The Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle takes centre stage at Newcastle on Saturday and Buveur D'Air is the star attraction. While it might not look the most competitive contest on paper, it promises to be informative with regard to the bigger picture of the two-mile hurdle division and could potentially have a big impact on it.
The reason for its significance is simple. The two-mile hurdle division looks to be very much lacking in depth, as it has for quite a few years now. There is broad acceptance of the view that the two-time Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D'Air currently represents the standard that the young pretenders have to come up to.
Just how good is Buveur D'Air?
How high Buveur D'Air sets that bar is open for debate. In my opinion, he is around a 165 horse and has never been much if any higher than that in his career. In a nutshell, he has largely been running riot in a paper-thin division. Even at that, he didn't shine as brightly last season as he has in the past. Jumping errors became more frequent and he only won three of his six starts. While he isn't an old horse by any means, and hasn't been over raced in his career, the possibility that he is on the downgrade has to be considered.
That is what makes his performance at Newcastle this Saturday so potentially significant. The eight-year-old seems sure to be sent off at a very short price, but everyone with an interest in the division will be watching him like a hawk for an indication of how much ability he retains. If he doesn't perform close to the 165 level he should still be capable of or even if he is unexpectedly beaten, that would change the whole shape of the division. The bar would all of a sudden be lowered and that would surely be difficult to ignore for some sets of connections.
With the two-mile novice chase division looking as strong as ever, one can't help but wonder whether a trainer or two might be tempted to change plans and revert to hurdles. The likes of Melon, Angels Breath, Al Dancer and Getaway Trump would be all be potential candidates to change course. There would be a certain appropriateness if the Champion Hurdle was to be won by one that had reverted to hurdling, as Buveur D'Air himself became the first horse since Morley Street in 1991 to win the Champion Hurdle having won over fences earlier in the same season.
Who knows, connections of some of the fairer sex might even be persuaded to veer away from the Mares' Hurdle route and target the Champion Hurdle. I'm looking at you Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux!
Implications for Cheltenham 2020
Could we even see the even rarer event of a top-class novice hurdler being thrown into the deep end to contest the Champion Hurdle?
The last two I can recall are Moon Racer in 2017 and Rhinestone Cowboy in 2003, with the latter faring much better than the form by finishing a modest third to Rooster Booster having been sent off the 5/2 favourite. Mind you, one doesn't have to travel too far back in time to find novices that won the Champion Hurdle such as Royal Gait (1992), Alderbrook (1995) and the recently departed Make A Stand (1997).
Buveur D'Air can do his part to shut down all of this talk by producing an impressive performance on his return to action in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle. However, if he doesn't, expect talk such as the above to become louder and louder.