Nicky Henderson has discounted the possibility of Buveur D’Air attempting to win the Irish Champion Hurdle en route to winning the English version for a third time this season.
Buveur D’Air had to dig deep to hang on to his crown at Cheltenham last season and afterwards the champion trainer bemoaned the fact that his star had not faced much competition en route to the Festival. The JP McManus-owned gelding beat a total of nine horses in three races in the build-up and was sent off at 2-11, 1-6 and 1-16.
That provoked some to suggest Henderson should have campaigned Buveur D’Air more ambitiously and sent him to contest the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival six weeks earlier, when he would have faced much deeper opposition.
However, the champion trainer believes that would have jeopardised the seven-year-old’s chances of winning at Cheltenham and it seems likely Buveur D'Air will follow a similar route to Prestbury Park.
Talking to Nick Lightfoot in the latest episode of This Racing Life, Henderson said: “JP is always game for a challenge [but] I know very much agreed with me that the one thing we don’t want it be doing is travelling for an overseas head-to-head clash with what you’re going to take on at Cheltenham.
“Us having to play the ‘away game’ is not the way to prepare for Cheltenham. No way, Jose! I’m full of admiration for that meeting, but it’s unlikely to get me excited. There’s absolutely no way I’d take Buveur D’Air there to do that, six weeks before the Champion Hurdle.”
_Watch analaysis of the Champion Hurdle _
Given plenty of time for reflection, Henderson believes Buveur D’Air was below-par when all out to beat Melon by a neck in the latest Champion Hurdle.
“I don’t think he was probably at his best and it’s interesting that he didn’t take the race particularly well. That’s a sure sign of a horse that probably wasn’t at his best.
“He was literally next door to We Have a Dream, who threw a horrible temperature on the Monday morning [the day before the Champion Hurdle] and therefore couldn’t run in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.”
Asked if Buveur D’Air, winner of his past ten races, was capable of scooping a third Champion Hurdle - and emulate See You Then and Istabraq in the process - Henderson said: “He’s well capable of it. He’s in great shape, he’s had a great summer at Martinstown. He’s come back, as ever, looking extremely well.”
Henderson also gave positive bulletins on Champion Chase hero Altior, who is unbeaten in 15 starts over hurdles and fences, and Gold Cup runner-up Might Bite, who signed off last term with a superb victory in the Betfair Bowl at Aintree.
Altior wins the Champion Chase
Altior will kick off his campaign in either the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham next month or the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December.
Reflecting on his Champion Chase success under Nico de Boinville, Henderson said: “I thought that was a terrific ride of Nico’s. If anything, he looked like a horse, on that day, that needed two and a half miles but once he got there he was away and gone. He won impressively.
“It was his third consecutive Cheltenham Festival, so he’d followed in Bob’s Worth shoes then in that he’s a rare thing actually in that he’s been to three Cheltenham Festivals and won three different races. People can win three consecutive races at the Festival, but to win three different ones . . .
“He’s justifiably top of the tree. There’s going to be fresh attacks coming from all sides, and you’d think the horse that won the Arkle last year, Footpad, is going to be a very genuine contender.”
Might Bite will be trained with one eye on the £1 million Triple Crown bonus - awarded to any horse who wins the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup.
Might Bite and Native River serve up an epic clash in the Gold Cup
However, Henderson will not pursue it at any cost. “Bonuses are great things but they mustn’t make you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do,” he said. “But that’s what they want you to do.
“We weren’t hooked into it last year. We thought about it, yes, but this horse, like everybody had seen what he’s like mentally, has taken a lot of time and a lot of nurturing. I think if you’d have bullied this fellow before he was ready, you might never have seen him. You’ve just got to be very careful with horses like him.”
He added: “Let’s face it, last year he didn’t put a foot wrong. It’s just a shame that Cheltenham came up with [testing] ground like that. We always said we weren’t going to have a run between the King George and the Gold Cup.
“Whether that just found him out, I don’t know. He looked to be coming to win his race. The other horse [Native River] is very hard to battle with, so is Dickie [Richard Johnson], but Nico never gave him an inch. It was a great battle, a great race, and, he did nothing wrong.”