The 2019 Unibet Champion Hurdle: Runner-by-runner guide

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Mon 11 Mar 2019

Who wins the feature race on day one of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday? Watch interviews, galloping clues and analysis plus read what Andy Stephens has to say about the ten contenders.

Our experts put the Champion Hurdle under the microscope

Buveur D'Air will seek to join an elite band who have won the Unibet Champion Hurdle on three occasions at Cheltenham on Tuesday.

Nicky Henderson's star will become the sixth three-time winner since the race's inception in 1927 if he lands the two-mile hurdling championship, which carries prize-money of £450,000 and will feature a maximum field of 14.

But the dual champion will have to master a number of tough new rivals if he is to retain his crown – notably Irish-trained mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina.

Here’s a guide to the ten runners.

APPLE’S JADE

Trainer: Gordon Elliott. Best odds: 9-4.

How good was Apple's Jade in the Irish Champion Hurdle?

Positives: A ten-time Grade One winner who has seemed at the peak of her powers over a range of distances this season – routing her rivals in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time. Runner-up in a strong Triumph Hurdle in 2016 and won the Mares’ Hurdle a year later.

Negatives: Likes to race at the head of affairs/be prominent and unlikely to get things all her own way. Usually jumps out to her right and fluffed lines when odds-on at the Festival last season, when apparently in season.

Verdict: Flawless this campaign and if she’s in similar form then will be hard to beat.

BRAIN POWER

Trainer: Nicky Henderson. Odds: 20-1.

Nick Luck and Niall Hannity study Brain Power's success in December

Positives: Renowned as one of the best workers at Seven Barrows and flashes of brilliance along the way. Fluent winner of the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time in first-time cheekpieces and, having not raced since, will be fresh.

Negatives: Has disappointed on numerous occasions, often finding less than promised – as was the case when eighth two years ago. Plugged on to be second in the Arkle last year.

Verdict: No surprise if he’s still on the bridle two out but others more compelling.

BUVEUR D’AIR

Trainer: Nicky Henderson. Odds: 9-4.

Nicky Henderson taks about Altior and Buveur D'Air to Nick Lightfoot

Positives: Seeks a third successive triumph in the race and has won 12 of his past 13 races. Slick jumper with a turn of foot who is clearly well served by the demands of the track. Warmed up in usual style with routine victory against inferior rivals at Sandown in February.

Negatives: The past two renewals of the Champion Hurdle have, at best, been ordinary renewals and this is a deeper contest. Shock defeat at Kempton over Christmas also raises doubts.

Verdict: The dual champion is unlikely to go down without a fight but faces no easy task conceding 7lb to two exciting mares.

ESPOR D’ALLEN

Trainer: Gavin Cromwell. Odds: 20-1.

Listen to what Barry Geraghty made of Espoir D'Allen's latest win

Positives: Has won eight of his nine starts – his main attributes being his cruising speed and turn of foot. His past five successes have been in graded races and he was again not fully extended when beating older opposition on his latest start at Naas.

Negatives: Five-year-olds have a poor record in the race and this will be easily his toughest assignment. Officially rated 17lb inferior to Buveur D’Air and disappointed the only previous time he ran in Grade One. No Cheltenham experience, either.

Verdict: In at the deep end after thriving in shallower waters.

GLOBAL CITIZEN

Trainer: Ben Pauling. Odds: 33-1.

Our experts give their verdict on Global Citizen's Haydock success

Positives: Zestful front-runner who landed the Grade Two The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock last time, having scooped the Gerry Feilden Hurdle earlier in the campaign. Has a good attitude and versatile regards the ground.

Negatives: Might have been fortunate to win latest (runner-up Silver Streak blundered three out) and, in any case, his overall form falls short. Lack of course form also a concern.

Verdict: Will need a massive personal best to figure on a track not sure to play to his strengths.

LAURINA

Trainer: Willie Mullins. Odds: 4-1.

