The big race of the opening day of the Festival is, as usual, the Champion Hurdle and this year we have a small but very select field.
With 4 wins each in the last 10 years, Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins are responsible for 8 of the last 10 winners, and this year they saddle 6 of the 10 runners.
Buveur D’Air, the number one contender from Henderson’s yard, is bidding to join the likes of See You Then and Istabraq in becoming a 3 times winners of this race but faces stiff competition from the likes of Apples Jade and Laurina. He was impressive in winning the Fighting Fifth on his reappearance before a shock defeat (one of only two career reversals) to stablemate Verdana Blue at odds of 1/4 in the Christmas Hurdle. He won his prep run but faced nothing of this calibre there. Whilst there are some question marks over him being in the same form this time around, it’s hard to write him off given his record in this race.
Apple’s Jade, 1 of 3 to receive a 7lb mares allowance, is the one challenging Buveur D’Air for favouritism. A winner of all 4 starts this term, she’s versatile with regards to trip having won both the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle over 3 miles and the Irish Champion Hurdle over 2 miles. She’s a front runner who will use her stamina to try and run the finish of the specialist 2 milers but there’s a couple of others who may take her on. She was also beaten at the Festival 12 months, at odds of 1/2 in the Mares Hurdle.
Laurina is the main challenger for Willie Mullins and she’s unbeaten in 6 runs since joining the yard. It’s hard to know what to make of her. She’s never really been extended and faces much tougher opposition so it’ll be interesting to know how she’ll respond when put under pressure. Most of her form has been over further too and, being prone to a jumping error, you’d be worried about her speed over the hurdles back at the minimum trip.
Sharjah and Melon are the next 2 in the market, both of whom come from the Mullins yard, with preference for the latter who was 2nd to Buveur D’Air 12 months ago. He will like the soft ground and is a strong traveller who thrives off a fast pace. He’s been 2nd at the last 2 Festivals and seems to save his best form for her, probably because the races are run at a true pace. His last 2 efforts have been average at best but the ground wasn’t soft enough, nor did the track play to his strengths. Mullins has already said he’s confident in his chances and will ‘try something different’. It appears as though the addition of cheekpieces is the something different and he should go well again.
Sharjah has already finished ahead of Melon this season but the worry for me is the going, especially as he faded into 8th in the Supreme here 12 months ago on heavy ground.
Espoir D’Allen has only tasted defeat on 1 occasion but he’s up significantly in class. Verdana Blue beat Buveur D’Air over Christmas but she has it all to do on softer ground and a stiffer track, whilst Global Citizen and Silver Streak look outclassed.
Brain Power, the Henderson 3rd string, isn’t totally out of this. He likes the track and won well here in December but was a long way back in the 2017 running of this when arguably his chance was better.
I’m not quite sure what to make of both the market leaders whilst Laurina is a bit short in the betting. Therefore, I’m siding with Melon to run another good race at the Festival and I’ll back him in the win market as well as the market with both market leaders.
PLACED – Back Melon (e/w) for a 0.5/10 stake at 17.00 Unibet (⅕ odds 1-3)
PLACED – Back Melon (e/w) in the ‘without Buveur D’Air and Apple Jade’ market for a 1.5/10 stake at 6.50 Betfair (⅕ odds 1-3)
Back it here: