buveur D'Air must win to solidify his greatness.

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This year’s Champion Hurdle is the race the two-mile hurdle division has been waiting the better part of 15 years to see.

Of course, there have been some sensational performers in the division in that time, with the likes of Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Annie Power all being tip-top hurdlers. However, one arguably must go back to the glorious era of Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca, Harchibald and Macs Joy to find a period in time where the two-mile division was stacked with top-class performers that clashed on the biggest stage to produce epic contests.

This year’s race has all the ingredients to define both the last two years of the division, as well as setting down a marker in it for years to come.

Buveur D’Air goes into this year’s Champion Hurdle with his legacy on the line. While he is already a two-time Champion Hurdle winner, his status has yet to rise to the heights one would have expected it to have with those achievements under his belt. The quality of the opposition he has seen off has been questioned and the style in which he has beaten them with has not been enough to nullify those questions 

While it seemed that Buveur D’Air might just have burst through the glass ceiling when bolting up in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle earlier this season, the subsequent disappointments of Samcro and Summerville Boy very much devalued that effort. Coupled with Buveur D’Air’s defeat in the Christmas Hurdle on his next start, his status has returned to where it was at the start of this season.

That all promises to change on Tuesday if he can see off which is by far the most formidable collection of opposition, who are in their prime, that he has ever faced, he will have secured his legacy in one fell swoop. He will become just the sixth horse in history to win three Champion Hurdles and that he won his third in the most testing of circumstances will cancel out the perceived weakness of his first two wins in the race as mitigation.

Buveur D'Air wins the Champion Hurdle
Buveur D'air and Melon battle over the last in the 2018 Champion Hurdle

However, should he meet with defeat with no excuses, Buveur D’Air will regrettably be destined to be remembered by many as a sub-standard two-time Champion Hurdle winner. That may seem a contradiction in terms, but history is a harsh judge. This promises to be a defining moment in the career of Buveur D’Air.

So, can he rise to the occasion?

Leading the charge against him will be the Gordon Elliott-trained Apple’s Jade. She has won all four of her starts this season, three of them in Grade 1 company, by an aggregate of 73 lengths. She has been utterly imperious. Crucially, the most recent of those wins came over the minimum trip in the Irish Champion Hurdle, which confirmed her ability to show top-class form over that distance.

While she met with defeat in the Mares’ Hurdle at last year’s meeting, the issues that were thought to have held her back on that occasion, being in season and not having a prep run after Christmas, have both been addressed this time round. If she turns up in the Champion Hurdle in the same form she has been in all season, it will unquestionably take a career-best effort from Buveur D’Air to give her 7lb and win.

Laurina is the complete unknown factor in the field. She has never raced against a gelding. She has never raced against a horse rated higher than 147. The style of her victories have been impressive, but in truth, it is next to impossible to make a bullish assessment of how good she could be based on the evidence we have in front of us. More so than anything else, it is the regard she is held in by Willie Mullins and his team that has led to her being no bigger than 4/1 for such a deep Champion Hurdle.

It cannot be overstated just how much of a step up in class Laurina is facing on Tuesday, but the boldness of her connections in throwing her into the deep end on the biggest stage adds yet another layer of intrigue to what is already a fabulous contest.

Those are the big three, but this is anything but a three-horse race. The Willie Mullins-trained Sharjah has won two Grade 1 races in very impressive style this season, but has struggled to break through into the realm of the very best hurdlers around in the eyes of many. This is his chance to show his full worth on the biggest stage of them all.

Mullins has already another contender of note in last year’s runner-up Melon. While he hasn’t made much of an impression in his two starts this season, a poor prep run was no barrier to him pushing Buveur D’Air all the way last year. While the application of first-time cheekpieces seems like a left-field move with one that has been notably free-going in the past, it will be fascinating to see if they help bring him back to form.

Of the rest, the Gavin Cromwell-trained Espoir D’Allen is unproven at this level, but has been on an upward curve this season. The Nicky Henderson-trained Verdana Blue lowered Buveur D’Air’s colours in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and cannot be ruled out. The field is rounded off by free-going front-runner Global Citizen who wouldn’t want to be ignored on the front end.

While highly-anticipated clashes in horse racing have nasty habit of failing to deliver on the hopes attached to them, one can only hope that this year’s Champion Hurdle will exceed every expectation. My own marginal inclination is to side with Apple’s Jade, but who cares? If ever there was a race that one doesn’t need to have a strong view on to sit back and absolutely relish, this is it.

This race has all the potential to define a generation of two-mile hurdlers. I can’t wait to see it.

Kevin Blake
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