Laurina first, the rest nowhere, at Cheltenham last year

Positives: Imposing mare is unbeaten in six starts since joining Willie Mullins, beating inferior rivals by an aggregate of 106 lengths. Yet to be anything like extended and was a runaway winner of the mares' novice race at Cheltenham last year.

Negatives: This represents a significant step up in class and she's unproven away from soft ground. She's also mainly been racing over further and there's still room for improvement in her jumping.

Verdict: An exciting contender but requires plenty more in this company.

MELON

Trainer: Willie Mullins. Odds: 14-1.

Watch last year's Champion Hurdle

Positives: Has peaked at this meeting for the past two years, being beaten a neck by Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle last year after finishing runner-up in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle the year before.

Negatives: Three wins from 14 starts hard to forgive given his level of ability and arrives here on the back of a heavy defeat behind Apple’s Jade in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Ruby Walsh prefers stablemate Laurina.

Verdict: It will be a surprise on several levels if he is able to go one better than 12 months ago.

Watch our Champion Hurdle tales

SHARJAH

Trainer: Willie Mullins. Odds: 12-1

Willie Mullins told Donn McClean all about his Festival team

Positives: Has already won the Galway Hurdle, Morgiana Hurdle and Ryanair Hurdle this season. Boasts fine turn of foot and clearly better than ever.

Negatives: Form of his Grade One wins lacks substance and he was only eighth in the Supreme last year, albeit on ground too deep for him. Wants good going or quicker.

Verdict: Something of an overachiever his season but vulnerable in better company on a slower surface.

SILVER STREAK

Trainer: Evan Williams. Odds: 50-1.

Evan Williams told us all about Silver Streak after his win at Haydock

Positives: Tremendously progressive, winning the Swinton and Welsh Champion Hurdle on his first two starts this term before finishing runner-up in the Greatwood plus two Grade Two contests. At home on the track and still only a six-year-old.

Negatives: His three successive defeats, including one off a mark of 145, point to his limitations. In a handicap, Buveur D’Air would have to concede 16lb to him.

Verdict: Likeable sort clearly at home on the track but looks up against it.

VERDANA BLUE

Trainer: Nicky Henderson. Odds: 16-1.

Verdana Blue stunned stablemate Buveur D'Air in the Christmas Hurdle

Positives: Finished a close fourth to Let’s Dance in the 2017 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Took the scalp of Buveur D’Air, her stablemate, in the Christmas Hurdle and was also an eye-catcher in the Greatwood. Recent spin on the Flat at Kempton last time will have served its purpose.

Negatives: A soundish surface (needs the word god in any going description) essential to her. Overall form points to her coming up short even if she gets it. Suffered a surprise reverse on the all-weather latest.

Verdict: The ground is key to her. Each-way claims if the going is no worse than good to soft.

ANDY’S VERDICT:

It is difficult to get away from the big three – Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina. The betting percentages suggest that, between them, they have an 80 per cent chance of winning (or 1-4 if you prefer odds) but I’d give them an even stronger chance than that.

Deserting any dual champion does not come easy but Buveur D’Air has won two ordinary renewals and his defeat at Kempton over Christmas rings alarm bells.

I don’t buy the theory that it was the track that beat him as he ran perhaps a stone and a half below his best. National Spirit, Bula, Comedy Of Errors, Monksfield, Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon, Hardy Eustace and Hurricane Fly all came up short attempting a third win in the race and he’s not in the same class of several of those.

That leaves us with a choice between the proven brilliance of Apple’s Jade and the untapped potential of Laurina. I suggested backing the former at 9-1 non-runner-no-bet when the entries came out in January and am not about to desert her.

She’s been outstanding this season, twice hammering a tremendously reliable yardstick in Supasundae. I’d imagine Jack Kennedy will be happy to take a lead from Global Citizen before turning on the turbo from two out.

It could be one-way traffic from once they swing into the straight and climb the hill.

1. APPLE’S JADE. 2. LAURINA. 3. BUVEUR D’AIR.

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