Buveur D’Air the hottest Champion Hurdle favourite since Istabraq

McManus and Henderson can extend their respective remarkable record in feature

It's 20 years since Istabraq won the first of a Unibet Champion Hurdle hat-trick and his owner, JP McManus, can mark the anniversary in style on Day One of Cheltenham 2018.

It’s a lot longer than 20 years since National Hunt racing’s greatest show has begun on ground conditions as testing as are being predicted.

Since mud is often a signal for bookie-friendly big-priced winners that's hardly encouraging for the majority of punters preparing to bet almost half a billion euro in Ireland alone this week.

However as signals go, the prospect of McManus and the festival's most successful ever trainer, Nicky Henderson, teaming up for Buveur D'Air in the Champion Hurdle looks about as reassuring as Cheltenham can ever provide.


Both men have won hurdling's championship a record six times each. Both can claim one of the handful of hat-trick heroes in Champion Hurdle history, in Henderson's case See You Then from 1985-87.

And in Buveur D’air they have a reigning title-holder set to start the hottest Champion Hurdle favourite since Istabraq.

McManus’s legendary star was 4-9 for the middle-leg of his hat-trick in 1999. Since Istabraq McManus has won it three times more including with Binocular and Jezki. But by any standards, at any time, Buveur D’Air’s apparent dominance this year looks exceptional.

Whether that makes him an exceptional champion is debatable. But rain clouds over Cheltenham could have been accompanied by the clouds of doubt looming over most of Buveur D’Air’s opposition.

Whether he could cope with Faugheen in his 2015 pomp is an interesting theoretical proposition that doesn't disguise how Willie Mullins's superstar has looked a long way from that vintage in his last two starts.

Prior to Christmas the prospect of a clash of champions promised to be the highlight of the whole week. After Faugheen's spectacular flame-out when pulled up at Leopardstown this has looked Buveur D'Air's title to lose in every sense.

He looks a horse at the peak of his capabilities, coming here on the back of an unbeaten season and proven to have no issues with soft ground.

If anything Buveur D’Air looks to be getting better and appears the safest leg of Henderson’s potential sweep of this week’s festival Triple Crown prizes with Altior (Champion Chase) and Might Bite (Gold Cup) to come.

Christmas flop

In comparison most of his principal rivals look to have plenty to prove. First-time cheek-pieces are applied to Faugheen to try and rejuvenate one of the highest rated hurdlers Ireland has ever produced.

Maybe his spectacular Morgiana return in November took more out of ‘The Machine’ than first realised, although it’s hard to see how that can explain so comprehensive a Christmas flop. It’s also not like he has ever appeared anything but entirely genuine.

Maybe the headgear, and Ruby Walsh back on him, will be transformative. But it still requires something of a leap of faith to seriously invest in such an outcome.

The Faugheen quandary is straightforward in comparison to his enigmatic stable companion Yorkhill. Having started the season as a potential Gold Cup horse, then flopping in a Champion Chase trial, the dual-festival winner now tackles the race his trainer always suspected would suit him best.

David Mullins is entrusted for the first time with the task of steering this notoriously tricky ride. There's little doubt Yorkhill has the talent to be competitive in this. But anticipating him winning makes Faugheen's leap of faith look a mere hop, skip and jump.

My Tent Or Yours has been runner-up on three occasions and would be a sentimental favourite for both McManus and Henderson.

Sentiment rarely triumphs in these circumstances though and the fact Buveur D’Air’s veteran stable companion can be rated one of his bigger dangers shows the relative paucity of the challenge to the hot favourite.

That’s an obvious factor in his price and something Henderson referenced when he said recently: “To be fair in the Champion Hurdle last year he hadn’t had to beat anything. It’s something you take into consideration. His form doesn’t tell you anything dramatic.”

The difference this time is that Faugheen and Yorkhill are big names taking him on. Whether they’re as good as they were is the big question. But Buveur D’Air looks to have the answers.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column