Cheltenham: Buveur D’Air holds off Melon to retain Champion Hurdle
JP McManus-owned horse takes big race on first day of Festival
Buveur D’Air ridden by Barry Geraghty holds off Melon and Paul Townend to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge at Cheltenham. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters
Buveur D’Air was made to pull out all the stops to successfully defend his crown in the Unibet Champion Hurdle and land the race for a seventh time for English trainer Nicky Henderson. Owner JP McManus was also landing a seventh success in the race.
The seven-year-old sauntered to success on his previous three starts this season and was the 4-6 favourite to become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the race since Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005.
The winner’s stablemate Charli Parcs was ridden forcefully, challenging 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen for the lead for much of the two-mile journey.
It was clear some way from home Faugheen was not travelling with his old zest and in the end it was his stablemate Melon who proved the biggest threat to the reigning champion.
There was little to choose between the pair jumping the final flight and both fought tooth and nail all the way up the hill, but it was Buveur D’Air and Barry Geraghty who emerged victorious by a neck. Mick Jazz was third.
Henderson said: “He was tough and what a great race. They’ve gone a gallop there you wouldn’t believe they would keep up in that ground and they have quickened again all the way up the hill.
“Two very brave horses and two great jockeys – I’m sure we got headed at the last and he was brave to come back.
“He had a battle on his hands today and in a funny way that’s the first race he’s had this year. It’s just been in the back of my mind and has always worried me.
“That was the first time he’s had to put his head down and fight.”
Geraghty, who had to miss last year’s Festival through injury, said: “It’s real winter conditions, very tacky down the back straight – as it’s opened up it’s become harder work. The ground made it the ultimate test, there’s nowhere to hide.
“He won it the hard way, he battled hard. I tried to save as much as I could on the turn in and go for him as late as possible and he found when it was needed.
“I missed one down the back, which I didn’t expect. It was a proper race. The runner-up came and I thought he was coming to beat me, but he’s battle hardened. He’s as tough as nails and pulled it out.
“Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat him, and he didn’t get bad luck today. He proved there he was a better horse than he was last year. He dug deep and scrapped it out.”
He added: “He’s very good – you don’t win them back to back unless you are very good. He’s a top-class horse.
“I missed last season and it’s nice to ride a big winner for the boss [owner JP McManus] and doubly to do it for Nicky. It was a long year last year, but I’ve had great years here so I can’t complain.”
Buveur D’Air could now bid for a second win in next month’s Aintree Hurdle.
Henderson said: “He can run again and we have four weeks until Aintree. I’ve not had a talk to JP to see what anybody wants to do, but as long as there some soft ground around [he could run]. He wouldn’t go on fast ground wherever he went.
“That is a big relief as you are expected to collect and he has done. It is a relief it is over.”
McManus said: “You always feel a bit nervous. It was lovely to see Barry and Paul [Townend] fighting it out – two great jockeys. They both looked very strong in the finish.
“Joe Donnelly, who owns the second, I’ve known him many years. He was a bookmaker and I was a semi-bookmaker. We had many battles and some of them were more important than today!”
Willie Mullins was thrilled with the performance of the well-backed Melon and raised the possibility of a rematch with Buveur D’Air at Aintree.
“I’m delighted with him as it’s vindicated what we have always thought about him. Last time we put the hood on to help him settle but he didn’t enjoy that at all,” said the Irish champion trainer.
“He’ll be better next year for sure, he’s a seriously exciting horse.
“Probably I’d say we’ll keep him hurdling next year and I’d imagine he’ll go to Punchestown, but he could go to Aintree over two-and-a-half, we’ll see.
“I wasn’t worried about the ground for him, lots of other horses would have been suited by better ground.”
Faugheen passed the post a well-beaten sixth and Mullins feels he now requires a step up in distance.
He added: “Ruby said Faugheen just wants a longer trip nowadays, he just lacks the spark for two miles.
“He’ll be campaigned at those staying trips now so we’ll probably go out in trip at Punchestown or maybe look at the race in Aintree.
“He’s come back fine, all mine have.”
The Mullins-trained Yorkhill was even more disappointing, eventually pulling up.
Mullins continued: “Yorkhill is just not performing, it’s a real head scratcher, sometimes horses take a year out.
“We’ve been up and down in trip, over fences and hurdles – we’ll see where we go from here. There’s not much more to say.”