The Champion Hurdle is the latest Championship race that David Cleary has cast his eye over ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, and our man is keen on a big-name stable second string and a popular Irish contender...
"Apples Jade's record at Cheltenham could be cited as a possible concern, particularly her defeat in last season's Mares' Hurdle, but she looks a different, altogether stronger, proposition now."
Defending champ perhaps not even worthy of favourite tag
Buveur d'Air heads the 24 horses still left in the Champion Hurdle, bidding to become the first three-time winner of the race since Istabraq in 2000.
Istabraq was sent off at 15/8-on for his third Champion and didn't have to run to his best to score by four lengths. Buveur d'Air looks to have a fair bit more on his plate than his owner J.P. McManus's great champion did nearly two decades ago, and it's debatable whether he ought even to be favourite.
Since he reverted to hurdling in early-2017, Buveur d'Air has won nine of his 10 starts, though his defeat came recently, on his penultimate outing, when beaten at 4/1-on by his stable-companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. He also won last season's Champion by just a neck, always looking likely to prevail, even though he had to work a bit.
Buveur d'Air was an impressive winner of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in the autumn, but that form, beating Samcro and Summerville Boy, may well not be worth much. All in all, Buveur d'Air looks one to take on.
Apples has been ultra impressive this season
The runner with the best form this season in the race is, without question, Apples Jade. She has turned each of her four appearances into a procession, scoring in Grade 2 company at Navan before a hat-trick of Grade 1 victories, in the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse and the Christmas Hurdle and Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, her aggregate margin of victory coming to 73 lengths.
Before the Irish Champion, there was a doubt about whether Apples Jade would have the speed for two miles on good ground, but there was none after, as she drew 16 lengths clear of Supasundae, a dual Grade 1 winner at the trip in 2017/18.
After a brief flirtation with running in the Mares' at Cheltenham, connections nominated the Champion as the target, and, in receipt of the mares allowance, she looks the one to beat. Her record at Cheltenham could be cited as a possible concern, particularly her defeat in last season's Mares' Hurdle, but she looks a different, altogether stronger, proposition now.
Mullins trio have plenty to prove
Next in in the market is Laurina, who has won on all six starts since joining Willie Mullins' yard. She landed the Dawn Run at last year's Cheltenham Festival, though that was a weak race for the meeting and her main rival was patently not suited by being taken on for the lead. She landed cramped odds at Punchestown earlier this week, taking time to warm to her jumping, and although she won easily, she beat just useful mares, kept to facing her own sex.
Laurina is very much style over substance at this stage and hasn't achieved anything like so much as the pair ahead of her in the market.
Willie Mullins has other plausible contenders in last year's runner-up Melon, though he has been disappointing this winter, and Sharjah. Sharjah has a good turn of foot and has won Grade 1 races the last twice, though both look events where his main opponents failed to fire. Sharjah managed just ninth when a 20/1 chance for last year's Supreme, but is clearly rather better now.
Henderson second string a huge price
Buveur d'Air's trainer Nicky Henderson may also be mob-handed, with the International Hurdle winner Brain Power and Verdana Blue set to line up. The International form doesn't look good enough, though at least Brain Power looked showed his effectiveness at the track.
Verdana Blue is definitely interesting. Her record this season is hard to fault - she had excuses when beaten in the Greatwood Hurdle - and as a strong-travelling hold-up horse, she should have a race run ideally for her. Her form isn't so good as the front-running Apple's Jade's, but that may, in part, be a question of style. And her defeat of Buveur d'Air at Kempton, where she had more in hand than the short head she won by suggests, has been viewed wholly through the prism of the flop of the favourite; perhaps that is wrong.
Blue the bet with a saver on Jade
So, in conclusion, Buveur d'Air looks too short at around [3.0] on the Exchange, Laurina, [5.7], has more to do than the market suggests, Apples Jade, [3.5], ought to be shorter, but Verdana Blue - available to back at [29.0] as opposed to 14/1 on the Sportsbook - who may have a prep run on the Flat next week, may prove to be the one that is overpriced.
Testing ground would be a concern, but seems unlikely at this stage. Backing Verdana Blue and saving on Apples Jade looks the best option.
Back Verdana Blue to Win the Champions Hurdle @ [29.0]
Back Apples Jade to Win the Champion Hurdle @ [3.5]