It’s been 19 years since Istabraq became the fifth horse to win the Champion Hurdle for the third time, but this year’s Champion Hurdle could see a sixth added to the exclusive list. We look through the key contenders for the 2019 contest at Cheltenham Festival.
Following his win over hurdles at the first attempt in November 2015, trainer Nicky Henderson cautiously stated: “I think he’ll be good”. Since that date, he has lost only twice, taking his career record to 15 wins from 19 races, and proving his trainer exceptionally right.
Improving on a third place in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, he was sent novice chasing at the start of the 2016/2017 season. Despite winning on both starts, connections made the brave decision to return him to hurdles and to go for the Champion Hurdle. Sent off the 5/1 second favourite behind Yanworth, he stormed up the Cheltenham hill to prove that decision to be correct.
Returning to the Cheltenham Festival a year later, he was sent off the 4/6 favourite with 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen widely considered the main danger. Instead, Faugheen’s stablemate Melon put up the main challenge, but a “tough as nails” effort by Buveur D’Air saw him retain his crown.
Widely available at a shade of odds against for this year’s contest (6/4 is his current best price), he would surely be shorter but for a disappointing second in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Despite that defeat at odds of 1/4, a recent poll by MyRacing Tips on Twitter saw 56% of the 723 votes go his way suggesting punters have faith that a return to Cheltenham and a better round of jumping will see him emerge victorious again.
Second in the poll was Laurina, receiving a third of the vote – well clear of any other option. It appears the bookmakers agree as she is a clear second favourite in the market at the start of January.
As with many Mullins horses, the issue with Laurina is the lack of real quality opposition she has faced which could be used as a yardstick. Her first season with Willie Mullins following a short French career saw her win four times, including the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2) at the Cheltenham Festival and then the Irish Mares’ Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) at Fairyhouse a month later. Her first run this season was in the Listed Mares’ Hurdle, where she faced just one runner rated 18 pounds below her who she beat by 48 lengths.
Her best Racing Post Rating (equivalent to a handicappers’ view) is 160. With Buveur D’Air recording numbers of 170 and 167 when winning his two races, she needs to improve. However, she benefits from a seven pound mares allowance, which in theory is equivalent to seven points in Racing Post Ratings, putting her right in the mix on paper.
Last year’s runner up can feel aggrieved that he didn’t win his first Grade 1 race, having battled hard to show his quality. His form since then has been questionable, falling when with every chance at Punchestown – but too early to know if he would have won – before finishing well down the field in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.
He was weak in the market for that race, made a bad mistake, and will improve coming back from such a lengthy break with his trainer surely targeting races later in the season. Like Laurina, he is still relatively unexposed – he has raced just nine times over hurdles and is a year younger than Buveur D’Air – but with so many question marks to answer it is perhaps unsurprising he received just 8% of the votes in the myracing survey.
The Rest Of The Field
There are of course numerous other contenders who still have an opportunity to stake a claim well before the Festival starts. Apple’s Jade was beaten in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year at odds of just 1/2 before struggling at Aintree, but has looked back to her best with three hugely impressive victories this season. The bookmakers believe her likely target is the Mares’ Hurdle, but with Willie Mullins also training Benie Des Dieux, Limini and Augusta Kate he may yet aim her at a higher target.
Notably, he also has Sharjah – winner of the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown. Just six years old, that backed up his victory over Faugheen at Punchestown in November and his rating on the Flat of 92 shows he has plenty of pace. He will need to prove he copes with the Cheltenham track but he looks a much improved horse compared to last spring when he was down the field in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.